Flawless fungi: How to properly clean mushrooms

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Should mushrooms be washed under water or brushed off with a towel? This kitchen conundrum has plagued cooks everywhere but the record is about to be set straight once and for all.

White button mushrooms on a wooden surface.
Photo credit: Pexels.

Turns out, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might hope. There’s nuance to cleaning mushrooms properly and the old adage you’ve likely heard to never run mushrooms under water doesn’t always ring true. This article will dive into the best practices for how to clean mushrooms so they’re squeaky clean and ready for any recipe.

Why are mushrooms so dirty?

The earthy, umami flavor of mushrooms is a delicious part of many savory dishes from a steak dinner to a creamy vegan risotto. But before these fabulous fungi can be used in cooking, they need to be cleaned of any dirt and debris. Chances are, if you’ve ever purchased a container of white button or cremini mushrooms you’ve been met with a pile of dirt at the bottom of the container and likely quite a bit coating each mushroom itself.

The reason for this is how they’re grown. Mass-produced mushrooms are grown in a peat mixture. It’s often sterilized and there’s no reason to worry about accidentally consuming some of the dirt but it’s still best practice to get rid of as much as possible before cooking.

How to clean mushrooms

There are two different methods of cleaning mushrooms: the dry method, which involves brushing debris off with a towel, and the wet method, which can include rinsing and washing the mushrooms.

Dry cleaning method

The dry method of cleaning mushrooms involves using a paper towel, kitchen towel or a mushroom brush. Yes, such a tool does exist and it’s one of the few single-purpose kitchen gadgets that may be worth owning. 

The dry cleaning method is a bit tedious but there’s a good reason for it. Mushrooms are incredibly porous. If soaked with water during the cleaning process, they become mushy and waterlogged and will never brown nicely in a recipe.

To clean mushrooms using the dry method, gently brush the dirt and debris off each one using a slightly damp towel. This method works well for any mushroom with a defined cap such as white button, cremini, portobello, chanterelle and shiitake.

“I always clean my mushrooms with a mushroom brush rather than a towel. A mushroom brush is more effective because its soft bristles gently remove dirt and residual soil without damaging the mushroom’s delicate surface.”

— Sara Nelson, Real Balanced
Wild mushrooms on a white surface.
Wild mushrooms. Photo credit: Pexels.

Wet cleaning method

If you’re in a hurry or dealing with pre-sliced mushrooms, this method is a good option. Despite what your mom, grandmother and every other seasoned cook have probably told you, mushrooms can be lightly rinsed under water. The key word, however, is lightly. Think of this method more like a quick shower than a long soak.

There are two approaches to the wet wash method:

  1. Strainer method
  2. Bowl method

The strainer method entails adding the mushrooms to a strainer or colander and lightly rinsing them off with cool water.

To utilize the bowl method, add the mushrooms to a large bowl filled with water and gently toss them in the water for 30 seconds to one minute until the debris falls off.

Whichever method you employ, make sure to thoroughly pat the mushrooms dry using a kitchen towel afterward to soak up any excess water.

The goal of both methods is to get the mushrooms clean as quickly as possible. Do not let them soak in the water.

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Unique mushroom varieties 

Mushrooms are having a moment lately with the rise of adaptogenic powders and people’s newfound understanding of their potential health benefits. Because of this, varieties like lion’s mane, turkey tail, trumpet, maitake and reishi are starting to make their way into markets. 

These mushrooms are a far cry from the standard button mushroom in appearance and can be a little more confusing in terms of how to clean. 

The good news is they seldom hold as much dirt and debris as conventional white mushrooms or portobellos since they’re grown differently, so they may not need much cleaning at all.

If you do spot some dirt on these types of mushrooms, however, it’s best to use the dry method. For mushrooms such as lion’s mane or maitake (also called hen of the woods), a soft pastry brush can also make a good cleaning tool. 

Morel mushrooms

Morels have a specific cleaning approach due to their unique composition. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on this wild mushroom, knowing how to clean them correctly is important.

Morel mushrooms have a hollow center and a sponge-like top that both allow dirt, bugs and other insects to hide. Since morels are foraged in the wild and not grown commercially, they’re often full of this kind of debris.

To properly clean these mushrooms, it’s recommended to slice them in half vertically and soak them in water. Change the water as needed until all the dirt and debris are gone. Rinse them well then pat dry before cooking. Morels have a nutty, earthy flavor and meaty texture that makes them delicious as a pizza topping.

Sliced white mushrooms.
Photo credit: Pexels.

What to do with the stems

As part of the cleaning and prepping process, many people discard mushroom stems entirely. This is a huge oversight because mushroom stems have a variety of uses. 

When making stuffed mushrooms, mushroom stems can be diced and added to the stuffing for extra mushroom flavor. They can also be diced and added to mirepoix as the start of a variety of dishes from ragus to soups and stews. And if nothing else, mushroom stems make a great flavoring component to any homemade stock or broth.  

The final word on fungi

Whether you’re pickling them for a charcuterie board or air frying mushrooms for a quick and easy umami-flavored side dish, knowing the right method for cleaning mushrooms is an important step in the cooking process. It may seem simplistic but an improperly cleaned mushroom can have a big impact on the flavor and texture of the final dish. Their nutty, earthy and savory flavor profile is best showcased when kept as fresh and dry as possible. 

Gina Matsoukas is the photographer, writer and recipe creator of Running to the Kitchen. Focusing on healthy, seasonal, whole-food recipes, her work has been featured in various online and print publications including Food Network, Prevention Magazine and Women’s Health. Gina lives in central New York where she enjoys an active outdoor life.

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