Mushrooms On The Menu

Bulgogi Mushrooms

Trend to blend elevates status, but costs continue to be a consideration.

It used to be that people didn’t ponder mushrooms on menus. They filled omelets, dressed up a spinach salad, and went well with pizza — indeed, Datassential figures show mushrooms on the menu at nearly three-quarters of pizza restaurants.

Then, the convergence of several trends, including local sourcing, global cuisine, culinary curiosity, and the Mushroom Council’s Trend to Blend campaign elevated mushroom awareness and presence to new heights. Statistics from Datassential show that mushrooms earned a place on the menu in a whopping 80 percent of all restaurants — a penetration level maintained since at least 2010.

Gaps exist, however, in the presence of mushrooms across restaurant segments. Datassential’s MenuTrends Database of U.S. Chains and Independents shows mushrooms in 95 percent of fine dining restaurants, compared to 64 percent of quick service restaurants (QSRs), with mid-scale at 83 percent, and casual at 89 percent. Furthermore, relatively few QSRs use Portobellos and even fewer cook with Shiitakes and Porcini — the three most popular mushrooms in foodservice. That may change, as mushroom varieties become even more widely available and value-added products bolster the bottomline of QSRs.

Growing The Market For Mushrooms

Mushroom growers and suppliers are optimistic the market for mushrooms will continue to grow. “We have a great foodservice client base and our highest penetration in history,” says Peter Wilder, marketing director, To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, PA. “Our company increased the variety and volume of mushrooms we grow and sell. We are seeing mushrooms across the menu from toppings to main dish blends to sides.” In addition to cultivated varieties, mushroom growers are seeing more demand for wild and seasonal varieties, particularly in fine dining and boutique restaurants.

To-Jo also offers a large line of value-added mushroom products to restaurants and chains, including sliced fresh Shiitakes and other sliced varieties, blanched mushrooms, and chopped mushrooms. “Chopped, for example, adds great value and savings in restaurant operational costs. Because we are vertically integrated, we do all the processing here, from blanching and chopping to adding flavor systems with sauces, marinades, and sautés. Operators can incorporate precooked mushrooms into all day parts and menu applications without a lot of extra labor.”

“Growth in mushrooms is driven in part by the movement toward vegetarian and meatless, aided by the efforts of Meatless Mondays,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing for Monterey Mushrooms, Watsonville, CA. Monterey sells a wide variety of mushrooms that range from everyday to exotic and include white, Portobello, baby Portobellos, Shiitake, Oyster, Enoki, Wood Ear, Maitake, Brown Beech, White Beech, and King Trumpet.

O’Brien also expects growth in retail demand for organic mushrooms will spill over into foodservice. Monterey is developing its organic compost, adding organic mini-farms, and converting existing farms to organic to meet market demand.

Cost often drives selection. “While traditionally we use the Button mushroom, we’ll switch to Cremini if we get a good price,” says Chef Allison Trinkle, Virginia-based Mid-Atlantic regional chef, for Chartwells, a national school foodservice provider in Rye Brook, NY.

Cost also factors into whether and where mushrooms appear on the menu. Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, founder and president, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Carmichael, CA, works with the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative (a group of QSR chains and campus-dining, non-commercial foodservice operators to expand menu choices that are nutritious and delicious) to meet customer demand, and drive profitability.

“Volume-foodservice operators [or non-commercial operators] are looking at cost, so they are likely to use white and Cremini, because they cost less. More exotic mushrooms move up the dining chain, as well as across to newer chains whose mission incorporates health and sustainability.”

Additional niche growth may come from an unexpected source — the federal government. The upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and expected changes to the Nutrition Facts panel are likely to shine a spotlight on vitamin D, and boost demand for mushrooms treated with UV light — which enhances their vitamin D content from a naturally occurring 2 percent of the Daily Value to 100 percent.

Brown Is The New White

While the white Button mushroom is the prototypical mushroom in the eyes of many consumers, brown mushrooms are gaining popularity for their stronger flavor and drier texture. “Overall, white mushrooms are still the most common, followed by Baby Bellas (often categorized with Cremini) and Portobellos,” says Bill Litvin, senior vice president of sales and national account manager, Giorgio Foods, Blandon, PA.

“Browns have more flavor, and (like whites) also take on the taste of what they’re cooked in,” notes O’Brien of Monterey Mushrooms. Think of white Buttons as the gateway mushroom. O’Brien observes that “people start with white, then move to brown, and then to others with a stronger flavor. Currently, we sell more whites than browns, depending on the restaurant. But browns — specifically Baby Bellas — are ready to overtake whites.”

Portobellos Remain Hot, Hot, Hot

In the category of brown mushrooms, it’s hard to match the size, texture, and versatility of Portobellos. “We use them in so many ways in college and university dining, including stuffed, breaded and fried, and grilled,” says Chartwells’ Trinkle.

Mushroom industry experts and growers agree. “Portobellos are still very popular, particularly in the center of the meatless plate,” says Katie Preis, marketing manager at the San Jose-based Mushroom Council. “Among the Mushroom Council’s many recipes, Portobello asada and mushroom bulgogi tacos are particularly popular.”

At one point, “Portobello mushrooms were very hot, and then demand cooled off a bit,” observes Giorgio’s Litvin. “But now, demand seems hotter than ever. Brown mushrooms in general, and Portobellos in particular, both grew in 2014. Based on these strong trends, we expect Portobellos to be hot again in 2015.”

Trends point toward continued dominance of Portobellos, the most widely used mushroom in all types of restaurants, across all geographic regions of the U.S., at all times of day, and in appetizers, main courses, and side dishes according to Datassential. Preis adds, however, that chefs are experimenting with new ways to use other varieties such as the Shiitake, Oyster, King Trumpet, and Maitake in different ways and different cuisines. They also cross culinary lines with creative uses like pulled “pork” King Trumpet mushrooms and meatless bacon made from Shiitake or Portobello strips.

Blending and Beyond

A few years ago, the Mushroom Council paired up with the Culinary Institute of America to explore new ways to enhance dishes with mushrooms. The end result is Trend to Blend, a highly popular campaign that provides commercial and non-commercial foodservice with recipes and guidance for incorporating finely chopped mushrooms into ground meat entrées to enhance texture and flavor, improve nutrition, and cut costs. According to the Mushroom Council’s website, “blendability makes classic dishes fresh and exciting. Mushrooms are so meaty and high in umami that many people won’t know there’s meat missing. Bottomline: more flavor, better nutrition, lower cost.”

Blending became so successful that the Mushroom Council is focusing its 2015 marketing efforts on blendability. Sysco named the mushroom meat blend as one of its Top 10 food trends to watch this year. Mushroom blendability is more widely used in the non-commercial foodservice segment (school nutrition, university dining, health care and corporate dining) than in commercial, although Seasons 52 and Cheesecake Factory, among other restaurants, feature blended items on their menu.

“We found that restaurants, schools, colleges and universities alike are all embracing the concept of blendability,” says Litvin, of Giogio Fresh.

To-Jo’s Wilder observes that mushrooms help combat price increases for beef and other proteins. “They’re a cost-effective ingredient that extends the protein in meat and increases use of vegetables at the same time.”

Chef Eric Ernest, executive chef, Los Angeles, CA-based University of Southern California (USC), mixes mushrooms — usually white Button — with any type of ground meat without calling them out. “The mushrooms add umami, stealth health, moisture and texture. I also can use one-third less salt by adding mushrooms.”

For the most part, blending has not yet been embraced in QSR. “Fast food chains face a number of barriers, including labor costs, preparation requirements, food safety, and product acceptability in terms of flavor and texture,” says Farmer’s Daughter’s Myrdal Miller. “We did a tasting at our last Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative, and a lot of those in attendance were not thrilled with the flavor and texture of blended products. It’s hard to get to the perfect product that can stand up to the demands of fast food. Blending also raises questions. It works well with beef and mushrooms, but how does one blend with pork or seafood?

Myrdal Miller notes blending is not as simple as it seems and takes a lot of culinary talent. “You can’t just combine raw mushroom and raw meat. You have to develop the flavor of mushrooms first. That can be hard to do with the limited kitchen space and culinary skills in many QSRs.” She also notes that blending can lead to unintended consequences — at Harvard Dining, for example, the lasagna with mushrooms and beef was so successful that beef purchases went up instead of down.

Consumers Drive Mushrooms On The Menu

“Consumers are more interested in mushrooms and want more mushrooms in their foods for their flavor, texture and nutrition benefits,” says Kevin Donovan, national sales manager, Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, PA. “White mushrooms, along with Portobello and brown, are being featured in increasing numbers of items on the menu.”

Datassential’s MenuTrends Database – U.S. Chains and Independents gathers data on mushroom penetration by food item type. Mushrooms are overwhelmingly the most popular in pizza (73 percent), followed by egg dishes such as omelets (39 percent), center of the plate beef dishes (36 percent), burgers (34 percent), hot sandwiches (33 percent), center of the plate chicken dishes (32 percent), non-breaded appetizers and vegetable side dishes (33 percent and 31 percent), and center-of-the-plate vegetarian dishes (30 percent).

Chef Jay Lippin, executive chef, Crabtree’s Kittle House, Chappaqua, NY, features several mushroom-containing dishes on his restaurant and tap room menus. “I do a vegan burger with wild mushrooms, shallots, garlic, quinoa, chickpeas, black eyed peas, green peas and corn. For this dish, I work with varieties like Oyster mushrooms that have a meaty flavor, but not a lot of water, so the burgers don’t get mushy.” Chef Lippin uses all parts of the mushroom, making mushroom stock with the stems of wild and dried mushrooms to use in chili, vegetarian dishes, and beans.

Schools face a challenge when putting mushrooms on the menu — some students love them and some hate them, says Mushroom Council consultant Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. “Their texture in particular can be challenging, but we found that giving students samples to try can lead to huge success.”

Chef Trinkle of Chartwell’s faces a similar challenge, noting many students don’t automatically like mushrooms. She points out students are quite surprised when they learn the moisture and savory umami flavor in a dish are contributed by mushrooms. Trinkle notes texture issues disappear when mushrooms are sautéed, ground, and added as a blendable ingredient in meatballs, patties, and meatloaf.

Meatless Mondays (a nonprofit global initiative) partners with university chefs to encourage development of healthier vegetarian recipes. UC Davis Dining Services modified a roasted mushroom and corn quesadilla recipe to add 150 percent more dietary fiber, 60 percent more calcium, 50 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories.

Blending has an even greater influence on K-12 school menus, with such dishes as mushroom marinara, Portobello Philly “steak” sandwich, turkey and mushroom spaghetti, turkey and mushroom taco pie, beef and mushroom burgers, and mushroom tapenade.

The Great Imposter

The next trend may cast mushrooms in a starring role as meat replacements. USC’s Ernest not only incorporates specialty mushrooms into classic dishes, for example, Shiitakes in a ramen, but he also braises King Oyster mushrooms in the same way that he cooks meat, adds mushrooms to Korean style tacos, and incorporates Oyster and King Oyster mushrooms into pulled pork and barbacoa.

Magee predicts that because mushrooms can mimic the texture of meat, they might be a stealth, and not so stealth, way to help people eat less meat. Mushroom bacon anyone?