By Dawn M. Swidorski
I love mushrooms! My mother claims I must be part Hobbit, yet few people are indecisive about edible mushrooms. They either love them or hate them. Mushrooms have a lot to offer and are worthy of a place on your table and not just as an addition to pizza or a garnish with steak. I’m also lucky that I have a local mushroom grower who cultivates many of the types of mushrooms listed below.
A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source. The standard for the name “mushroom” is the cultivated white button mushroom.
Often grouped with vegetables, a mushroom provide many of the nutritional attributes of produce, as well as attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains. Known as the meat of the vegetable world, edible mushrooms are used extensively in cooking, in many cuisines.
Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium, yet they provide several nutrients that are typically found in animal foods or grains.
Not all mushrooms are edible. A number of species of mushrooms are poisonous; although some resemble certain edible species, consuming them could be fatal. Do NOT EAT mushrooms gathered in the wild!
Most mushrooms sold in supermarkets or at Farmer’s Markets have been commercially grown on mushroom farms and are safe to eat.
The practice of eating mushrooms dates back thousands of years. The first reliable evidence appears with the Chinese. Egyptian hieroglyphics of 4600 years ago indicate the pharaohs of Egypt decreed mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them. In various other civilizations throughout the world, including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, mushrooms play an important part of the culture.
Mushrooms are hearty and filling. Preliminary research suggests increasing intake of low-energy-density foods (meaning few calories given the volume of food), specifically mushrooms, in place of high-energy-density foods, like lean ground beef, can be an effective method for reducing daily energy and fat intake while still feeling full and satiated after the meal.
Mushrooms are a low-calorie food that provides both fiber and protein to a meal. Mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, such as riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid, and the essential minerals, selenium, copper and potassium. Fat, carbohydrate and calorie content are low, with absence of vitamin C and sodium. Mushrooms are also an important source of minerals in the diet including: copper, potassium and is the leading source of the essential antioxidant selenium in the produce aisle. In addition, mushrooms provide ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant that may help protect the body’s cells.
When exposed to ultraviolet light, natural ergosterols in mushrooms produce vitamin D2, a process now used for the food retail market.
Mushrooms have long been celebrated as a source of powerful nutrients, but they can also help Americans meet the dietary recommendations set forth in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D.
Different Types of Edible Mushrooms
Edible mushrooms are either commercially cultivated or picked from the wild. You can also try cultivating them at home on a small scale. (It’s a fun project!)
Commercially cultivated mushrooms are produced on farms and growing sites all over the world. Below is a list of some common species that go from growing room to grocery store.
White buttons. The common white button-shaped mushroom in stores. Widely available; varies in color from white to light brown and in size from small to jumbo stuffer; plump and dome-shaped; pleasing flavor intensifies when cooked. Mature white button with open veils have an intensely rich taste. It is also quite versatile, being excellent for use both raw and cooked. Also available canned and dried.
Cremini. Cremini are the slightly more mature variation of the common button mushroom. They are slightly larger and darker cap than the white button. Cremini’s are known for its firm texture and hearty taste They have a rich, earthy flavor is more intense than that of the white button. Substitute for button mushrooms to add a more full-bodied flavor.
Portobello. It is one of the most widely and commonly consumed mushroom varieties all over the world. The most mature version of the Cremini mushroom these mushrooms can grow up to 6-inches wide. These are the largest of the commercially available mushrooms with a tan/brown cap. Its long growing cycle gives a deep, meat-like flavor, and substantial texture. Portobello’s are popular as a meat substitute. They are good whole, sliced, grilled, baked, stir-fried and deep-fried. Be sure to trim off the dry, fibrous portion of the stem. This variety of mushroom is cultivated in over 70 countries. They are also very high in Vitamin D, potassium and contain large amounts of antioxidants.
Oyster. The oyster mushroom (Pleurotte) gets its name from its looks and not its flavor. Oyster mushrooms generally range from light tan, cream colored, brown to grey though there are some yellow, blue and pink varieties. Their large fluted cap resembles a fan and they have a short stem. These tender mushrooms have a delicate flavor, so they are best prepared simply so the flavor isn’t overpowered. They can be eaten raw in salads but more often this mushroom is cooked to bring out its delicate flavor and velvety texture. One of the easiest species to cultivate the oyster mushroom is produced all over the world. They are also are a good source of niacin, thiamine and riboflavin, and also supply folate and dietary fiber.
When shopping for oyster mushrooms, look for mushrooms with firm, dry skin.
Enoki (Enokitake; enokidake; snow puff mushrooms; golden mushrooms; velvet stem). Enoki is small white mushroom joined at the base with long stems (that resemble bean sprouts) and tiny, snow-white caps.
These mushrooms naturally grow on the stumps of the Chinese Hackberry tree, called ‘enoki’ in Japanese, but also on some other trees such as mulberry and persimmon. They grow in bunches from a single base, so you will be selecting clusters rather than single mushrooms. You just trim off the base and give the Enoki a quick rinse to prepare them.
Enoki has a crisp texture and a fruity, sweet flavor that is light and mild. These mushrooms are available fresh or canned and they are traditionally used for making soups but they have also become popular for use in other dishes and even salads because of their crisp texture and interesting shape. If you are using them in a cooked dish, add them last to keep the texture and flavor.
When selecting Enoki mushrooms choose stems/stalks are as white as you can find in color and firm to the touch. Avoid those with brownish color or slimy texture. Enoki mushrooms are known to be quite high in antioxidants. The stalk or the ‘golden needle’ also contains a large amount of protein.
Shiitake (oak mushroom; Chinese black mushroom; forest mushroom; golden oak). When fresh, the mushrooms color ranges from light golden brown to dark brown. They have a wide, umbrella shaped caps up to ten inches in diameter, wide open veils and tan gills. They have a firm fleshly texture with rich, full-bodied flavor when cooked. These are best when cooked in almost any method, particularly sautéing, broiling and baking. The stems are very tough and are either chopped very fine for sautéing or saved for making stock.
These mushrooms are also available in a dried form. The dried shiitake can be stored for a long time and can be revived just by soaking in water. The water that the dried shiitakes have been reconstituted in can then be used to make a delicious mushroom sauce.
Morels. Morels are one of the most distinctive edible mushrooms in that they feature a unique honeycomb like look to them. The upper section features a complex pattern of ridges and pits. A relative of the truffle they are tan to dark-brown, cone-shaped and ridged. They are so distinctive they are the only mushroom I would consider foraging in the wild.
They have a unique smoky, earthy, nutty flavor – the darker the mushroom, the more pronounced is the flavor.They are prized by gourmet cooks, particularly by the French. Morels are hunted by thousands of people every year simply for their taste and the joy of the hunt. Yellow morels are most commonly found under deciduous trees, and black morels tend to favor oak and poplar trees.
This mushroom must be cleaned well when fresh due to its dimpled head.
Maitake (“hen of the woods” and “dancing mushrooms). These form large fan-shaped mushroom heads that often fuse together in masses at the base or on the roots of broadleaf trees.
Porcini (cepes, boletes, boletus, steinpilze). This brown capped mushroom has a light colored bulbous stem and a cream colored flesh resembling the traditional “fairytale toadstool”. They may weigh from a couple of ounces to a pound each with caps from one to ten inches in diameter. They have a smooth, meaty texture with a rich earthy flavor. Available fresh or dried this mushroom has many general cooking uses.
Giant Puffball. Are one of North America’s best-known edible wild mushrooms, particularly among farmers. But there are puffball look-alikes so never gather them yourself! Always rely on a trained mycologist to determine if a wild mushroom is edible. Puffballs are different than most mushrooms in that they lack gills or any other exterior spore-producing structures. They produce their spores internally and then release them. The Giant Puffball can attain a diameter of two to three feet or more, and a single specimen has been estimated to produce as many as nine trillion spores!
Some find the flavor of puffballs bland to mild, while others consider them quite rich.
Chanterelle (Girolle). Chanterelles are look like an inverted umbrella with ridges instead of gills. They range in color from bright yellow to orange. Chanterelles have a rich nutty and woodsy flavor with a fruity apricot scent. They are considered an excellent edible
mushroom with great versatility including: salads, sauces and risottos.
They are commonly found in northern Europe, North America, Mexico, Asia (including the Himalayas) and many parts of Africa. They tend to grow in clusters in mossy forests and birch forests as well as in grasses and low growing herbs.
Chanterelles are quite high in Vitamin C, extremely rich in potassium as well as being one of the richest sources of Vitamin D known to man.
Matsutake. Matsutake are among the most sought after and prized mushrooms in the world, especially in Japan and Korea. It is considered a delicious edible mushroom with a remarkable complex smell that is fruit, spicy and uniquely Matsutake. The unopened buttons may sell for as much as $100-$600 per pound in the U.S.
Black Trumpet. These rich-tasting mushrooms are related to black chanterelles but have a much thinner flesh.
Cultivated exotic mushrooms are grown in a controlled environment and are very safe to eat. They are sometimes more expensive than button mushrooms but, as an occasional treat, are worth the extra money and effort to find them.
Truffles. Are very rare, highly prized as a food and have often been called “the diamond of the kitchen” and very expensive. Black truffles can cost as much as $130 – $390 dollars per pound while white truffles can range between $1350 – $2700 per pound.
A truffle is the ‘fruiting body’ of an underground mushroom. Truffles are generally found in close association with such as poplar, beech, oak, birch, hornbeam, pine and hazel. Specially trained pigs and dogs (and Bart Simpson) are used to find these delightful fungi.
There are a few different types of truffles including:
- White truffle – found in Italy and Croatia)
- Black truffle – found in France, Spain, Italy, Croatia and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia.
- Chinese truffle – found in China and in small quantities in the Chinese Himalayas.
- Summer truffle (aka black summer or burgundy truffle) – found across Europe.
- Scorzone truffle
Truffles are held in high esteem in French, Spanish, northern Italian and Greek cooking as well as in international haute cuisine.
Because of their high cost and extremely strong taste, truffles are used very sparingly. White truffles are usually served raw, thinly shaved over hot pasta or salads just before serving. White or black paper-thin truffle slices may be inserted into meats, under the skins of roasted fowl, in foie gras, pâtés, or stuffing. The flavor of black truffles is far less pungent and more refined than that of white truffles.
A more cost effective way of getting the rich, earthy flavor of these mushrooms into your food is to look for truffle oil, which is usually olive or vegetable oil infused with truffles. It preserves the distinctive flavor of the truffle and makes it more widely available and easier to use as an oil form.
Truffles can be found commercially fresh or preserved.
Mushrooms should never be stored in a plastic bag. You should always store them in a paper bag close to the bottom of the fridge.
There has been a huge controversy over the years whether to wash your mushrooms or not. The thought was washing mushrooms would cause them to take on additional moisture. Alton Brown, Food Network star has debunked this myth. So wash them lightly in water or wipe them with a paper towel to remove excess dirt that may linger.
Trim the ends and slice or chop according to your recipe requirements.
Everyone has different tastes, but here are some other rough guidelines for edible mushrooms:
- Research your mushroom before cooking, different species require different cooking instructions.
- Remember that mushrooms are mainly water, and their volume will shrink significantly during the cooking process.
If you don’t like one species, try another. Experiment and learn about all the delicious flavors that they bring to a meal. You’ll be glad you did!
There are so many possible ways to enjoy mushrooms I couldn’t choose just one or two. So our friends at the Mushroom Council have agreed to let us share the link to all of their wonderful mushroom recipes!