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Oh, What Fungi

From cremini to shiitake, mushrooms may not precisely be a mystery, but there are enough types out there to leave you stumped on which ones to choose and how to prepare them.

Tiffany Duncan
June 28, 2019

Mushrooms may very well be the only food item with such a unique degree of variance that, depending on which one you choose, they can either be a nutritious and delicious dish, send you to the ER due to poisoning, or cause you to think your couch has become a giant spider. You shouldn’t just eat any mushroom you see sprouting from your yard or spot during a hike. Many people even avoid the grocery store variety because it can be intimidating trying to understand the different kinds and know how to cook with them.

Just like with any unfamiliar subject, it helps to break down the mystery surrounding it to lessen the intimidation factor.

Let’s start with what mushrooms are. Contrary to what it may seem, mushrooms are technically not a vegetable or even a plant. Because mushrooms grow from spores, have no leaves or seeds, and do not need light to grow, they cannot be considered a vegetable or plant. But because they offer much of the same nutritional benefit as vegetables, they are often lumped together in the same category.

Some people may be thrown off by the botanical classification that a mushroom is technically a fungus. But all this means is that fungi obtain its nutrients differently than a plant does (through photosynthesis) or an animal does (through digesting internally). For fungi, their mycelium (microscopic rooting threads) grow directly onto the food source, such as soil or wood. The mycelium secretes enzymes that digest the food externally, and then they absorb the subsequent nutrients. The actual mushroom stalk and “cap” is the reproductive structure of the fungus, similar to the fruit of a plant.

Now that we’ve covered a fundamental explanation of what a mushroom is, the next step is to be able to identify mushroom types on a fancy dinner menu, or in the grocery store. Here’s a rough guide:

White button mushrooms
These are perhaps the most ubiquitously familiar to people and account for 90 percent of all mushroom consumption. They are the mildest-tasting mushrooms and can be eaten raw or cooked.

Shiitake mushrooms are the second most commonly cultivated mushroom, and they have a meaty, deep umami taste to them. Originally hailing from Japan, “shii” refers to an oak-like tree, and “také” which means mushroom (so literally, “tree mushroom”). Shiitake mushrooms taste delicious and preserve their nutritional content best through a light sauté.

Big and heartily-structured with meaty caps, portobello mushrooms are great for stuffing or grilling. They are common in Italian cooking and can lend a rich depth to sauces, or stand in as a meat substitute.

Cremini mushrooms, also called “baby bellas,” are merely young portobello mushrooms. They are similar to white button mushrooms in size and shape, but with a bit firmer texture and deeper flavor.

If you have trypophobia (an aversion to an irregular pattern of small bumps or holes) morels may freak you out, as they resemble a sea sponge more than a mushroom. But don’t let their slightly off-putting appearance fool you, these little guys are one of the most prized wild-growing mushrooms in the world, and are eagerly hunted down by foraging chefs and mushroom enthusiasts alike in the spring. Even if you typically don’t like mushrooms, you may find that you like morels due to their lack of that slippery, slimy texture that is often associated with mushrooms. They also have a distinct, delicious taste that cannot accurately be described. Because they are not commercially grown and are relatively rare, morels are expensive and are typically only found in upscale restaurants.

Porcini mushrooms are also highly prized and foraged for in the wild. They are often used in Italian and French cooking but aren’t as easy to find fresh in the United States (though they can easily be purchased dried and then reconstituted in water). They are aromatic and woodsy in flavor, with a smooth texture.

Looking like mini gramophone trumpets, these mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, and therefore mostly must be foraged in the wild. They grow primarily in the Pacific Northwest from September and on into the colder months. The aroma of raw chanterelles is fruity, like apricot or peach, and when cooked they are velvety and chewy, with a mild peppery, earthy flavor.

These mushrooms look like the kind that grow stacked up on the trees in enchanted storybook forests, like a tiny fairy could buoyantly bound down from one to the other. Though they can indeed be found on trees in the wild, they are more commonly cultivated for the grocery store or restaurant menus. Whitish-beige and fanlike, these mushrooms have a delicate, bittersweet odor, almost like anise. When cooked, they are mildly nutty and seafood-like in flavor.

Mushroom Facts

  • The actual body of the mushroom — the mycelium — can spread extensively underground. The largest living organism in the world is a fungus called Armillaria ostoyae, or, as it’s nicknamed, the “humongous fungus.” It grows in Malheur National Forest in Oregon and is pathogenic to the trees and roots it attaches itself to, secreting enzymes that eventually kill them. From this fungus sprouts honey mushrooms — a nice name, but steer clear. They are highly toxic.
  • The ubiquitous red mushroom with white dots, closely associated with Super Mario Bros. and other pop culture references, is based off a real-life mushroom called the fly agaric, or fly amanita mushroom. Though technically classified as poisonous, once it is parboiled, it weakens the mushroom’s toxicity, and it is then consumed in some parts of the world for its psychotropic properties.
  • The mushrooms that have psychotropic properties — also called “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms” — mostly come from a group of mushrooms that belong to the genus psilocybe. This type of mushroom contains two psychotropic tryptamines — psilocybin and psilocin, which can act on the central nervous system and cause a distorting of reality when consumed, similar to LSD. This distortion of reality is called “tripping,” and rather than causing hallucinations, magic mushrooms instead tend to distort the perception of actual objects, increase emotions, heighten awareness, and/or cause time to feel like it has sped up or slowed down.
  • Common yard mushrooms can pop up so quickly because the only thing they need besides organic matter is water to fill their cells. They can rapidly pull in water from their mycelium, swelling the cap up quickly like a balloon. This is why you often see them sprouting up after a rain — they are mostly full of water. Similarly, the cap deflates when it dries out.
  • Unless you are an absolute expert (and sometimes even they can get it wrong), do not attempt to forage for mushrooms on your own. Though there are some guidelines out there that can help you more quickly identify mushrooms that are poisonous, weather and environmental conditions can quickly change the shape and appearance of a mushroom, making it challenging to identify safely. And though many common lawn mushrooms are harmless, there are still a few types that can be deadly, so do not let children or pets eat anything that pops up in the yard, either.