As with fennel and kohlrabi, I didn't start appreciating mushrooms until I was well into my 20s. I think I associated the fungi with sliminess, a culinary trait that I find a bit disconcerting. (I have to admit I still don't like the slimier end of the mushroom family - like reconstituted wood ear mushrooms in my hot and sour soup - shudder.) I've gotten wise to the earthy, umami-laden deliciousness of most of the mushroom family, especially when they're sautéed in lots of butter and tossed with fresh herbs.
A Brief History
The Oxford Companion to Food notes that mushrooms have probably been foraged since pre-historic times; evidence of puffballs appears in early settlements in Europe. Mushrooms, including truffles, were prized in ancient Greece and Rome. Cynthia Bertelsen, in her book Mushroom: A Global History, says that both Pliny the Elder and Aristotle wrote about the fungi, and Roman philosopher Galen wrote a few paragraphs on wild mushroom foraging. Bertelsen says that mushrooms - namely shiitakes - were probably first cultivated in China and Japan as early as 600 C.E. It took a while for mushrooms to catch on in America. In the US, the first reference to mushrooms in an American cookbook is in The Virginia Housewife (1824). Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, the American staple used in countless casserole recipes, was invented in the 1930s. Hallucinogenic mushrooms also have a long place in human history; Bertelsen notes that archaeological evidence of mushrooms used "spiritually" may be as old as 10,000 B.C.E. There is evidence of hallucinogenic mushroom use by many cultures - including the Ancient Greeks, the Mayans, the Chinese and the Vikings, among many others.
- Watch this slightly trippy TED talk by mycologist Paul Stamets called "Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World."
- Here is an interesting video about Matsutake mushroom hunting in Oregon.
- Mushrooms have been artists' subjects across the world for generations, so much so that The North American Mycological Association has a Registry of Mushrooms in Works of Art. (This registry is focused primarily on Western art, although mushrooms appear in works of art from many non-Western sources as well.)
- You may wish to browse the North American Truffling Society's webpage, should you need to train your truffle dog.
- I seriously need some mushroom-related merch from Fungi Magazine. Or a subscription to Fungi Magazine. (I hope Santa is listening.)
- Some mushroom species are bioluminescent! You can even buy them on eBay!
- Huitlacoche (a/k/a corn smut) is a type of fungus that grows on ears of corn; it's a delicacy in Mexico. Scientists recently discovered that it's way more nutritious than the corn it grows on.
Out of the thousands of mushroom types, Bertelsen notes there are around 200-250 that are edible (and a handful of mushroom types that are very poisonous). The term "mushroom" is used to refer to any edible fungus, of which there are many different types, shapes and sizes, from the common button mushroom to truffles to bracket fungi. Mushrooms are foraged all over the world, with some cultures, like Russia, having more of what Cynthia Bertelsen terms "mycophilic geography" than others.
A word to the wise, though - don't ever, ever eat a wild mushroom unless you know for sure that they are not toxic. There are many wild mushroom varieties that can cause acute poisoning and even death; some of these may even look like edible varieties. Here's a fun guide (if you're morbid like that) to some of the more common toxic mushrooms in North America, and the various symptoms they cause.
Many edible mushrooms can be cultivated - some more easily than others. Truffles, for example, require a bit more patience and expertise (and trees to grow under), but many of the more common edible types, including portobello, shiitake and buttons can be grown fairly easily at home - just look for mushroom growing kits online. Commercial cultivation of mushrooms can be fairly intensive; different varieties of mushrooms require different levels of humidity and differing temperatures. Here's a fascinating video from one of the largest mushroom farms in the US that shows how many mushroom varieties are commercially grown (and, as a bonus, explains the difference between portabello mushrooms and criminis).
Wild mushrooms are generally foraged in the Spring and in the Fall, depending on variety and geography (here's a handy guide to wild mushroom season, by variety). Most cultivated mushrooms are available year-round.
Serious mushroom cultivation can be a fairly energy-intensive operation, requiring high-tech climate and humidity control. According to this article from Penn State, many mushroom farming operations are trying to become more environmentally friendly, but problems like waste disposal, pollution from mushroom house runoff and pesticide control persist. Farmers are trying to dispose of "spent mushroom subtrate" - i.e., the stuff that cultivated mushrooms grow on - in a more environmentally friendly way (for example, by being composted or spread on fields).
Don't assume that mushrooms are grown organically - several types of pesticides can be used in conventional commercial cultivation. There are smaller mushroom-growing operations popping up across the country - check out your local farmer's market to see if you can find locally grown, organic mushrooms.
Even wild mushroom foraging has some negative environmental impacts. The rise in popularity of wild harvesting has taken its toll in some places. As more and more people get into foraging, some of the old-school rules are being broken - by leaving trash, taking more than what is allowed by state regulations and trampling plants.
Characteristics and What to Look For
Edible mushrooms vary tremendously in size, shape and color and can be available both fresh and dried, depending on the variety. Here's a great downloadable visual guide for many of the most common types of edible mushrooms. For most fresh mushrooms with gills (the feathery ring on the underside of the cap), the more open the gills, the older the mushroom. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because older mushrooms can be much more flavorful than younger ones. Look for fresh mushrooms without slimy, moldy or black spots. Some dirt is A-OK.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
While different mushroom varieties have slightly different nutritional compositions, most are quite high in riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3 ) pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5), and also contain some minerals, like copper, selenium, phosphorous and potassium. They even have a bit of protein and iron.
Mushrooms have been used medicinally by cultures all over the world. As this article about our friend mycologist (mushroom scientist) Paul Stamets (check out his TED talk in the link above) describes, shiitakes may be beneficial to the immune system and help lower cholesterol; button mushrooms have potent antioxidant properties; some hallucinogenic mushroom compounds may help alleviate depression. On the downside, Cynthia Bertelsen says that all mushroom varieties contain agaritine, which break down into various carcinogenic compounds that can damage human DNA; she notes that most mycologists recommend cooking mushrooms for this reason.
What to Do with It
First: the great mushroom cleaning debate. Should you rinse your mushrooms, or not? I was taught to not rinse mushrooms, lest the added water keep them from browning when sautéed. So I'd slog through the laborious task of wiping each mushroom with a damp paper towel. Lately, more pressed for time, I give them a quick rinse and call it a day, with no noticeable negative cooking repercussions.
Fresh mushrooms can be cooked any way your heart desires - fried, braised, roasted, grilled, steamed and sautéed. Many fresh mushroom varieties are also delicious raw. They pair brilliantly with dairy (especially cheese and sour cream), meats of all kinds, eggs, fresh herbs and vegetables. Dried mushrooms must be reconstituted before you use them. Overall, dried mushrooms have a much more concentrated flavor than fresh and are great braised in liquid or added to mixtures like risotto. (And save their soaking liquid to add to your dish.)
Mushrooms are pretty forgiving in the kitchen - I think they taste great no matter how they are prepared! They are yummy tossed onto pizzas, sliced into salads, mixed into risottos and sautéed as a side dish. Mushrooms are prized in so many different cuisines across the globe, it's easy to incorporate them into your cooking. Eastern Europe and Russia are regions famous for their mushroom dishes, and foraging is an important part of the cultural heritage in these places. Check out this delicious-looking Russian mushroom-barley soup! Here's a nice list of Chinese-inspired mushroom recipes, using mushrooms like wood-ear and oyster. Italians also love their mushrooms - though I know he is definitely not Italian, check out this "Italian-inspired" recipe for Baked Cheesy Mushrooms with Bacon Bits and Croutons from Jamie Oliver. Or this mushroom gratinate from Lidia Bastianich (she is actually Italian). Mushrooms also make an appearance in many, many classic French dishes, like mushroom duxelles (basically, mushroom paste...it tastes better than it sounds), used as a stuffing and a topping.
Fresh mushrooms don't hold up well to storage, depending on the variety. Most mushrooms do well stored in the crisper drawer - ideally, in a paper bag for air circulation - for three to four days, tops. Dried mushrooms can be stored and sealed in a dry place for a year or more.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Here's a recipe for laco-fermented mushrooms, although apparently even fermentation guru Sandor Katz is a little cautious about mushroom fermentation. You can try salting your mushrooms, as in this recipe by Hank Shaw over at Hunger, Angler, Gardner, Cook. Here's another recipe for mushroom pickles. Leda Meredith gives us the ins-and-outs of freezing mushrooms here and oven-drying them here.
Mixed Mushroom Crostini with Fresh Herbs, Ricotta and Cayenne
I love making crostini with whatever seasonal veggies I have on hand. These mushroom versions are great year-round, but especially this time of year when the pickings at the farmer's market are so limited. Play around with the kind of mushrooms or herbs you use, or substitute goat cheese for the ricotta. Just make sure that your sauté pan is piping hot and that you don't overcrowd your mushrooms - they won't brown as nicely if they're too crowded in the pan.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 pound mixed small mushrooms, such as buttons, crimini and oysters, or any combination, cleaned and sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons of fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives and thyme, or any combination
1⁄2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne
10-15 slices of baguette, cut on the diagonal
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
Additional extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Sauté the mushrooms: heat the olive oil in a large, heavy sauté pan until very hot, but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, taking care not to over crowd them. (If you don't have a 10-12 inch sauté pan, consider sautéing the mushrooms in batches.) Sauté over medium-high heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, then add a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Stir to coat. After a few more minutes, the mushrooms should start to release some of their liquid. Continue to sauté until all of the liquid is gone and the mushrooms have started to brown.
- Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and taste and correct for salt. Gently stir in two tablespoons of the fresh herbs, reserving the last tablespoon for garnish.
- Place the baguette slices on a sheet pan and toast in the oven for 10-15 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Immediately rub each piece of baguette with the cut-side of one of the garlic clove halves, repeating with the other half if necessary.
- In a small bowl, gently stir the ricotta, cayenne, lemon juice and a pinch of salt together.
- To serve: generously spread each baguette slice with the ricotta mixture. Top with some of the mushroom mixture and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)