Most mushrooms belong to one of two species: Basidiomycota or Ascomycota. The main difference lies in how the spores develop, which is only detectable under a microscope and not easily assessed with the human eye.
Mushrooms have a vital role to play in the process of decomposition, especially of wood. They’re relatively easy to cultivate as well, depending on the environment. Many mushrooms even create a symbiotic relationship with the tree or organism that they grow on. This is known in the botanical community as being “mycorrhizal.” In some ways, one cannot grow without the other, which is why it’s easy to spot certain fungi based on the species of plants or trees that could typically “bond” with it.
What You Should Know About Edible Mushrooms
While there are at least 10,000 identifiable species of mushrooms in North America, about 20% of them are deemed poisonous. The remaining mushrooms are edible mushrooms, although some require parboiling to make them palatable and in some cases, not toxic.
It’s not recommended to forage for your mushrooms as there are many dangerous “look-alikes” that can throw a novice mushroom hunter off, and that could lead to severe complications and in some cases prove fatal if they are consumed. Many mushrooms can also create an allergic reaction, so be cautious if you have specific known sensitivities to fungi.
Always clean raw mushrooms before you cook with them or eat them. For more delicate mushrooms, such as truffles, a soft toothbrush or cloth is needed to dust off any dirt.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common (and most yummy) edible mushrooms that are relatively easy to find at your local market and incorporate into many of your favorite dishes.
1. Beech Mushroom (AKA Clamshell Mushroom)
There are two types of edible beech mushrooms: white and brown. Both are most commonly found growing on the bark of the beech tree (hence the name). If eaten raw, the mushroom takes on a very bitter taste. However, this disappears once it’s cooked, being replaced with a crunchy, firm texture and a nutty flavor profile.
The beach mushroom is found all over the world and is often a featured ingredient in Asian cuisines, soups, stews, and sauces.
2. Button Mushroom (Cremini Mushroom)
Possibly the most common and most commonly recognized edible mushroom in North America, the button mushroom is an every-mushroom kind of fungi. It goes with almost any dish, keeps well in the refrigerator, and is readily available all year long. It has a strong, specifically mushroom-y flavor making it a reliable substitute for meat in some vegan or vegetarian dishes. Spoiler alert, these mushrooms are most often found and harvested from fresh cow manure.
The difference between button mushrooms and cremini mushrooms merely is maturity from age. The cremini is left to age slightly before being harvested, giving it a more brown color and a bit richer flavor.
3. Chanterelle Mushroom
Chanterelles are a meaty, savory, and dense wild mushroom that typically has a golden or orange color. They have fleshy caps and long stems. Chanterelles grow in the wild and can often be found on the forest floor near maple, beech, or other hardwood trees. Chanterelles are one of the mushrooms that create a symbiotic relationship with the land from which they sprout, feeding the trees and plant life, and vice versa.
Chanterelle mushrooms are nutty in flavor and smell fruity, a bit like apricots or peaches. They’re delicious simply sautéed with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper, or extra virgin olive oil, although they can also be roasted or baked into bread and biscuits.
4. Enokitake/Golden Needle Mushroom
The enokitake mushroom (or enoki for short) can be found all over the world. However, it was originally cultivated in Japan where it is still one of the most popular mushrooms available. Enoki is a thin, long white mushroom with a white cap that kind of looks like a chunky pin. They are crunchy in texture and a bit fruity and sweet in flavor. They’re unlike every other mushroom in this way.
While white enoki mushrooms are most common, they are also cultivated with yellow, tan, and orange caps. They’re typically eaten raw, chopped and topped on salads or in sandwiches. Enoki can also be stir-fried into any dish. However, they can become quite tough and chewy (and not in a good way) if they’re overcooked, so use caution when adding the cooked version to your meal.
5. Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushrooms have primarily been used in Asian cuisine and culture for many years for their vast medicinal properties, although in the past 20 years they have become more popular in North American cuisine. Known as the “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, the maitake mushroom is unusual in appearance because there are no traditional “gills” on the underside of the caps. Maitake is mainly found in the base of oak trees and tends to reappear in the same place year after year. These mushrooms can grow to a hefty size, and there are reports of maitake mushrooms weighing 100 pounds!
Maitake mushrooms can create stomach sensitivities in some people, so consider caution with these if you’re new to them. The stem is very tough, so the caps are usually the only thing cooked. They are often served baked, sautéed, stuffed, stir-fried, or even made into a tea!
They’re yummy fried in oil or butter until crisp and can be a replacement or substitute for button mushrooms in nearly any dish to create a richer flavor profile. Maitake also freezes well.
6. Oyster Mushrooms
There are three different versions of the oyster mushroom. The main difference between the three (Pleurotus ostreatus, Pleurotus pulmonarius, and Pleurotus populinus) is the season when they are harvested. Their name is derived from their shape—a specific resemblance to freshly shucked oysters. One of the most harvested mushrooms on the planet behind the button and shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms are found primarily on decaying wood, stacking upon themselves over time, creating layers upon layers of the delicate mushroom.
China grows much of the world’s oyster mushrooms (about 85% of the total production) although there are many North American farmers as well. They’re not very tasty eaten raw, so it’s recommended to cook the top of the oyster mushrooms and either discard or use the stems in vegetable or mushroom stock. Oyster mushrooms have a meaty texture and savory taste that is delicious stir-fried, braised, or paired with other mushrooms such as shiitake or chanterelles.
Oyster mushrooms do not keep for very long and must be eaten as soon as possible to maximize the flavor and quality. Oyster mushrooms can be dehydrated and stored for later use and cooked without rehydrating.
7. Porcini Mushrooms
Porcini mushrooms are hearty, earthy, nutty mushrooms that mimic a meaty, savory flavor and can also be used as a replacement for meat to make any dish vegetarian. They’re often used in Italian and French dishes, although they go with almost any flavor profile and are readily available in a dried version that can be quickly brought back to “life” with a quick soak in filtered water.
Porcini mushrooms are also grown through the symbiotic relationship with the tree they are found under. They have thick long stalks (about 3-5 inches), and dark brown caps. When cooked they have an earthy, nutty flavor that is suitable for soups, stews, pastas, and pretty much anything you can think of. They’re as versatile as they are delicious.
8. Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms, primarily cultivated in East Asia, are the second most popular mushroom in the world next to button mushrooms. They’re available both as a delicious ingredient in meals and as a medicinal supplement.
Shiitake mushrooms are typically found growing on moist logs, and can even be grown at home via the use of a shiitake home grow “kit.” Shiitake mushrooms have a creamy texture and a smokey flavor and are versatile in many dishes, ranging from Asian soups, sauces, and stir-fries to pasta and pizza. They’re believed to be 10 times more flavorful than button mushrooms and can be used as a substitute in many dishes that ask for button mushrooms (but do note the more intense flavor will be present if that’s your thing).
Easily one of the rarest and most difficult-to-find foods in the world, the truffle usually forages with the aid of pigs and dogs who sniff out the little ball-like mushrooms that grow from the earth. Once the animal spots the truffle, an expert truffle harvester digs out the truffle with a particular spade and avoids touching it to their skin as this contact would likely lead to rot.
Truffles have an earthy, garlicky aroma and a delicate, savory flavor that is easily unlike anything else you’ve ever tasted. They have a pungent smell that is often appealing to those who enjoy strong stinky cheeses.
There are two main types of truffles (although there are believed to be over 70 known varieties). The white truffle is usually qualified as the most “desirable,” and it is typically found in Northern and Central Italy, although some versions can be found in other areas. The Black truffle is the second most popular, and it grows exclusively under oak trees.
Most attempts to farm truffles have proved useless, and so the traditional, centuries-old methods of hunting for wild grown batches keep this mushroom at the top of the price point for delicacies. Depending on the variety and the region they’re derived from, most European truffles can range in price from $1,000 to $3,000 per pound or much much more.
To help alleviate the cost to restaurants and the public, a diluted version of the truffle can be more readily available in oil, salt, or butter. This version delivers much of the same earthy taste in many cases and can be used as a substitute.
Truffles are typically shaved very lightly over a dish such as risotto or pasta. Truffle salt can be added to any recipe that would benefit from a flavor boost, and can even be tossed with butter over fresh air-popped popcorn!
Adding Mushrooms to Every Dish
Mushrooms are a healthy and delicious addition to any of your favorite dishes. They can add a mild meaty texture to a spaghetti sauce or can create a rich decadent flavor to your vegan stir fry.
Depending on the kind of mushroom you choose and how it’s prepared, there is seemingly nothing you can’t do with a mushroom. It’s easy to experiment with many of them as you figure out which mushroom varieties are your favorites.