When mushrooms come up in conversation, a great and varied assortment of thoughts and reactions occur: some people may think about delicious delicacies created with exotic, edible varieties of the fungus; others may think of ancient medicinal practices; and still others may think of the psychedelic variety; regardless of personal preference, one thing doesn’t often come up….the fact that mushrooms – or rather fungi – have had a presence on our planet, Earth, for almost one billion years (well, really 715 to 810 million years, but who’s counting?)!
Mushrooms, belong to a broad category of biological classification, known as the Kingdom of Fungi. In oversimplified terms, mushrooms, mold, and yeast all belong to Fungi – and all of these particular classifications continue to be subclassified until we wind up with the incredible variety of edible mushrooms available today.
It’s worth pointing out that for all the incredible various types of edible mushrooms that are cultivated, foraged, and harvested, there are a seemingly infinite number of other species and subspecies that are dangerous, poisonous, or simply inedible – so be careful, and appreciate the edible fantastic fungi!
Magical Mushrooms… but not Magic Mushrooms
Often underappreciated, mushrooms have a lot of seemingly magical qualities that humans have been tapping into for thousands of years. Though all are low in fat and calories, with a decent amount of fiber and other nutrients such as B-vitamins and potassium, the properties that make mushrooms special are the non-nutritive substances, including polyphenols (the antioxidants present in olive oil), which have shown mushrooms to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects. Another exciting quality of mushrooms is their ability to serve as a significant source of Vitamin D when exposed to UV light (or when grown naturally outdoors). So, while technically considered a vegetable, it’s quite clear that mushrooms are in a category all their own.
Foraging for Fungi
Growing up in Greece, my Papou (grandfather in Greek) would often take all of his grandchildren on long walks to show us the great bounty of nature accessible to us, simply by looking around. He wanted us to understand that while we had our beautiful family farm, there was far more available, and we should know what was safe to forage, and unsafe as well.
We had a lot of land, and in the ‘woods’ near our house, there was plenty of moisture to foster the natural growth of mushrooms – we would pick them carefully, and bring them to my grandmother to prepare. In the summer, she would us the fresh mushrooms to make delicious omelettes and oven-baked frittatas with them. She would also dry them so that we had mushrooms in the winter, and would prepare them with a fresh peasant pasta, known as Trachanas, which is a petite pasta with haphazard edges, perfect for absorbing sauce.
We most commonly found morels, chantarelles, and porcini mushrooms when we foraged with Papou, but I always liked the simplicity of white button and cremini mushrooms – as a child they seemed exotic to me, because they were popular in American cuisine… in hindsight, I realize how lucky I was to be exposed to such deliciously unique mushrooms at an early age.
As a chef, what’s so extraordinary about mushrooms is the unbelievable variety in shapes, textures, and flavors that can be experienced and elicited to create rich, deep, savory flavors full of umami (the fifth taste), thanks to the presence of a specific amino acid known as glutamate, which is also found in other savory foods like meat, fish, cheese, and others.
Depending on the variety used, and the way they are prepared, mushrooms have a mutable ability to both showcase their own unique flavor profile, as well as marry with the ingredients with which they are paired. Additionally, not all mushrooms are created equal – while the caps are usually the prime edible structure of the fungus, depending on the type, some mushrooms can be consumed in full, stems and all; for others, the stem is too fibrous and woody, and should be used solely for stocks, or sometimes not at all.
Fun with Fungi
Here’s a list of the most popular and accessible mushroom varieties with their qualities and potential applications:
- White Button: perhaps the most ubiquitous and most easily accessible mushrooms, they are mild in flavor with a light earthy essence; the stems are soft and consumable.
Cremini: the second most popular and accessible variety, these are the same species as White Buttons, but more mature, with a deeper – yet still mild – earthy flavor. Often referred to as ‘baby bellos’, the are great for building sauces and stocks, with soft, edible stems.
- Portobello: known for their versatility as a ‘meat substitute’, these are the most mature variety of the same species as White Button and Cremini mushrooms. Portobellos have a very earthy, hearty flavor, that pairs well with almost any flavor profile.
- Morel: cone-like in shape, and spongey in texture, morels are a culinary treasure. A truly savory flavor profile, Morel mushrooms are both delicious and nutritious.
- Oyster: named for a beautiful gift from the sea, Oyster mushrooms have a delicate, briny flavor to them, reminiscent of seafood when cooked. They come in different ‘colors’ such as pink and yellow, all with their own flavor profiles – truly a unique variety!
- Porcini: due to the difficulty in finding fresh porcinis, many culinarians often use the dried version of these succulent mushrooms to infuse an intense, umami flavor full of woodsy aromatics into many dishes.
Shiitake: whether fresh or dried, these mushrooms have a depthy umami flavor, with a hint of aromatic smokiness, making them a great addition and/or complement to any dish. The stems are very fibrous and woody, which make them ideal for sauce building and stocks, but not for consumption.
- Chanterelle: much like their name, these golden mushrooms are beautiful and delicate, with a slight ‘apricot’-esque essence. Firm in nature, these are a fantastic addition to dishes where their beautiful color and flavor can shine.
This is just a sliver of mushrooms widely available in the market – there are hundreds of other varieties such as Lion’s Mane (which I cooked at Dirfis Mushrooms in Evia, Greece for The Life of Loi), Hen of the Woods, Enoki, Beech, King Trumpet, Lobster, King Oyster, Black Trumpet, Hedgehog, and countless others that are all edible and accessible, depending on where you’re foraging or shopping, and all of them with their own unique flavors, textures, and characteristics.
So remember to always make room for mush-rooms – after all, who doesn’t love a fungi in the kitchen?! Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!