Mushrooms – or at the very least something very close to mushrooms – are believed to have existed on the earth long before even the dinosaurs evolved. Some paleontologists believe that, at one time, relatives of today’s mushrooms might have been the largest living things on planet.
Though somewhat unappetizing-sounding, mushrooms are botanically classified as fungi and hundreds of more specific classifications (genus, family, species, etc.) exist. Well over 10,000 specific types of mushrooms have been classified by botanists, and it is generally believed that only a relatively small percentage of all existing mushroom types have actually been identified. Mushrooms grow wild on every continent on the planet except for Antarctica, in most climates, and in hundreds of different shapes and sizes. Some mushrooms are among the most desired (and expensive) foods on earth, while others can kill you if eaten.
People have been eating mushrooms since before the dawn of recorded history. There is archeological evidence that they were consumed in Chili as far back as 11,000 BC; in China (where they were also used for medicinal purposes) dating to around 9,000 BC; and in Europe dating to about 3400 BC. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all cultivated mushrooms and they were a favorite of the upper classes; some members of the Roman nobility even employed food tasters to ensure that mushrooms were not used to poison them. There is some evidence to indicate that the Roman Emperor Claudius was murdered by his wife Agrippina, who is believed to have served him Death Cap mushrooms (discussed below).
Today, over 8 million tons of edible mushrooms are commercially cultivated in over 70 countries, and the collection of wild edible mushroom species for sale or consumption takes place throughout the world and accounts for a good percentage of worldwide mushroom sales. China is the largest producer – accounting for about 65 percent of the world’s total commercial production – with Italy and the United States a distant second and third. Other top producing nations include Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Canada, France, India and Japan.
Depending on the variety, culinary mushrooms can be an excellent source of vitamin D, vitamins B3, B5 and B9, as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and dietary fiber. Their sometimes delicate, earthy flavors and meaty texture has made them an important part of many cuisines around the world, both as a side dish and as a component of specific recipes. Some types are still used in traditional medicines, while others are sometimes ingested for the hallucinatory effects they produce.
So what are a few of the best known mushrooms out there today?
Also called table, cultivated, common mushrooms and Champignon de Paris, the White Button is currently the most widely cultivated and used mushroom in the world. The ancestor of the White Button was first commercially cultivated in the early 1700s in France at which time they were actually a light brown color. The white-capped mushrooms so popular today were first found by chance growing in the mushroom bed of a Pennsylvania mushroom farmer in 1926. Today, White Button mushrooms account for almost one quarter of the world’s total commercial mushroom cultivation and are what you will most commonly find for sale at your local grocery store or farmers market year-round.
White Buttons have the traditional ‘mushroom’ shape. The tops – called caps – are (not surprisingly) white and rounded, will be anywhere from half an inch to 3 inches in diameter when harvested, and are normally firm and spongy. The edible stems are also white, short and thick. The White Button can be eaten raw – in which case it has a crisp texture and a very mild flavor – or cooked, which will produce a more earthy flavor and a chewy, tender texture. They hold up to almost all types of cooking well and can be grilled, sautéed, baked, roasted or stewed. They are also often chopped fresh and added to salads, or used whole in crudités. They will last fresh up to about two weeks after harvest, and are often canned.
Also sometimes spelled Portobello or Portabello, the Portabella mushroom is native to Italy, where it has been consumed for centuries and remains an integral ingredient in Italian cuisine. Also widely cultivated throughout the rest of Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia the Portabella became extremely popular worldwide in the early 1980s as a substitute for meat and remains among the most popular mushrooms.
Closely related to the White Button, the Portabella is a large mushroom (the cap can often exceed 10 inches in diameter) with a thick, sturdy stem. The cap will range from tan to dark brown and is thick and spongy, while the dense fibrous stem is usually white. Normally only the cap is eaten, although the stems are sometimes used to flavor stocks, or chopped finely and used in soups and stews. The fleshy caps are most commonly eaten cooked and have a meaty, chewy texture and an earthy flavor. They are often grilled (particularly as a substitute for beef in veggie burgers), broiled or sautéed for use as a side dish, stuffed, used as pizza topping, or incorporated into multi-ingredient dish recipes. They will normally last up to two weeks fresh, or can be cooked and then frozen for around 2 months without losing their flavor.
Native to Asia – and specifically to Japan and China – the first recorded cultivation of Shiitake mushrooms was in the 13th century in Southern China. Still predominately cultivated in Asia – as well as Europe, Australia, parts of Africa and (since the early 1970s) the United States – Shiitake mushrooms are the second most widely commercially grown mushrooms in the world after the White Button, and constitute over 20 percent of worldwide production.
Shiitake mushrooms are medium to large size – normally with light to medium brown caps between 5 and 7 inches in diameter – and relatively thin, tan or brown fibrous stems. Both parts are edible, although the stems are usually reserved for stocks, or dried and ground for use as a seasoning. Normally served cooked, the umbrella-shaped caps have a chewy, meaty texture and a savory, smoky and slightly earthy flavor. Most often grilled, sautéed, broiled or baked, they are often substituted for wild mushrooms in recipes and are widely used in stir fry and other Asian dishes. These mushrooms are often sold dried, and will usually have a more intense flavor when reconstituted. Shiitake mushrooms have also been used in traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times, and are believed to aid digestion and relieve cold and flu symptoms.
Cremini mushrooms are Portabellas which are harvested prior to reaching their full size and maturity – usually when the cap is between 1 and 3 inches in diameter. Also called Baby Bellas or Baby Portabellas, they are native to Italy, were probably the most widely cultivated mushrooms on earth prior to the discovery of the White Button in the 1920s, and are still commercially cultivated worldwide today. Like the Portabella they have a round, firm brown cap and a thick white stem, and both are eaten. The cap has a mild, earthy flavor and a somewhat meaty texture, while the stem is quite dense and very chewy. They are widely used in the same raw and cooked applications as the White Button. They are also often canned, dried, and used in industrial food processing.
Also known as Pfifferlinges, Chanterelle is actually a catch-all name for a number of related wild mushroom species that vary widely in size and color. Chanterelles are most commonly found growing throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as in parts of Mexico, Canada and the United States. The best known variety is the Gold Chanterelle which is medium size, usually with a yellow / orange color and a convex trumpeted cap and thick stem, both of which are edible. Best suited to cooked applications, Chanterelles have a meaty, chewy consistency and a fairly strong, earthy flavor with hints of apricot and pepper. They are very popular in a number of European cuisines where they are often paired with seafood or lamb. Although they are not commercially cultivated to any significant degree, they are routinely gathered in the areas they grow and can be found in farmers markets and specialty grocers throughout the world. They are also often dried and sold as a packaged good.
Also known as Cep, King Bolete, Porcino, Penny Bun and Panza depending on where in the world you happen to be, the Porcini is a wild mushroom that grows throughout Europe and some parts of North America. Called ‘hog mushrooms’ by the Ancient Romans, Porcini mushrooms have been used in many European cuisines for centuries and are highly valued by gourmets throughout the world. Normally found growing at the base of pine, chestnut, oak or spruce trees, the Porcini can vary widely in size with the reddish brown caps ranging from 3 inches to over a foot in diameter, while the off-white stems will sometimes reach 18 inches in height. Normally used cooked, both stems and caps have a tender, meaty texture and a pungent, earthy, nutty flavor. As they have a relatively short growing season, Porcini mushrooms are most commonly purchased dried in most of the world; when purchased fresh in US specialty stores, they will often cost $60 a pound or more.
Also called Tree Oysters and Angel Wings, Oyster mushrooms are native to Asia, Europe and North America and can be found growing wild – most often on the sides of dead or dying trees – throughout those continents. They are also widely commercially cultivated, particularly in China. Often growing to over a foot in diameter, Oyster mushrooms usually have very small or nonexistent stems and heavily ridged, fan-like fluted caps that, not surprisingly, resemble a freshly shucked oyster. Most often dark grey or brown, some varieties will have a pink, yellow or bluish hue when mature. They are almost exclusively used cooked, and have a firm, meaty, chewy texture and a delicate nutty, almost seafood-like flavor. They are widely used in a number of Asian cuisines, often with fish or poultry dishes. Highly perishable (they will only last a day or two in the fridge) they are most often sold dried in US markets.
Also called the Horn of Plenty, Black Chanterelle and the ‘poor man’s truffle’, the Black Trumpet is native to Western Europe and North America. A very popular mushroom in French cuisine – and catching on slowly in the US in recent years – the Black Trumpet is a relatively small mushroom that is black or dark grey with a thin stem and very delicate cap shaped like a vase. They have a rich smoky and slightly nutty flavor when cooked, and are most often used as an accent or side dish for lightly flavored dishes as well as a seasoning for milder soups and stews. The Black Trumpet is not commercially cultivated, but is widely foraged in the areas where it grows wild.
Another wild mushroom variety, the Morel is also often called the Sponge mushroom and sometimes the Molly Moocher or Hickory Chicken. They grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are quite popular (and quite expensive) in the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. Morels are small to medium size, with a light to dark brown cone-shaped honeycombed cap usually measuring between 2 and 5 inches in diameter and a medium white stem. Almost never eaten raw, they have a smooth, meaty texture when cooked and an earthy, slightly nutty flavor; generally speaking, the darker the cap, the more intense the flavor. Morels have a particularly short growing season and a relatively short shelf life, and are often dried or canned shortly after picking for sale.
The Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) is probably the best known of all the poisonous mushroom varieties, and certainly one of the most deadly. Believed to have caused the deaths of the Roman Emperor Claudius (54 AD), Pope Clement VII (1534) and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (1740), the Death Cap grows wild throughout Europe – to which it is native – as well as parts of Northern Africa and Western Asia. It is a small to medium size mushroom with a slightly flattened round cap that ranges from 2 to 5 inches in diameter and can be a pale white, yellow or olive green. Resembling several wild species of edible mushrooms for which it is occasionally mistaken, the Death Cap contains a high concentration of deadly amatoxins which will impact the liver, kidneys and central nervous system of someone who eats one, leading to coma and death in about 25 percent of known cases in adults, and 50 percent in children.
Often called ‘shrooms, magic mushrooms, booms and psychedelic mushrooms, Psilocybin mushrooms are a catch-all name for about 200 mushroom varieties that contain psychoactive chemicals which can include psilocybin, baeocystin and psilocin among many others, and have been used as a mild altering drug in many parts of the world for thousands of years. Believed to have been used in religious ceremonies by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica as far back as 2,000 BC, Psilocybin mushrooms grow wild on every continent except Antarctica and are most commonly found in North and South America and Western Europe. Depending on the specific variety and quantity ingested, Psilocybin mushrooms can have a mild to extreme psychedelic effect which can include hallucinations, audio and visual distortions, and altered states of perception. Considered ‘mind expanding’ by some, Psilocybin mushrooms are classified as an illegal drug in some counties including the US and Australia, while they are legal throughout most of South America and some parts of Europe.