Real Food Encyclopedia | Mushrooms
“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 CE.
It took a while for mushrooms to catch on in America however. In the US, the first reference to mushrooms in a 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 BCE. There is evidence of hallucinogenic mushroom use by many cultures — including the Ancient Greeks, the Mayans, the Chinese and the Vikings, among many others.
Fun Facts about Mushrooms:
- 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.
- Some mushroom species are bioluminescent.
- Huitlacoche (aka 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.
What to Look for When Buying Mushrooms
Edible mushrooms vary tremendously in size, shape and color and can be available both fresh and dried, depending on the variety. 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 okay.
Sustainability of Mushrooms
Serious mushroom cultivation can be a fairly energy-intensive operation, requiring high-tech climate and humidity control. According to research done by 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 persists. Farmers are trying to dispose of “spent mushroom subtsrate” — 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; people are leaving trash, taking more than what is allowed by state regulations and trampling plants.
Wild mushrooms are generally foraged in the spring and in the fall, depending on variety and geography. Most cultivated mushrooms are available year-round.
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.
Cooking with Mushrooms
The great debate: Should you rinse your mushrooms, or not? While the general advice is to wipe mushrooms with a damp paper towel to avoid water logging them, some chefs, including the legendary Jacques Pépin, say it’s okay to give them a quick rinse if it’s right before cooking.
Mushrooms can be cooked any way your heart desires — fried, braised, roasted, grilled, steamed, sautéed and even raw. 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, like this delicious-looking Russian mushroom-barley soup, and foraging is an important part of the cultural heritage in these places. A variety of mushrooms also play a big part in Chinese cuisine, in dishes like braised mushrooms with broccoli or bok choy.
Italians also love their mushrooms; this mushroom gratinate from Lidia Bastianich is a classic. Mushrooms also make an appearance in many, many traditional French dishes, like mushroom duxelles, used as a stuffing and a topping.
In general, mushrooms 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.)
To preserve mushrooms you can try laco-fermenting them, although apparently even fermentation guru Sandor Katz is a little cautious about mushroom fermentation. You can try salting your mushrooms, like Hank Shaw does over at Hunger, Angler, Gardner, Cook. Another easy option are mushroom pickles. To cook with mushrooms later, freeze or oven-dry them.
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. 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, some researchers say mushroom varieties contain agaritine, which break down into various carcinogenic compounds that can damage human DNA; many mycologists recommend cooking mushrooms for this reason.