THE FACTS ABOUT MUSHROOMS
Mushrooms are actually the fruit of a much larger being.
Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are classified as fungi.
The main body is subterranean, or lives on dead trees and
living tree roots and can vary in size from a few inches to
several miles wide. When they absorb a large amount of water,
they can grow amazingly fast. Their fruits sprout out of the
ground overnight .
Humans and animals feed on the fruits of the mushroom body.
There are over two thousand types of mushrooms, but only 2
½ - 5 % are edible. The rest are highly poisonous and
can masquerade as the edible ones. This makes foraging for
mushrooms a risky and sometimes fatal business. The toxic
effects of mushrooms are also elusive. Some contain enough
toxins to immediately kill the person who eats them, like
the Amanitas strain. Other mushroom toxins poison people with
a cumulative effect, basically building up in a person’s
system over time. In other words, a person could eat a certain
mushroom fifty times with no reaction, and then die from the
fifty-first taste because the overall poison levels become
overwhelming to the body .
The puzzling effects of eating mushrooms makes hunting them
a constant Russian roulette, even for those who know what
they’re doing. Before there were field guides, foraging
festivals, and mushroom experts, mushrooms were often considered
a strange and mystical occurrence. For instance, some mushrooms
contain a chemical called luciferin, which causes the mushrooms
to give off light reflected from their gills, making the ground
glow in iridescent colors. This is called Foxfire. Before
Anglo-Saxon Britain knew what caused this, they derided mushrooms
as nothing but “toadstools.” It’s no wonder
they avoided celebrating mushrooms; imagine walking through
a forest glade, the ground is glowing, and there are small
mushrooms growing in a ring (commonly known as a fairy ring)
around you. It is always easier to discount the extraordinary
than to try to understand it .
Today, mushrooms are big business and big fun. The most commonly
cultivated mushroom in the United States is the domestic field
mushroom. Otherwise known as the white button mushroom, this
type is relatively bland in flavor, but still retains the essence
of what mushrooms taste like. On huge farms in Pennsylvania,
these mushrooms are harvested in the middle of the night by
gatherers who use miner’s lights for guidance. In Japan,
shiitakes are farmed on hardwood logs. Perigord truffles, which
defeated cultivation for hundreds of years, were mastered about
7 years ago in France. They are also being grown in North Carolina.
At approximately $1,000-$1,500 per pound, truffles are by far
the most expensive mushrooms. This is in large part thanks to
the fact that truffle production has decreased worldwide over
the last two centuries from 1,500-2,000 tons to roughly 120
tons annually .
Perhaps this is due to the secrecy surrounding truffle hunting
techniques, and the difficulty of domesticating them.
Foraging for mushrooms is risky, but can result in a tasty
prize. Professional foragers usually search for truffles (with
pigs and dogs), but Porcinis, Morels, Matsutakes, Hen of the
Woods, and many more can be spotted at local farmer’s
markets and in catalogs. In Michigan and Canada, amateurs
compete to find Morels at festivals that celebrate the rare
jewel. There are lots of resources and field guides to help
the average person hunt edible mushrooms, but “mushrooming”
as it is called, is best when done with an expert.
BENEFITS OF MUSHROOMS
Mushrooms have been an essential in Chinese medicine for centuries,
containing vitamins B, C and D. They are known to lower both
blood pressure and serum cholesterol .
City of Hope (http://www.coh.org), a cancer research facility,
has even suggested that mushrooms may prevent cancer.
To eat them, you must first clean them. Using a soft brush
to rid them of dirt is the best method, because they will
soak up water when you rinse them, diluting their flavor.
Morels, however, should be washed just before cooking, and
because they are hollow, bugs might be living inside them.
They should be split and checked for unwanted stowaways. Blue
Milky Caps exude a blue goo when the gills are damaged.
Mushrooms - those spongy, meaty, pungent gems - are a worthy
addition to almost any savory dish. They add a powerful dimension
to food that works wonders for both vegetable and meat dishes.
They also make a great flavoring agent, transforming water
into mushroom stock, simply through soaking them for a few
There are too many mushrooms to list them all, but
here are some descriptions and seasons for quite a few:
Color can vary from purply-gray to death-like black. Lily
shaped, thin flesh, delicate taste. Available fresh fall through
Bland taste compared to other mushrooms. Available fresh year
Also called Polish, Porcini or King Bolete. Bulbous stem with
brown, rounded cap. Rich, musty flavor and very perishable.
Available fresh in fall, dried and frozen year round.
Curved trumpet or vase shape, color varies from bright orange
to apricot gold. Some say it imparts the smell of apricots.
Available fresh during fall and winter, dried year round.
Cremini, Button and Portabellas are related. Cremini looks
like a button, but is a bit larger with a brown cap. When
growth is unchecked, it becomes a Portabella with more complex
flavor and texture. All three are cultivated and available
fresh year round.
Dainty, Q-Tip shaped. Cultivated and available fresh year
Squash colored and slightly bitter tasting. Substitute for
Chanterelles. Trim stems. Hedgehogs have small “teeth”
on gills and break off in other foods, leaving gold flecks.
Also called Pine mushroom. Spicy, woody flavor. Available
fresh in fall.
Spongy looking but hollow. Color is tan to dark brown. Intense,
earthy flavor. Available fresh in spring, dried year round.
Cultivated, fan-shaped. Color varies from light tan to gray.
Mild flavor. Available fresh year round.
Also called Chinese, Black Forest or Oak mushrooms. Chocolate
brown, fibrous, woody stems. Available fresh and dried year
Rubbery texture, flat, woodsy aroma. Imported from China.
Available dried year round.
Fragrant member of Chanterelle family. Gray-brown color with
muted gold stem. High water content.
Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
(10 Speed Press – 1986)
The Mushroom Lover’s Mushroom Cookbook and Primer
by Amy Farges
(Workman Publishing – 2000)
GOURMET MUSHROOM SOURCES:
Marché Aux Delices - New York, NY
Aiman. “What Are Mushrooms?” Mushrooms. http://www.allaboutmushrooms.com/mushrooms.htm.
(16 Oct. 2003).
2 3 Dibben,
Martyn. “Mushroom Mania. Is It For You?”
Milwaukee Public Museum Lore. 1984. http://www.mpm.edu/collect/botany/mushroom.html.
(10 Oct. 2003).
History.” About Truffles. 2002.
http://www.garlandtruffles.com/about.html. (10 Oct. 2003).
David. “Fungi as a Platform for New Medicine.”
Mushrooms, Fungi & Medicine. 1997.
http://www.gmushrooms.com/HEALTH.HTM. (10 Oct. 2003).