Fleshy Fungus

Early Greeks and Romans are thought to be among the first cultivators of mushrooms, using them in a wide array of dishes. Today there are literally thousands of varieties of this fleshy fungus. Sizes and shapes vary tremendously and colors can range from white to black with a full gamut of colors in between.

The cap’s texture can be smooth, pitted, honeycombed or ruffled and flavors range from bland to rich, nutty and earthy. The cultivated mushroom is what’s commonly found in most U.S. Supermarkets today. However, those that more readily excite the palate are the more exotic wild mushrooms such as cepe, chanterelle, enoki, morel, puffball, shiitake and wood ear.

Mushrooms: A Fungi

Though mushrooms are often grouped with vegetables and fruits, they are actually fungi — for that reason, they are in a class of their own, nutritionally speaking. Mushrooms are not a true vegetable in the sense that it does not have any leaves, roots, or seeds, and really does not need any light to grow.

Mushrooms do share some of the benefits of fruits and vegetables. They are low in calories, have no cholesterol and are virtually free of fat and sodium.

And that’s not all. Mushrooms stand alone when it comes to some of the essential minerals and B-complex vitamins not easily found in produce. In addition, some contain substances that might prove to be useful in the treatment and prevention of serious diseases.

Ancient Egyptians considered mushrooms to be food for the royals. The French adored the fungus and began harvesting them in caves during the seventeenth century. These famous fungi didn’t reach popularity in the United States until the late 1800s.

Mushrooms: Fat Free & Low in Calories

In general, mushrooms are fat free and very low in calories (1 cup weighs in at a mere 20 calories). They are rich in minerals like potassium, calcium, and selenium and contain some niacin and vitamin C. Japanese studies show that their high glutamic acid contgent may boost a body’s immune function.

Mushrooms are good sources of three hardworking B-complex vitamins — riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid. They are all found in every cell in our body, helping release energy from the fat, protein and carbohydrate in our food. In addition: Riboflavin promotes healthy skin and good vision.

Niacin helps make sure the digestive and nervous systems function as they should.

Pantothenic acid is involved in the production of hormones and also plays an important role in the nervous system.

Mushrooms are a particularly rich source of riboflavin. One portabella mushroom takes care of nearly one-third our daily value; a serving of white or crimini mushrooms supplies one-quarter of what we need daily. Vegetarians should also be aware that mushrooms are one of the best plant-based sources of niacin around.

mushroomsMushrooms go with just about anything, imparting their own flavor as well as taking on the flavors of other ingredients, so they are ideal for meatless recipes, from soups and appetizers to main courses and sandwiches. Their flavor intensifies during cooking and their unique texture holds up to a variety of cooking methods, including sauteing, grilling and stir-frying. Mushrooms are also an appealing addition to vegetable-based casseroles, stews or chilies.

It’s best to buy your mushrooms from a reputable grower or grocer instead of hunting them yourself, as there are many poisonous mushrooms. Incorrectly identifying them can lead to symptoms of sweating, cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, and potentially result in liver damage, or even death.

Know Your Mushrooms

Because so many wild mushrooms are poisonous, it’s vitally important to know which species are edible and which are not. Extreme caution should be taken when picking them yourself.

Cleaning Mushrooms

Clean mushrooms only when you are ready to use them. Remove any bits of the debris on the surface, rinse with cold running water or gently wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth, paper towel, or soft brush.

Preparing Mushrooms

How do I use dried mushrooms? Dried mushrooms are intensely concentrated in flavor and should be treated more like a seasoning than a vegetable. You’ll need to soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes, rinse, then chop, and use. Saving the soaking water and adding it to your sauces or soups will intensify the mushroom flavor.

Mushrooms are available all year long and although there are many different varieties, selecting any kind of mushrooms are easy. You should look for firm, moisture-free (not dry), unblemished caps, and free of mold. Place purchased loose mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Airtight plastic bags tend to retain moisture and will accelerate spoilage. Properly stored mushrooms will last for approximate five days.

Mushrooms can be frozen but they must be cleaned, cooked, and placed in a 1/2 cup or 1 cup container to freeze. Don’t forget to mark the date on the container, frozen mushrooms will last several months.

Mushrooms are versatile and may be eaten raw or cooked whole, sliced or chopped. Certain varieties like shiitake and portabella, must have their stems discarded or used as a flavoring agent, as they are often tough.

Preparation Hint: Squeeze a small amount of lemon juice on the mushrooms to retain the color.

Storing Mushrooms

Fresh mushrooms should be stored with cool air circulating around them. Therefore, they should be placed on a tray in a single layer, covered with a damp paper towel and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Before use, they should be wiped with a damp paper towel or, if necessary, rinsed with cold water and dried thoroughly.

You can also store mushrooms in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag – never a plastic one. Otherwise they become slimy. Paper lets the mushrooms breathe while holding in the humidity that keeps them fresh.

Alternatively, store mushrooms unwashed and covered with a damp paper towel, then place inside a brown paper bag.

Mushrooms should never be soaked because they absorb water and will become mushy. Trim the stem ends and prepare according to directions.

Canned Mushrooms

Canned mushrooms are available in several forms including whole, chopped, sliced and caps only. Frozen or freeze-dried mushrooms are also available. Dried mushrooms are available either whole or in slices, bits or pieces. They should be stored in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months. Mushrooms are one of nature’s most versatile foods and can be used in hundreds of ways and cooked in almost any way imaginable.

Mushrooms are available all year round. They are best November through March. Caps should be closed around the stems. Avoid black or brown gills as this is a sign of old age. The tops are more tender than the stems. Refrigerate after purchase and use as soon as possible.

Mushroom Facts & Tips

Ground, dehydrated morel mushrooms make a wonderful concentrated seasoning for meat dishes, soups and gravies.

Never immerse mushrooms in a pan of cold water when cleaning, since they will absorb too much water. This will also make it more difficult to cook them, without losing flavor.

Mushrooms contain the same flavor enhancing substance found in MSG, glutamic acid.

Keep mushrooms from molding or getting mushy during storage by leaving them unwashed. Wrap them loosely in paper towels, refrigerate in plastic or paper bags, and use as quickly as possible.

Mushrooms are 90 percent water and do contain some natural toxins. It is best not to eat too many raw ones; cooking tends to kill the toxins.

There are 38,000 varieties of mushrooms, some edible, some very poisonous.

Truffles grow underground, are an oak or hazel tree fungus and are found by pig or dog sniffing truffellors. There are two types, black and white. They have a distinctive taste and are prized by many chefs in France and Italy. They are very expensive.

Slicing mushrooms is a cinch if you use an egg slicer. Cut downward from the rounded side of the cap. The fresher the mushrooms are the better this method works.

A chemical compound extracted from shiitake mushrooms has been approved as an anticancer drug in Japan after it was proven to repress cancer cells in laboratory studies.

A rule of thumb for substituting canned mushrooms for fresh ones is a 6-ounce can equals 1/2-pound of fresh mushrooms.

To keep mushrooms white and firm when sauteing them, add a teaspoon of lemon juice to each quarter pound of butter.

If you are not sure of the safety of a mushroom, do not eat it regardless of the following test. However, the experts use the method of sprinkling salt on the spongy part, or the gills. If they turn yellow, they are poisonous, if they turn black they are safe.

Study Says…

Researchers from Slovakia have found that by feeding mice 5 percent of their diets in dried oyster mushrooms, they could reduce blood cholesterol by 45 percent. Even when the mice were given high cholesterol foods. Researchers didn’t say how many mushrooms people have to eat to get the same effect. But experts agree that adding a couple of these meaty morsels to your plate each day can’t hurt.

Varieties of Mushrooms

There are over 38,000 mushroom varieties today. Some are edible and some are highly toxic. Here’s a small sample of the most popular edible mushrooms you’ll see in the market.

Agaricus (White or Button)

Agaricus White or Button Mushrooms

These mushrooms are the most common variety prepackaged in supermarkets; available fresh, canned, or frozen. White mushrooms are mildly flavored, are tasty when eaten raw but even more flavorful when cooked.


Chanterelles, or Girolle


These trumpet shaped fungi are highly regarded mushrooms favored for their gold to yellow color, and rich flavor, ranging from apricot to earthier tasting. Chanterelles are best eaten fresh, although they are also available dried or canned.

Historical accounts of the Chinese mention mushrooms, specifically chanterelles in preventing blindness, alleviating dry skin, and keeping mucous membranes moist (Perler 2001). Many African tribes also harvest this fungus for consumption in the Congo basin rain forests. Though a staple food source for Native Americans, chanterelles are not noted as a culturally significant species among North American Native tribes. Many european colonizers brought along an appetite for wild harvested mushrooms to North America.

Crimini, or Italian Brown


These mushrooms are similar to the button variety, yet they are darker in color, have a richer flavor, and have a more dense texture. Criminis were once an imported mushroom but are now grown domestically.

Enoki, or Enokitake


This fungi takes on a sprout like appearance with small caps and thin, long, stems. Native to Japan, white in color, with a light fruity taste, these mushrooms are excellent when served raw in soups and salads.



These mushrooms are highly priced and highly prized for their intense earthly flavor. They are usually found in the wild, although can now be grown commercially. This conical shaped, honey combed surface fungi is small, with dark brown hues, is suitable for stuffing and is ideal for sauces and stews.

Oyster, or Pleurotus


These mushrooms grow in clusters, and range in color from off-white to shades of brown. Subtly tasting like an oyster, its chewy texture is more suited to cooked dishes.



Porcini mushrooms are well valued for their meaty texture, interesting flavor, and distinguishing shape. These mushrooms vary in size and is domestically grown or imported from Europe depending on the season. This variety is usually expensive, but is considered one of the finest-tasting mushrooms.



These are large cremini-like mushrooms that are sometimes the size of a regular hamburger! These fungi are circular, flat, and long, with a dense, chewy texture. Portobellos are excellent for grilling or roasting.



Shiitake mushrooms were originally cultivated on natural oak logs and only grown in Japan, but are now available domestically. These mushrooms are large, black-brown, and have an earthy rich flavor. This fungi is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups, or even a meat substitute. Dried Shiitakes have more intense flavors and are sometimes preferable to fresh.

Serving Suggestions

Saute a big portobello in heart-healthy olive oil, and sub for meat in burgers or enchiladas. Or slice raw button mushrooms, and toss them with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil for a simple side dish.

The MLT Sandwich (mushrooms, lettuce and tomatoes)
Heat a large non-stick skillet coated with vegetable oil spray over medium heat. Add 8 ounces any sliced mushrooms; cook and stir ten minutes or until tender. Season with salt and black pepper. Meanwhile, microwave two slices bacon one to two minutes on high or until crispy. Let stand two minutes and crumble. Toast eight slices whole-wheat bread; spread one side with some low-fat mayonnaise. Top four of the slices with lettuce, sliced tomato and mushroom mixture; sprinkle with bacon. Top with remaining bread slices, halve sandwiches and serve. Serving Suggestion: Serve with potato wedges (frozen).

Roasted Mushrooms in Cream

  • 2 pounds button mushrooms, halved and sliced
  • 1 pound fresh shiitake mushroom, sliced
  • 1/2 pound fresh oyster mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the mushrooms and salt on 2 baking pans, toss well and transfer to the oven. After 10 minutes, remove the pans from the oven, add the rosemary, and mix the mushrooms around. Return to the oven until just golden, about 10 additional minutes. Remove from the oven, add the cream, stir well, and serve. 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: Calories: 102; Fat: 2.8g; Saturated Fat: 1.1g; Cholesterol: 5mg; Sodium: 1184mg; Carbohydrates: 13.5g; Dietary Fiber: 4.2g; Protein: 12.4g

Mushroom Madness

Mushroom Meat Substitute: Chop oyster or shiitake mushrooms into small cubes and use in place of ground meat. You can also mix mushrooms with chopped fried tofu for a firmer texture.

Mushroom Stock. For a quick stock, soak 5 large shiitake mushrooms in 4 cups boiling water for 1 hour. You can also add dried shiitake mushrooms to a pot of vegetable stock for added flavor.

Just Like Bacon. Toss oyster mushrooms in extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place on a lined baking sheet gill-side up. Roast at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until edges are crisp.

Mushroom Health Benefits

Read More: Food Facts