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Foods

Mushrooms

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Not usually thought of as a particularly good source of nutrients, mushrooms actually rank rather high in nutritive value. They contain a substantial amount of B vitamins, selenium, copper, and some other trace minerals. Mushrooms are low in calories (a cup of raw mushrooms has about 20 calories). Moreover, researchers have discovered they contain antibacterial and other medicinal substances, including anti-tumor compounds called triterpenoids.

The mushroom's distinctiveness derives, in part, from the fact that it is not truly a vegetable but a fungus--a plant that has no roots or leaves, no flowers or seeds, and that does not require light to grow (although some do need light to fruit). Instead, it proliferates in the dark and reproduces by releasing billions of spores. There are about 38,000 varieties of mushrooms, from deliciously edible to highly toxic. Most varieties grow wild; in fact, their earthy flavor has been appreciated for thousands of years. The Egyptian pharaohs decreed mushrooms to be a royal food.

While some mushrooms still refuse to be "tamed," many can be cultivated in caves or cellars, or grown year round in specially designed structures in which all aspects of the environment--light, temperature, humidity, and ventilation--can be controlled. As a result, many varieties of mushrooms are affordable and widely available, no longer exclusively reserved for royalty.

Varieties

For many years, the only commercial mushrooms grown in the United States were the familiar smooth, round-capped button mushrooms. In fact, they still make up most of the domestically cultivated crop. Buttons can be found in several different colors--white, off-white, and brown (called cremini)--but they all belong to a single species, Agaricus bisporus. These mildly flavored mushrooms are sold usually prepackaged in supermarkets.

Increasingly, other varieties of mushroom are becoming popular, and these offer a wider range of tastes and textures. Many are cultivated versions of wild mushrooms, now called specialty mushrooms, while others are varieties that haven't yet been domesticated and so must be picked in the wild (and, therefore, tend to be rather expensive). Many specialty mushrooms are available in dried form (some are canned or jarred) as well as fresh.

Fresh varieties that are not commercially cultivated have a short season; they are more costly than buttons, but each is distinctly flavorful on its own or added to recipes. Increasingly available in supermarkets, the following types are the ones typically sold in greengrocers, gourmet or specialty food stores:

Cepes: Also known as boletes, ceps, or porcini, the distinguishing features of these mushrooms are a stout stem and a spongy surface (rather than gills) underneath the brown cap, which range in size from 1" to 10" in diameter. Grown in Washington and Oregon, or imported from France or Italy during the summer and fall, they are expensive but are generally considered to be the finest-tasting of the wild mushrooms.

Chanterelles: Chanterelles (also called girolles or pfifferlings) are shaped like trumpets. These large mushrooms with frilly caps range from gold to yellow-orange in color. There are also black chanterelles, which in France have the unfortunate name trompettes de la mort ("trumpets of death"). Chanterelles vary in flavor as well: Some are reminiscent of apricots, while others taste more earthy. Chanterelles are gathered wild in the Pacific Northwest; they are cultivated domestically, and some are imported from Europe.

Cremini: Also called Italian brown or brown mushrooms, cremini are actually a variety of button mushroom. Mature, full-grown cremini are marketed as portobellos.

Enoki: Sproutlike enoki (enokitake, enoki-daki) have small caps on a long, thin trailing stem. They are creamy white and have a mild, almost sweet, taste that is best appreciated when enoki are served raw, or very lightly cooked, in salads or soups. Native to Japan, and used in many Asian dishes, they are now cultivated in California. They are also available in cans and jars, but they are not available in dried form.

Morels: Among the highest-priced varieties because they are usually harvested in the wild (though they are grown commercially in Michigan), morels are small, dark brown mushrooms with conical, spongy caps. They have an especially intense, earthy flavor, and the honeycombed surfaces (that require special attention to clean), makes them ideal for sauces, and stews. And they are a good source of potassium.

Oyster mushrooms: These mushrooms (also called pleurotus, tree oyster, phoenix, or sovereign) are a wild variety that have become easy to cultivate and therefore are more widely available (and less expensive) than other specialty mushrooms. They come in a variety of colors including off-white, pink, yellow, and gray brown. Oyster mushrooms grow in tight clusters and have a dense, chewy texture. They are delicately flavorful when cooked, and are often used in less assertive tasting dishes. Also available in dried form, but rare.

Porcini: The Italian version of the French cepe are widely available fresh or dried.

Portobello (Roma): Originally imported from Italy, portobellos are grown domestically, also. These hearty-flavored mushrooms are actually fully mature cremini mushrooms, usually from 4" to 5" in diameter. They are sold with and without stems and their black gills are completely exposed. (Clean and chop the stems for another recipe.) They are especially well suited to grill or barbecue. Available in dried form, but rare.

Shiitake: These large, umbrella-shaped mushrooms are brown-black in color and have a rich flavor that goes well with many types of dishes. Dried shiitakes are often sold as "Chinese black mushrooms." For more information, see "Shiitake Mushrooms."

Truffles: Grown completely underground on the roots of oak trees, truffles are the ultimate edible fungi with a uniquely intense earthy flavor and aroma. They are a true luxury item: Scarce, exceptionally difficult to cultivate and harvest (they require a trained pig or dog to sniff them out), truffles cost a small fortune to buy (prices fluctuate with the year, but can easily cost over $400 a pound). Incidentally, they are a good source of potassium and iron. Black truffles usually come from Perigord in southwestern France. White truffles are gathered around Alba, Italy. White (and some black) truffles are also being grown in Oregon. Fresh truffles, both black and white, are only available from late December to March. They are also available in cans and jars at some gourmet shops.

Wood ear: One health claim made for this specialty fungus (also called tree ear, cloud ear, or black tree fungus) is some evidence that wood ear acts as an anticoagulant to thin the blood. A short-stemmed mushroom that grows on the trunks of walnut, elder, and beech trees, it is mildly flavored but has a unique texture prized in Asian cuisines. Available fresh or dried in Asian food stores.

Availability

Button, shiitake, oyster, and enoki mushrooms are available all year, while other fresh specialty varieties are on the market more sporadically, with supplies best in summer and fall. Pennsylvania grows about half of the domestic crop; California, Florida, and Michigan are also leading suppliers. Dried mushrooms, naturally, are available all year. Some, like the wood ear, mainly are sold in Asian markets.

Shopping

When buying fresh button mushrooms, choose plump, clean ones that are a fresh white, cream or tan, depending on the variety; mushrooms darken as they age. Reject those that appear slimy, bruised, or pitted. Look for mushrooms with closed "veils"--the area where the cap meets the stem: A wide-open veil indicates that the mushroom has aged and will have a shorter storage life. However, if you're not fussy about appearance, slightly older mushrooms--which actually have a richer flavor--may be bought for immediate use.

To minimize waste in recipes that call for caps only, choose mushrooms with short stems. Alternatively, reserve the stems for another recipe.

For garnishing, or for cooking whole in a stew or braise, choose small mushrooms; for general cooking purposes, select medium-sized ones. For stuffing, look for mushrooms with caps large enough to hold a generous amount of filling.

When shopping for specialty mushrooms, there is no single rule of thumb for judging freshness since they are all quite different and will not have the clean, uniform appearance of cultivated button mushrooms, particularly if gathered in the wild. They should, however, be firm and meaty, as well as dry to the touch but not withered. Even uncooked, they should have an appealing earthy fragrance.

Storage

It is important to conserve just the right amount of moisture when storing mushrooms. If left completely uncovered, they will dry out; if enclosed in moisture-proof wrapping, they will become soggy and begin to decay. A good compromise is to place mushrooms purchased in bulk in a loosely closed paper bag or in a shallow glass dish covered with a kitchen towel or a lightly moistened paper towel. Leave prepackaged mushrooms in their unopened package. Don't wash or trim mushrooms before storing them.

Keep mushrooms on the refrigerator shelf--not in the refrigerator crisper, which tends to be humid--for no more than a few days. Unopened, prepackaged mushrooms will stay for up to a week. If mushrooms begin to darken (and their caps open) with age, they can still be used for cooking and flavoring foods.

Dried mushrooms will keep almost indefinitely if wrapped in plastic or placed in a tightly closed jar and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. They can also be stored in a cool, dark place for up to six months.

Preparation

Since mushrooms are very absorbent, try to minimize their contact with water when cleaning them. Simply wipe them with a dry paper towel or a damp sponge or cloth, or use a soft brush (you'll find special mushroom brushes at cookware shops, or you can use a small soft-bristled paintbrush). If the mushrooms have a lot of soil adhering to their stems, just trim off the stem bottoms. If absolutely necessary, place the mushrooms in a colander and rinse them quickly under cold running water; do not soak them or they will absorb too much water.

Most mushrooms stems are edible. All you need to do is trim off the very ends where the stem might be too spongy (try cutting through the stem with a small knife; if it feels spongy, trim off that section). If the recipe does not call for stems, break them off at the cap and save them (chopped, wrapped, and frozen) for later use in a stock or soup. However, shiitake stems are usually too fibrous to be edible and should be cut off before preparing the caps. (Use the stems to flavor stock.) About 1/2" of stem should be cut from enoki mushrooms.

Dried mushrooms need to be reconstituted before using them in a recipe. Cover them in a small amount of very hot water and let sit until softened. Scoop the reconstituted mushrooms out of the soaking liquid; then strain the soaking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve or coffee filter to remove the grit and add to the recipes. Small pieces of dried mushrooms can be added to liquidy dishes like soups without reconstituting first.

Baking: Arrange mushrooms in a single layer in a baking pan; brush with a little oil. Cooking time: 12 to 15 minutes in a 375°F oven.

Broiling/grilling: These methods bring out the meaty flavor of mushrooms. Thread whole mushrooms on skewers and grill. Or, place mushroom caps stem-side down, on a pan and broil, turning them halfway through the cooking time. Brush them lightly with herb-flavored olive oil before broiling or grilling, and again when turning the mushrooms. Cooking times: broiling, about five minutes; grilling, 10 minutes.

Sauteing/stir-frying: Mushrooms will soak up whatever liquid they are cooked in. If possible, saute them in broth or wine, or, initially, use a small amount of olive oil and then add broth or more oil if the mushrooms begin to stick. Never cover the pan when sauteing, as the liquid the mushrooms exude should be allowed to evaporate. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Dried Shiitake Mushrooms/1/4 ounce

21
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
0.8
1
Carbohydrate (g)
5
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Pantothenic acid (mg)
1.6
Selenium (mcg)
9.6

Button Mushrooms/1 cup slices raw

18
Total fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
0.8
2
Carbohydrate (g)
3
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
3
Riboflavin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
2.9
Pantothenic acid (mg)
1.5
Copper (mg)
0.3
Selenium (mcg)
8.6

Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms/1 cup cooked

80
Total fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
3
2
Carbohydrate (g)
21
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
6
Pantothenic acid (mg)
5.2
Copper (mcg)
1.3
Manganese (mg)
0.3
Selenium (mcg)
36


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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