Know Your Mushrooms

A Cheese Primer
Mushrooms are extraordinary things. Some—notoriously, frighteningly—can poison us. And some of them—mysteriously, fortuitously—are delicious. Just exactly how our ancestors figured out the difference we’ll most likely never know, but today we can rely on experts like Ian Garrone of Far West Fungi to discern between delicious and don’t touch. Garrone comes from a family of mushroom hunters and growers, and his shop in the San Francisco Ferry Building overflows with familiar and exotic species, from the beige buttonlike cremini to the bright orange lobster mushroom, curled like a fist. We asked Garrone to give us a tour of some of his favorites in the edible fungal universe, complete with serving tips. And please note: This is a buying guide, not a foraging guide.

Shiitake

The shiitake is native to East Asia, but its popularity has led to its cultivation worldwide. It is a good source of vitamin D, niacin, and potassium. Shiitakes are admired for their bold, savory, garlic flavor, and are so fleshy in texture that some people find them too chewy. “Cook for over 10 minutes,” recommends Garrone, and they’ll soften up.

Shelf life: 14 days

Tree Oyster

There are a few different varieties of edible oyster mushrooms, including some that are pink or yellow in color, but the tannish-brown tree oyster is widely cultivated and common in grocery stores. Velvety soft in texture, it has a slightly sharp flavor that blends well with chicken and fish dishes. Don’t cook tree oysters for more than four minutes, warns Garrone, or they’ll be overdone.

Shelf life: 3 to 4 days

Cremini

(a.k.a. Crimini, Brown, Baby Bella)

The cremini, an immature portobello mushroom, graces tables worldwide. It’s widely cultivated, has a mild flavor and a traditional mushroom texture, and basically “goes in everything,” Garrone says.

Shelf life: 7 days

Portobello

(a.k.a. Portobella, Portabello, Portabella)

A full-grown cremini, the portobello is much larger, with a fleshier texture and muskier flavor. Because of this, it is a popular substitute for meat. Garrone recommends cooking portobellos whole, because “if you chop them up into small portions, you might as well just get browns.”

Shelf life: 7 days

Porcini

(a.k.a. Cèpe, Bolete)

Fresh porcini have a limited seasonal window—they are harvested in the mountains in the spring and on the coast in the fall—but they can be found dried year-round. Eaten within two days of picking, they have a nice crunch and are good shaved over a salad. After two days, they should only be eaten cooked. Garrone recommends looking for fresh mushrooms that are as firm as possible. They’re apt to be buggy, so check them carefully. When dried, porcini take on a bolder, nuttier flavor.

Shelf life: 2 days fresh

Maitake

(a.k.a. Sheep’s Head, Ram’s Head, Hen of the Woods)

This ruffled brown fungus grows at the base of trees, and can reach 50 pounds. Once considered the leading medicinal mushroom, it has gained culinary popularity because of its roasted chicken flavor and slightly meaty texture. It is rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, along with amino acids. Its Asian name means “dancing mushroom,” because, the lore goes, whoever found it would dance for joy. “Cook for more than 10 minutes, almost 15,” says Garrone, “and you’ve got yourself a delicious ingredient for risottos or stir-fries.”

Shelf life: 10 days

Abalone

A relative of the oyster mushroom, and sometimes confused with the king trumpet, the abalone mushroom has a silky texture along with a mild, buttery flavor similar to the shellfish after which it’s named. Restaurants occasionally substitute abalone mushrooms for porcini because they have fewer bug issues. Breaded and fried, they can stand in for real abalone.

Shelf life: 7 days

Shimeji

(a.k.a. Buna-Shimeji [Brown], Bunapi-Shimeji [White], Hon-Shimeji, Beech)

Shimeji (pronounced shee-MAY-jhee) refers to about 20 different breeds of oyster mushrooms, the most common of which go by the names brown or white shimeji. Because they often grow on beech trees, they’re also known as beech mushrooms. With a firm texture and a delicate shellfishlike flavor, shimeji mushrooms are ideal for pairing with any kind of seafood.

Shelf life: 5 days

Nameko

These small orange mushrooms are easily identified by an unusual gelatinous coating that gives them an amber sheen. When you sauté them, the coating also acts as a good thickener for sauces or stews. Namekos have a sweet woodsy flavor and a silky, velvety texture, and they are very popular in Japan, where they are traditionally added to miso soup. Garrone recommends simply sautéing them with soy sauce and serving over rice.

Shelf life: 3 days

Pioppini

A member of the shimeji family, pioppini mushrooms have a flavor similar to porcini but are more peppery. Their firm texture makes them a good addition to a stir-fry; you can use the whole mushroom, stem and all. Garrone says the pioppini has become many people’s favorite go-to mushroom because it has a lot of flavor yet is relatively inexpensive.

Shelf life: 7 days