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General Description: Mushrooms are a huge group of edible fungi that are grown, picked, and eaten around the world. The finest and rarest mushrooms, including the truffle, were highly esteemed in classical Greece and Rome. Scientists use the term mushroom to denote only the fruiting body of either agarics (white mushrooms or brown field mushrooms) or boletes (cèpes or porcini). There are more than 300 types of cultivated mushrooms, not including the myriad varieties of edible wild mushrooms.

Mushrooms are mysterious things: They seem to lack roots, some have hallucinogenic properties, and others are deadly poisonous. Wild mushrooms grow and are eagerly gathered in most parts of the world. The most desirable mushrooms grow in wooded areas. Mushrooms tend to have a wide distribution because their spores are easily carried on unsuspecting travelers.

Every year, more varieties of cultivated mushroom come to market. These mushrooms are raised on pasteurized compost in conditions that replicate damp mornings; they take about 6 weeks to grow before being picked by hand. The Chinese and Japanese have been raising shiitakes on rotting logs for thousands of years.

As a rule, if a mushroom is large, dark, and has open gills, it will have a deeper and more profound flavor. The smaller, paler, and less open the mushroom, the more delicate and subtle the flavor. While white mushrooms, cremini, portobellos, and enoki are frequently used raw, some people may not digest raw mushrooms well. The flavors of specialty mushrooms are enhanced by cooking and almost all wild mushrooms should be cooked.

Cultivated beech, or hon-shimeji, mushrooms (Hypsizygus tessulatus) are petite with either white or light brown button caps joined in a clump at the base. They have small thin caps with sharply defined ivory gills and thick, tender stems. Beech mushrooms are crunchy with mild flavor that can be slightly bitter.

Black trumpets (Craterellus fallax), called “trumpets of death,” are gray-brown to dark brown-black and distinctively aromatic with a buttery flavor. Their flesh is thin and brittle, their caps wavy-edged, and their outer surface can be smooth or wrinkled. Black trumpets grow wild under deciduous trees throughout North America in the summer and fall.

Chanterelle refers both to the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and to close relatives such as red, trumpet (or funnel), and white chanterelles. Depending on the variety, the cap can be yellow, orange, white, brown-gray, or black. The caps are wavy, cup shaped, and firm, with wrinkles, not gills, on the underside. Chanterelles, noted for their soft flesh and apricot-like fragrance, are both cultivated and wild.

Cremini (Agaricus bisporus) are similar to common whites. They have naturally light tan to rich brown caps and deeper flavor than white mushrooms. Reasonably priced, cultivated cremini are firm and have good keeping qualities. Substitute cremini for white mushrooms if more flavor is desired.

Enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) are a cultivated Japanese variety that grow in small fragile clusters of white stems topped by tiny caps. They have a mild, light flavor with a slight crunch. They are usually eaten raw in salads or used as a garnish.

Hedgehog mushrooms (Dentinum repandum) have buff- to tawny-colored caps with pale stems. Tiny spine-like teeth fill the undersides of the caps instead of gills. They have mild, sweet flavor and firm, chewy texture. Hedgehogs are picked wild, not cultivated, and should be cooked before eating.

Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) get their name from their knobby appearance and bright color. They have a minutely pimpled surface and fishy aroma. With their crisp white flesh and bright color, they are a spectacular wild mushroom.

Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) have a cluster of dark fronds with supple, firm texture at the base and brittle, crumbly texture at the edges. They have a distinctive aroma with a rich, woodsy taste enhanced by cooking. They are indigenous to the northeastern part of Japan and are both cultivated and wild. Sometimes maitakes grow to over 50 pounds, which is why they are called the “king of mushrooms.”

Matsutake mushrooms (Tricholoma matsutake) are a dark brown Japanese wild mushroom with a dense, meaty texture and nutty flavor prized by Japanese and Koreans. They have firm flesh and an intoxicatingly potent, spicy aroma that is somewhat fruity, but stinky.

Morels (Morchella esculenta and others) may be tan, yellow, or black with short, thick, hollow stems topped with spongelike pointed caps. Morels have a rich, nutlike flavor and woodsy fragrance. Their honeycomb whorling texture combines softness with crunchiness. Wild morels flourish in temperate parts of the world. Cultivated morels are available year-round though they are not as flavorful.

Pleurotte, or oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) have fluted soft brown caps 1 to 3 inches in diameter. They have a delicate, mild flavor and velvety texture. These cultivated mushrooms are best when cooked. The stems are tough; only the furled cap should be eaten. The stems may be chopped or ground for stuffings or used for stock.

Porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis) are rich, meaty, and amazingly versatile-delicate enough for a sauce, yet vigorous enough to stand up to grilled steak. The legendary porcini (also called cèpes) have fat, firm, curved white stalks and broad, dark brown caps with a spongy layer of long miniscule tubes beneath the cap. They are one of the few wild mushrooms that can be eaten raw.

Portobello mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are large, hardy fully mature cremini with caps that can reach 6 inches in diameter. Portobellos have a long growing cycle resulting in a solid, meatlike texture and flavor. These incredibly popular mushrooms are available whole, caps only, and sliced.

Shiitakes (Lentinus edodes) originated in Japan and are still most popular in Japanese and Chinese cooking. They range in color from tan to dark brown with broad, umbrella-shaped caps with wide open veils and tan gills. The caps are soft and spongy with a meaty, slightly chewy texture when cooked. They have a distinctive smoky aroma. Their stems are too woody to eat as is, though flavorful if ground finely or used for stock.

White mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are the most well-known mushroom in Europe and America. They range from creamy white to beige and are good raw or cooked; their flavor intensifies when cooked. Freshly picked white mushrooms have closed veils (caps that fit closely to the stem) and delicate flavor; mature whites, with open veils and darkened caps, develop a richer, deeper taste. Whole white mushrooms range in size from small buttons suitable for slicing raw in salads to jumbos suitable for stuffing and baking.

Season: All cultivated mushrooms are available year-round. Black trumpet mushrooms are in season in late summer to late autumn in Europe and late autumn to late winter in America. Chanterelles are in season in spring, summer, and fall. Hedgehog mushrooms are available December through March from California and Oregon. Lobster mushrooms are found from August through October. Porcini mushrooms are available in May and June and again in October. Matsutake mushrooms are in season from late fall to midwinter, especially in Japanese markets or specialty produce stores. Wild morels are in season in earliest spring and are abundant in the American Midwest.

Purchase: Select mushrooms with spongy, firm, and fleshy caps.

Avoid: Do not purchase mushrooms with black spots, worms, an unhealthy shriveled appearance, or discoloration. Wet or slippery mushrooms are past their prime.

Storage: Most mushrooms are very perishable, but nearly all mushrooms will remain fresh for 5 to 7 days when stored properly. When stored whole, they will last much longer than if sliced, no matter the variety. Handle mushrooms with care as they bruise easily. If you buy them in a prepack, take off the cling film and put the mushrooms into a paper bag or wrap them in absorbent paper towels for up to 3 days. The exception is some of the dry, firm types such as shiitake and cremini. Any vacuum-sealed mushrooms (such as enoki) will keep for up to 14 days if refrigerated.


  1. Clean the mushrooms. You may either rub or brush mushrooms if they are relatively clean. If the mushrooms are very dirty, quickly rinse them under cold running water just before use. Many people peel mushrooms, though this is not necessary, especially for cultivated mushrooms.
  2. Dry washed mushrooms on paper towels.

Note: To prepare fresh porcini, scrape dirt off the stalks and wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp cloth—only wash if you absolutely must, and never in hot water. Use as soon as possible. If you must wait, stand the mushrooms on their caps to prevent any of the tiny worms sometimes inhabiting the stalks from traveling into the cap.

Note: Before using fresh chanterelles, rinse them quickly though carefully, especially inside the wrinkles. Drain immediately, and dry them with a cloth or paper towel.

Serving Suggestions: Marinate small white mushrooms in vinaigrette. Stuff large white mushrooms with sausage, breadcrumbs, or spinach. Grill whole portobello caps instead of meat and serve burger-style. Use shiitakes in Chinese and Japanese dishes, pasta, or soups. Use lobster mushrooms in terrines or other seafood dishes. Broil matsutake for a few minutes on each side, adding a bit of rice wine and soy sauce just before serving. Add any mushroom to soup, chicken, seafood, or other dishes.

Flavor Affinities: Beef, chicken, cream, fish and seafood, game, garlic, herbs, onion, pasta, pork, rice, wine.

from Quirk Books: