Mushrooms hardly get the recognition they deserve. They’re shoved to the side of our plate, sautéed to oblivion, or worse, creamed in canned soups intended to be poured into other dishes (looking at you, green bean casserole). Perhaps our mistreatment of mushrooms is the residue of midcentury cuisine – our nostalgic All-American method of cooking everything in butter and cream and sauces. But even with recent food movements, the mighty mushroom still gets left in the past, forgotten on the top of a pizza or as the garnish on a steak. Mushrooms don’t have the reputation of avocados or kale – but they deserve to.
There’s a reason mushrooms can stand alone in a kingdom of their own. It only takes 1.8 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of mushrooms, making them one of the most sustainable crops on the planet. Mushrooms also have a laundry list of nutritional value – 100mg of your basic cremini pack more fiber than a slice of whole wheat bread and more potassium than a banana. Mushrooms are one of the few sources of naturally occurring Vitamin D, they have antioxidant properties, and they’re an excellent source of iron. On top of that, mushrooms have a lot of protein, and with their meaty texture, make an excellent replacement for chicken or steak.
If that’s not enough to convince you that mushrooms are, as the ancient Egyptians called them, the “food of the gods,” then perhaps their flavor is reason enough to fall in love with fungi. Mushrooms have a vast spectrum of unique, earthy, umami flavors.
Exploring the world of edible mushrooms can be overwhelming. There are as many ways to prepare and serve mushrooms as there are varieties. So here are a few mushroom types to start out with, many of which only need to be sautéed lightly in olive oil with salt and pepper, and are delicious enough to stand on their own.
If there’s one type of mushroom you’re familiar with, it’s probably this one. White buttons, cremini, and portobellos are all just agaricus bisporus – they’re simply harvested at different levels of maturity.
Though these three are the most common, they’re also the least flavorful. I don’t mean to throw shade at Agaricus bisporus. They’re a great accompaniment in a stir fry, I enjoy white buttons in my curry, and when portobellos are marinated and grilled, they taste about as close to steak as you can get without eating meat.
All mushrooms lose a majority of their flavor the moment they’re picked, but Agaricus bisporus lose almost all of their natural flavor by the time they reach the grocery store. That’s why this type of mushroom tends to take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with.
Best use: As a pizza topping, garnish or addition to creamed soup.
It can be tricky to discuss the flavor of mushrooms because they are unique — only mushrooms taste like mushrooms — but how and where they grow gives context as to how they taste, because they take on the properties and nutrients from the places in which they grow.
Oyster mushrooms – which come in a rainbow of colors including yellow, white, gray, blue and even pink – get a lot of their woodsy flavor from the trees and decaying logs on which they grow. The texture of mushrooms is just as important as the taste; and when raw, oyster mushrooms are a bit chewy, but when sautéed in olive oil, they become silky, creamy and maintain a chicken-like texture.
Best use: As a texture boost in pasta or risotto.
Maitake mushrooms go by many names – sheep’s head, ram’s head, and king of the fall, but hen of the woods is the most popular. Don’t let the nickname deceive you. Maitake doesn’t really taste like hen. Because they grow in clusters at the base of trees (mostly oaks) during the damp, fall season, they take on a woodsy, earthy and oaky flavor. They’re savory, and because they are considered one of the most flavorful mushrooms, they are powerful enough to stand on their own.
Best use: Sauteé in butter or olive oil and serve as a “steak” on rice or quinoa.
Pom Pom (Lion’s Mane)
Pom pom mushrooms look like big cotton balls. Because they have no stems, they are a perfect ball of dense, meaty mushroom. They tend to lose their flavor just like Agaricus bisporus, but they do retain some mild sweetness. It’s their texture and ability to absorb butter and broth when cooked that makes them the perfect substitute for crab, lobster, or even veal.
Best use: A replacement for crab in crab cakes.
Shiitake mushrooms hail from East Asia and they’re the most commonly found mushroom in a lot of the region’s cuisine. They’re thick, with a large cap that grows in decaying wood in warm, damp climates.
Best use: Thanks to their smoky flavor, shiitakes work well tossed into a stir fry or savory miso soup.
The king trumpet is a close cousin to the oyster mushroom, but don’t let the relation fool you. King trumpets come from the Mediterranean region, and act as parasites on the roots of herbaceous plants, so their flavor tends to be more earthy than woodsy. Their thick and firm stem is what’s really notable.
Best use: When cooked, king trumpets take on the same texture as scallops, making them another excellent substitute for seafood.
Laetiporus (Chicken Mushroom)
Unlike maitake, which goes by the (arguable) misnomer hen of the woods, Laetiporus actually does taste like chicken, hence its more common name, chicken mushroom. This mushroom is bright yellow and orange, and grows on the wounds of trees – mostly oak, but also eucalyptus, yew, chestnut and willow trees. Perhaps it’s the sappy-woodsy combo that gives Laetiporus its chicken flavor.
Best use: Laetiporus can be prepared in the same way as chicken and makes a great poultry replacement.