By: Co+op

How long have mushrooms been pleasing the palate? Possibly for as long as people have been around. Since mushrooms grow all over the world and in most climates, they've probably always been widely available. That's not to say eating all manner of mushrooms was (or is) safe. Ancient Roman emperors designated "tasters" to determine (by surviving or dying) whether particular mushrooms were poisonous or edible. Today, even those who forage for mushrooms are cautious and rely on experts to identify what's edible, what's not and what's unknown.

Though we enjoy them as a vegetable, mushrooms aren't technically a plant; they're fungi. Wild mushrooms grow in moist, dark places with plenty of decaying organic matter, such as wooded areas. Cultivated mushrooms are most often grown in peat-sawdust mixtures in controlled environments.

A mushroom's nutritional profile depends on its type, but in general, mushrooms are a low-calorie, non-fat food, high in fiber, potassium and B vitamins. They also contain vitamin D, copper, selenium, phosphorus, zinc and magnesium.

There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms with earthy, complex flavors and fascinating shapes. The textures vary, too, from delicate to meaty. The most common varieties of mushrooms sold in stores are the commercially grown white button, cremini and portobello mushrooms—though your co-op likely offers a selection of other cultivated and wild mushrooms, both fresh and dried.

Here's an introduction to some of the mushrooms you might find at your co-op:

  • Button mushrooms are the mushrooms almost of us know and love. They're white to tan, with a firm texture and mild flavor that's enjoyed raw or cooked in most any savory dish.
  • Chanterelles are trumpet shaped, with a depression in the center of the cap. They're popular in French cooking in particular. They're yellow, orange, brown, ivory or black and have a fruity scent.
  • Cremini are young portobellos (see below). They look like button mushrooms (with which they can be interchanged in recipes), but they're a bit firmer, darker and richer flavored. They're also called baby bellas.
  • Hen of the Woods mushrooms come in beautiful clusters, with smoky brown overlapping caps. In Japan they are called maitake, or dancing mushroom.
  • Oyster mushrooms have brownishgray caps and white stems. They taste peppery when raw, milder when cooked. They're used in Asian dishes, especially soups and stir-fries.
  • Porcini mushrooms are reddish-brown and woodsy. Nutty tasting and creamy textured, they're often used in Italian and French cooking.
  • Portobellos have large, brown umbrella caps and woody stems. They're rich in taste and texture and stand in nicely for meat on a burger bun. They also grill well.
  • Shiitakes have a woodsy taste and aroma. They're tan to dark brown, with umbrella caps that curl under slightly. You'll often find them in Japanese miso soup and in Chinese and Thai dishes.

Mushrooms add distinctive, earthy, "umami" flavor to everything from a caramelized onion and shiitake breakfast omelet to a traditional sage-infused holiday stuffing. Substituting a different mushroom is a great way to tweak a favorite recipe.

Hearty greens combine especially well with mushrooms. Spinach is a good partner in green salads, as well as in these Spinach and Almond-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms, which can be used as an appetizer or entrée.  Watercress Soup with Shitake Mushrooms can be served hot or cold and is delicious topped with shavings of Parmesan.

Even the simplest grains are transformed with the addition of mushrooms. Made with garlic, shallots and plenty of Parmesan, this classic, hearty Mushroom Risotto makes a delicious side or main dish.

Mushrooms and pasta are always a good combo, whether you're making a tomato-based spaghetti sauce or a creamy stroganoff.  In this pasta casserole, Savory Noodle Kugel with Leeks and Mushrooms, linguini stands in for egg noodles, baked with button mushrooms, leeks and sour cream. For serving over buttered noodles, mushroom lovers can celebrate a medley of mushrooms in this Mixed Mushroom Ragout. It would also be scrumptious over grilled meats or poultry or polenta.

Speaking of toppings, be sure to try different mushrooms on your pizzas. Mushrooms are also a go-to ingredient for sauces to top meats, poultry and nut loaves. Watch our video on how to make a simple, yet fabulous, Red Wine Pan Sauce using cremini mushrooms. Or try this recipe for Chicken in Mushroom Marsala Sauce, which combines flavorful wine with meaty mushrooms for topping beef, turkey, tofu or tempeh. For vegetables, rice, meats and poultry, this Ginger Spiked Shiitake Sauce is bold flavored and easy-to-make.

Dried mushrooms can be reconstituted and used in many recipes in place of fresh, so they're very convenient to have on hand. (Keep in mind that the dried are more potent than fresh.)

Wild mushrooms are available spring and fall (they don't do well in extreme heat or excessive sunlight), but cultivated varieties (both fresh and dried) are grown year-round.  Wild varieties vary widely by region and flavor, and, as with most wild-crafted foods, may only be available in small quantities or for a short period of time.

In general, look for mushrooms that are dry, with clean, intact gills on the underside. They should smell clean and earthy.

Store mushrooms in the refrigerator, before cleaning. For best storage, wrap them in paper towels and place in a paper bag.

When ready to use, clean mushrooms gently with a soft mushroom or pastry brush or paper towel. If they're especially grimy, lightly rinse them in cool water and pat dry (don't soak them or they'll absorb the water).

You'll want to find ways to use every morsel of every mushroom. For example, if you have 'shroom stems that are too tough to eat, add them to stocks and sauces to boost flavor (remove before serving). And when you reconstitute dried mushrooms, save that soaking water for cooking grains or making soup. When it comes to mushrooms—fresh or dried, wild or tamed—utilizing every last bit of their flavor-enhancing ability can boost the yum factor in your meals.