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Edible and medicinal mushrooms are literally a small earthly treasure that nearly everyone can enjoy and benefit from. Edible mushroom species are renowned for their culinary value, rich taste and the nutrition they provide which can even be compared to animal protein in some cases. Medicinal mushrooms may not always taste good. However, their distinct medicinal properties, which have been known for centuries, make them worth trying out as well.
In this article, you will get to learn everything you need to know about edible mushrooms and their characteristics as well as mushroom nutrition and medicinal mushroom benefits and how to grow, forage for, or cook them.
“Edible mushrooms” refers to all the species of mushrooms that are fine for human consumption. At this time, over ten thousand mushroom species and subspecies are deemed to be edible. However, the most popular ones in terms of growing and consumption number below thirty.
Edible mushrooms can either grow and be harvested in the wild or cultivated in specially controlled settings. Their fruiting bodies grow above or below the ground.
The key factor for an edible mushroom is simply that it must be fit for human consumption, i.e., it is not toxic.
Other aspects of edible mushrooms are their flavor, nutritional value, and how to cook them described in the sections below.
Mushroom flavors vary slightly according to the type of mushroom, although many will describe most species as having a rich “earthy flavor” in general.
Here are the main mushroom flavors:-
This is a common flavor that resembles that of cooked red or white meat. Mushrooms with a rich meaty taste or texture make great alternatives to meat for vegetarians. Examples of mushrooms with a meaty flavor: Cremini, Portabellas, and Hen of the woods (Maitake).
Another common mushroom flavor is the smoky taste that some mushrooms have, regardless of the cooking method used. The smokey taste resembles for many the flavors of char-grilled animal or plant proteins. Examples of mushrooms with a smokey flavor: Shiitake, Black trumpet mushroom.
Mushroom species with a nutty flavor are those whose taste resembles that of common nuts such as peanuts, walnuts or almonds, especially nut butter or oils such as peanut butter. Because of their nuttiness, they are especially popular in Asian dishes. Examples include Morel mushrooms, Shimeji (brown beech) mushrooms.
Mushrooms whose taste is described as acidic are those mushroom types that have a slightly sour/tangy flavor. Their acidic flavor makes them taste lighter than their meat-like counterparts and they are ideal for use in liquid dishes such as soups or stews. Examples: Chanterelle, Oyster mushrooms.
Mild or Brine-like.
These are types of mushrooms that unlike others, have a very mild taste that is described as salty. Examples include wood ear mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, turkey tail mushrooms.
Some mushroom types may be edible, however, they are not favored for cooking because of their bitter taste or hard/chewy texture. An example of an edible bitter mushroom is the Chaga mushroom.
A fact overlooked by many people is that nearly all edible mushrooms have a high nutritional value, with variations depending on the species of mushroom. Mushrooms are naturally low in calories but high in nutrients like fiber, B-complex vitamins, Vitamin K, copper, potassium, magnesium, zinc and selenium. They can also be high in antioxidant substances such as ERGO (Ergothioneine) and GTH (glutathione) which can protect the cellular walls from oxidative stress and damage. The highest concentrations of these substances occur in Porcini, Maitake, Shiitake, and Yellow oyster mushrooms.
How Best To Cook Mushrooms
Most edible mushrooms species are quite versatile, and you can use them in several dishes. However, some types are best cooked using certain cooking methods or dishes because of their distinct flavor, aroma, or texture.
Here is a short guide to some of the most popular ones:-
White Button Mushrooms.
Perhaps the most famous and common type of cultivated mushroom species, these mushrooms are renowned for their mild earthy and nutty flavor that suits every dish. We especially like them sauteed with garlic and spices, in risottos, stews and soups.
Another common edible yet wild fungi type with a rich meaty and nutty flavor, mild aroma and meaty texture. They are especially popular in Italian cuisine, and you can cook them whole or slice them in sauteed dishes, risottos, pastas, pizzas or stews.
A widely cultivated type that is famous across the globe for its mild nutty taste and slightly fruity aroma. Its somewhat chewy texture makes it best cooked whole as opposed to being thinly sliced. It cooks up well grilled or baked with a hint of olive oil and herbs such as thyme.
Another common cultivated type with a fairly large fruiting body and meat-like flavor and texture. Because of this, you can use it in place of common meat dishes like steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and stuffed meat. We especially like them stuffed with cheeses and spices or grilled whole in the oven or barbeque.
A cultivated mushroom type that is especially popular in Asian cuisine, with a mild smokey and earthy flavor and a pleasantly chewy texture when cooked. Goes incredibly well in Asian noodles, stir-fries, rice dishes, soups, and grilled whole or in roasts.
A wild species type with an orange hue and mild nutty flavor, a slightly fruity aroma (some say that they smell like apricots) and firm meaty texture. Cook them sauteed, grilled, or roasted with olive oil and spices and without many other ingredients.
Chicken Of The Woods.
Just like their name suggests, we are talking about a serious chicken competitor here with a fleshy texture, chicken breast shape, and chicken-like taste. You can therefore use it as a vegan alternative to common chicken dishes such as roasted chicken, fried breaded chicken, and chicken soup.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms.
These mushrooms look a bit unusual with an appearance like multiple pieces of white/off-white string. However, they are definitely on the list of top ten best tasting mushrooms as they have a seafood-like flavor, fruity aroma, and firm texture. They are somewhat juicy and chewy when cooked and they are a nice addition to seafood dishes, risottos, stir-fries, and roasts.
General Cooking Tips
Before cooking any of these mushrooms, it’s best to wipe them clean with a damp cloth as opposed to washing them with water. Using a cloth will prevent excess moisture causing sagging and mushiness during cooking. Most of the above mushroom species can also be pickled and kept for months stored at room temperature or freeze-dried to be used later in liquid-based dishes such as soups and stews. You can also turn some such as Lion’s mane or Shiitake mushrooms into dry powder form (dry them first in the sun and grind them later) using them in sauces, soups or drinks such as tea.
Medicinal Mushrooms And Their Benefits
Medicinal mushrooms are species of edible mushrooms that are best known for their high medicinal value as opposed to their culinary value (taste, texture, aroma). Some have reportedly been used for centuries in traditional folk remedies for various health ailments. Despite the lack of modern studies proving their medicinal value, existing evidence from the old times indicates very promising health benefits.
The medicinal mushrooms mentioned below are generally safe and free of any major side-effects. However, it is best to seek the advice of a licensed physician before using any of them to prevent or treat any disease as some may interfere with the action of certain prescription drugs.
Here are the most popular mushrooms in this category:-
Reishi mushrooms, also known as Lingzhi (scientific name Ganoderma lucidum) are wild mushrooms growing mainly in European and Asian regions. A few studies have found that Reishi mushrooms may boost the immune system function and fight infections. They may also slow down the progression of tumors/cancer.
A wild fungus type with a strange blister and charcoal-like appearance. Chaga mushrooms are often sought after for their antioxidant compounds which slow down aging. They also contain other substances that decrease cholesterol and blood glucose levels, boost immune system activity and prevent or slow down the development of some cancer types such as stomach cancer and prostate cancer.
A wild mushroom with a large “Lion’s mane” and stringy appearance widely used in tincture or powder supplement form for its potent nerve regeneration properties. The mushrooms contain substances like hericenones and erinacines that are able to activate the growth of new brain and nervous system cells. They provide an alternative treatment to memory loss from accidents, age-related dementia, or Parkinson’s disease.
A mushroom which, as its name denotes, has a turkey tail-like appearance with several health benefits including, but not limited to, antioxidant and anti-aging action, support of gut health, antiviral properties, prevention and treatment of certain cancers such as colon cancer, improvement of sports performance, and improvement of insulin resistance in Diabetes type II patients.
Morels have perhaps the highest concentration of Vitamin D of all mushrooms. This makes them an excellent source of treatment for Vitamin D deficiency and related disorders such as bone and joint problems or depression. Plus, they contain significant amounts of copper, potassium, magnesium and other trace minerals that offer antioxidant and immunity support action.
Other Medicinal Mushrooms
Other less common types of medicinal mushrooms are: cordyceps militaris, caterpillar fungus, and lobster mushrooms.
Growing And Foraging For Mushrooms
The most straightforward method to obtain mushrooms is to buy them either at an online or offline store. However, growing or foraging for wild mushrooms are pastimes that are growing in popularity in forested regions across the world. There are many reasons why: wild mushrooms are free to collect and hunting for them can be very exciting for both amateur and expert mushroom hunters. The most commonly foraged mushrooms (which are either edible or offer medicinal value) are:
- Oyster mushrooms
- Giant puffball mushrooms
- Chicken of the woods
- Black truffle
- Lion’s mane
- Lobster mushrooms
- Beefsteak fungus
- Wood ear mushrooms
- Cauliflower mushrooms
- Field blewits
- Chaga mushrooms
- Turkey tail mushrooms
When foraging for any of these mushrooms, it’s best to have an identification guide with you if you are a newbie. Alternatively, take a mushroom identification picture app that will do the job for you as many edible species have poisonous or toxic look-alikes. In any case, if you are not totally sure, it’s best not to collect or consume the mushroom. This avoids the risk of eating a poisonous look-alike that may even lead to death in extreme cases.
Once you are sure of the type, you will need the following basics to collect your mushrooms: a mesh bag or basket, a small knife, a cleaning brush, and a map of the place you will explore if it’s your first time in the area. If you plan to dedicate several hours to go mushroom hunting, you will also need to pack water and snacks, so you don’t get hungry or thirsty. Collect the mushrooms that grow above the ground (and around the roots of the trees) manually by their roots. Harvest the other types (that grow or infest tree parts over the ground) using a small paring knife.
According to experts, the best time to forage for mushrooms is after it has rained. Also, look during the peak growing season which is late summer or early fall for most edible species.
Note: some mushrooms are nearly extinct or on the list of endangered species. It may, therefore, be illegal to harvest them in the wild or only possible after obtaining a permit first. You need to check to see if there are any mushroom foraging regulations covering the area you wish to visit. This will determine which species can be freely harvested or not.
If you are interested in growing your own wild or domesticated mushrooms, there are two main growing methods. The first includes growing your mushrooms using spawn and a substrate in a plastic container. This (first) method is ideal for commonly cultivated mushroom species such as White button mushrooms and Shiitake mushrooms. The second method involves using liquid cultures to inoculate tree logs – a good technique for growing wild/exotic mushrooms.
Growing Method One:
- Get your mushroom spawn and substrate of choice (frequently sold together or separately at mushroom growing stores and nurseries).
- Prepare and sterilize your substrate (such as wood chips or sawdust) with hot water or steam. Doing this will kill any germs or mold.
- Fill the plastic containers or bags with the spawn and substrate you have prepared.
- Incubation. At this stage, you will have to add a little moisture using a water spray at periodic times. This will incubate the spawn and encourage growth.
- Fruiting of the bodies. This is the stage where, given the right conditions, you will notice some growth. This will usually occur after several weeks to a couple of months.
- Harvesting. The final stage where mushrooms have grown significantly, and you can harvest them by hand or using a small knife.
Growing Method Two:
The second method, which is ideal for growing mushroom types such as Giant puffballs, Lobster mushrooms, Morels, Chicken of the woods and Hen of the woods (Maitake) includes the following steps:
- Collecting or buying the mushroom spawn.
- Harvesting old or decayed tree logs from your backyard or in the wild.
- Drilling deep holes across the body of the tree logs.
- Filling these holes up with the mushroom spawn and/or liquid cultures and substrate.
- Sealing these holes with melted wax to prevent contamination.
- Exposing the logs to the right humidity and heat conditions (usually away from direct sunlight)
- Waiting for the fruiting of the bodies.
In most cases, wild mushroom species take longer to grow than the commonly cultivated types. It may take several months or even a few years before significant growth occurs so be patient.
You may also find home grow kits for common mushroom types like White button, Oyster mushrooms, and Porcinis. These kits contain everything you need to start growing your own mushrooms such as spawn, tools, containers, etc.. Usually these sell for $15 to 30 per kit, depending on the size and number of mushrooms you wish to grow at home.
In any case, take care to read the growing instructions that come with the spawn and the kit. This is because some mushroom species need specific conditions to fruit properly. Once you manage to grow your first batch successfully, the process will become much easier and enjoyable for you!
So now you know all the basics concerning edible and medicinal mushrooms, you can go hunting for them. Alternatively, start growing your own in order to reap the special benefits that they offer.