Mushroom Basics 101

July 01, 2013

There are a variety of mushrooms with different shapes, sizes and flavor profiles - find out the basics here

Some people love them - others don't - but there is no question that mushrooms have become a staple in all varieties of cooking, and they pack a powerful nutrition punch. 

Back to basics. Just what is a mushroom?
Mushrooms are fungi; they are set apart from plants and animals. Mushrooms contain no chlorophyll and most are considered saprophytes. That means that they obtain their nutrition from metabolizing non-living organic matter. Bottom line is - they break down and “eat” dead plants, similar to the way a compost pile does.

The body of the mushroom stores nutrients and other essential compounds, and when enough material is stored and the conditions are right they start to fruit - produce mushrooms.

Mushrooms do not have a “skin”, so they lose water easily, which is why they grow well in humid climates. But that's not to say that mushrooms like water - in fact, mushrooms need to breathe just like we do. Put a mushroom in water and it will drown. On a similar note, mushrooms are the only “plant” that provides a natural source of vitamin D. When exposed to ultraviolet light, mushrooms convert ergosterol to vitamin D2; levels vary from 1-97 percent of the DV depending on how much light the mushroom was exposed to when it was growing.

Are mushrooms healthy? There have been many scientific studies on mushrooms - particularly in the Far East: Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea; these countries have produced volumes of reports on the medicinal effects of mushrooms, and have been using them in traditional medicine: as antitumor, antifungal, and anti-arthritic medicinal food for years.

Most studies on the health benefits of mushrooms have reported immune enhancement properties. Complex sugars and their derivatives are able to stimulate a higher level of cytokine production in humans, which help the immune system facilitate communication between cells.

Let’s talk specifics:
King Trumpet, also known as king oyster is the largest species of the oyster mushroom. It has a thick stem, a small tan cap and is know for its robust, earthy flavor and somewhat meaty texture. It contains high amounts of the antioxidant amino acid, L-ergothioneine, which is thought to help reduce the risk of chronic disease by providing protection against free radical damage. King trumpets also contain statins, which have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels.

Maitake or “hen of the woods” is a mushroom that grows in clusters at the base of oak trees. They are especially high in antioxidants such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherols, phenolic compounds, carotenoids, and L-ergothioneine. Maitakes also contain complexs that have the ability to stimulate the immune system and possess antitumor activity. Additionally there is clinical evidence that maitake mushroom polysaccharides may lower blood glucose in those with type 2 diabetes.

Shitake mushrooms are one of the most common mushrooms we see on restaurant menus. Their caps are large and dark brown in color. Shitakes are thought to have anticancer effects in colon cancer cells, but large scale studies have yet to prove this hypothesis.

Nutritionally speaking, mushrooms are extremely low in calories [under 10 per ounce] with practically no fat and notable amounts of B vitamins, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and selenium as well as fiber. Overall, mushrooms are about 92 percent water.

How should you care for mushrooms?
First off, don't peel them; the skin is flavorful. Always use fresh mushrooms within a couple of days; do not store them in non-porous bags (use paper bags), as that will hasten their deterioration. Clean mushrooms with a soft brush or slightly dampened cloth; remember too much water will destroy the mushroom. If you do wash  mushrooms, rinse very briefly in cold water, shake gently to dry, and use immediately. Never wash before storing. Use mushroom stems and trimming for stocks, stews, soups and sauces. When baking, broiling or grilling mushrooms, brush with olive oil first to prevent wrinkling.