Doing Mushrooms

I have a bit of a conflicted relationship with meat. I don’t love the idea that animals have to die for us to eat it (I was reminded of this when I sat down to dinner with my sister and her 3 year old who asked, as he stabbed a piece of beef with his fork, “Mom, is this from a dead cow?” “Yes, it is.” “Mom, how did the cow die?”….) But I personally feel better when I have some meat/fish in my diet and do believe that there are nutrients in animal products that are highly beneficial to me. But I don’t like meat to taste like meat and so am always in search of new flavors to make meat taste not like meat.  Enter the mushroom…

Yesterday I concocted meatballs with shitake mushrooms that were, in a word, outstanding. In keeping with shitake’s Eastern origins, I made a soy, ginger sauce that I drizzled over top, which made it near impossible to eat just one – or two or three …  But it was really the highly flavorful shitakes that “made” the dish.

And so in honor of shitakes: Everything you never knew about mushrooms …

  • Most mushrooms are parasites – living off  decaying plants and plant-remains (eg compost), making them easy and cheap to grow on “farms”.  So why are chanterelles, porcini and truffles so expensive? Because they grow symbiotically on living trees and therefore have to be harvested from the wild. (Morels, fall in between – they can live off decaying trees but the trees must be wild.)
  • Unlike plants, mushrooms can’t make energy from the sun.
  • The part of the mushroom that we eat is the fruit – most of the fungus (the part we don’t eat) stays underground.
  • Nutritionally, mushrooms are high in B vitamins, as well as the minerals selenium (good for heart-health), potassium, calcium and iron. They’re also higher in protein than any other fresh produce.  Most “experts” (whoever this panel is) believe that shitake mushrooms (as well as the less popular “ear mushrooms”) have a substance that inhibits tumor growth in humans and are therefor are viewed as having greater medicinal value than the other varieties.
  • Unlike most produce that is less nutritious when not fresh, dried mushrooms, have even greater flavor and nutrients (once re-hydrated).  The drying enhances the enzymes and transforms ergosterol (a compound in the mushroom) to Vitamin D (if the drying is done by sunshine or artificial UV rays).

Dried mushrooms look remarkably prehistoric.

A close up of these shriveled beauties.

  • The deep-meaty flavor of mushrooms is due to concentrated glutamic acid, which gives mushrooms (along with seaweed) their own naturally occurring MSG.
  • As for storage, store in a paper bag (not plastic) so that water loss is absorbed by the paper bag and does not stay on the mushrooms, spoiling them.
  • Oh and forgot the “rule” about not washing mushrooms but wiping them off instead. They’re mostly 90% water to begin with (!), so if they absorb a few drops, who cares. Wash away.

Here’s what the end product looked like…

Get the recipe for Asian Meatballs with Shitake Mushrooms (with Ginger, Miso sauce).

You and mushrooms?  How do you like to cook with them?

Related Posts
Lentil Stew with Mushrooms 
Are There Risks To A Vegan Diet? (This was by far the most controversial post I’ve written.)




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  • food-loving botanist

    A clarification: Fungi that live on/with a living green plant are symbiotic. They can be mutualists, parasites, or commensal. That depends on how much benefit (or harm) the fungus and living green plant each derive from the relationship.

    Mushrooms (you are correct that the mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungus) such as boletes and chanterelles come from mutualistic fungi.  They form a relationship with the roots of a plant and help the plant absorb water and minerals while the plant gives the fungus sugars (food). Note that many highly toxic (to us) mushrooms are also plant mutualists.

    Honey mushrooms (Armillaria) are from parasitic fungi. The fungus attacks and kills a living plant.

    A commensal fungus would neither help nor harm a living host. (I can’t think of one that we eat at the moment.)

    Sometimes the plant is the parasite and the fungus the host. In the forests of eastern North America, there are a number of parasitic plants like Indian pipe (Monotropa) and beechdrops (Epifagus) that get their nutrients from fungi and at first glance might be mistaken for fungi because they are not green.

    What kind of symbiont (mutualists, parasites, or commensal) a particular fungus is can be difficult to figure out and can change based on context. Think of the bacteria and fungi that live on us as commensals that become parasites (and cause disease) if our immune system is compromised.

    Button mushroom, portobellos, shiitakes, on the other hand, are from saprophytic fungi, not symbionts. They live by getting nutrients from already dead material (manure, wood). They are not parasites since they do not interact with a living host. Because they don’t require a living host, they are much easier for humans to cultivate (and hence cheaper to buy).

    We should remember that all our foods are species with complex and fascinating lives, whether they are plants, animals, or fungi!

    • Michelle Madden

      Thanks for this in depth “course” on mushrooms!

    • Kiwi

      Thanks for all of the good information!  I’ve only just discovered the Sweet Beet in the last month or so, and I’ve been continually impressed with the caliber of people this blog attracts – most of the other blogs I frequent don’t draw in such an intellectual crowd.

      I’m in the Northwest, so when the season is right I can find chanterelles, boletes, morels, and matsutakes (last year I was practically drowning in chanterelles; I like to put them in my freezer and make savory pies in the winter with them.  My current experimental recipe is Chanterelle, Brie, Chicken, and Cranberry Pie).  I know there are more edible mushrooms, but those are the only ones I can accurately identify.  

      I also find the lobster mushroom (which, as far as I understand, is a fungus that infects the host mushroom and changes it into a grotesque red lump), but I’m hesitant about harvesting those ones.  There are too many opinions I’ve heard on whether or not it’s safe to eat them (e.g. if the host mushroom is inedible for humans, some people say the “lobster” fungus won’t suddenly make them edible, and you can get very ill… I’ve also been told to boil lobster mushrooms to “flush out” any toxins from the mushroom host, but that doesn’t make sense to me). Right now most of my info comes from the mushroom buyers that camp on the outskirts of national forests, but since I’ve always gotten a private and not a commercial permit to collect mushrooms, depending on the forest they don’t have much to say to me.  If anyone knows more about lobster mushrooms, I’d be curious to hear about them.

  • Katie

    we too, love mushrooms~ i’m anxious to try this recipe~ i used dried shitakes a few weeks ago with disapointing results~ i soaked them as directed and put them in the soup i was making~ they had a woody, stringy & tough texture.  are there different brands? these were from a bulk food store, so no name.

    thanks for sharing the recipe~

    • Michelle Madden

      I’ve had that problem before and not just with shitake but with other dried mushrooms. My hunch is that it can be caused be either of these problems: 1) They have gotten “stale”, and have lost flavor either at the store or in your home (perhaps by being left open and not sealed, or 3) When you rehydrated them, you didn’t let them soak long enough (and in warm enough water) to really let them soften and 3) When you cooked them, they did not cook long enough. I’ve found when cooking with dried, the long /slow cooking method is necessary – a couple hours cooking with the food with lots of liquid is ideal.

  • Pennie Azran

    Love all the great information you offer. Love your blog and so I’ve awarded you The Versatile Blogger Award! See your mention here:

    • Michelle Madden

      Thanks Pennie! Really kind of you…

  • Nick Marcantonio

    Over the last year or so I’ve really enjoyed exploring many different mushroom recipes, from wild mushroom risottos with the large meaty chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, to pizzas made in hollowed-out portobellos, to including chanterelles in my mac’n’cheese.

    But the best mushroom recipe I’ve run across is a baking recipe from David Arora’s field guide “All That the Rain Promises and More…” for Candy Cup Mushroom Cookies.

    The natural maple flavor of these mushrooms will keep the house smelling of maple for days after baking, as well as result in these cookies with the richest, most velvety maple flavor.

  • Elizabeth @ Saffron Lane

    We definitely share the same conflicted relationship with meat.  After numerous (failed) attempts at vegetarianism, my doctor finally caved and said I need to incorporate meat into my diet…period.  So, I’m also always in search of ways to make meat taste not like meat.  These “meatballs” look right up my alley (especially in their creativity).  Thanks for passing along the recipe!

  • Deirdre

    Have you noticed all the mushrooms which have sprouted up in the wake of hurricane Irene?  I am very tempted to give them all a try, but have (just barely) resisted.  Yesterday I read that there has been a surge in mushroom poisoning since the storm… forage very carefully.

  • Jen

    I recently read that most shiitakes sold in grocery stores are raised in sawdust or mulch and have less nutritional value than ones grown on trees, which are mostly sold to pharmaceutical companies.  I’ve also read that raw or improperly cooked shiitakes can cause a bizarre rash for some people. 

  • Katherine Fultz

    I used to be totally grossed-out by mushrooms (ever since I looked at one under a microscope in middle-school science class…) but suddenly, in the past few months, I can’t get enough of them. I’ve been looking for ways to cook them aside from the saute-and-cook-down-with-wine method– your meatball recipe looks awesome! :)

  • Phyllis

    The washing mushroom=soggy is a myth. Cook’s Illustrated did an experiment weighing mushrooms before and after and there’s no difference.