Mushrooms are a staple of a variety of different culinary traditions and one of the few fungi that we are happy to see when we look inside our refrigerators. Although historically humans have consumed a diverse array of mushrooms for nutritional and medicinal purposes, it is only in recent years that this diversity has been brought to the foreground of culinary practice. As commercial cultivation improves, and global markets expand, the variety of readily accessible mushrooms has increased substantially. This can be daunting for the novice mushroom consumer, who is faced with a staggering number of foreign fungi to wade through. When approached with an adventurous spirit, mushrooms can be an exciting, and delicious exploration of a veritable garden of earthly delights.
HISTORY OF THE MUSHROOM
Already as early as the Roman times, fungi were not only popular in Europe, but they were also consumed centuries ago in Middle and South America. They were regarded as special and mysterious and were often used in age-old rituals.
The word mushroom is derived from the French word for fungi and moulds. One day, around 1650, a melon grower near Paris discovered mushrooms growing on his growth fertiliser. He decided to cultivate this new exotic delicacy commercially and to introduce it in exclusive Parisian restaurants. It was at that time that the mushroom was given the nickname ‘Parisian mushroom’. Later on, the French gardener, Chambry, discovered that the caves had just the right cool and moist environment for cultivating mushrooms, afterwich a large-scale mushroom cultivation developed in the caves around Paris.
Fungi were most likely cultivated for the first time around the year 600 in Asia. In Europe, the first cultivated fungi, the mushroom, was introduced in the 17th century. Mushrooms were introduced into the Netherlands for the first time at the beginning of the 19th century, but it was not be until after the 1900s that they were cultivated on a large-scale in the marl mines in Limburg. In the early years, the mushroom was still very exclusive and only available to the elite. However, since then, better and more effective methods have been developed and there has been a huge increase in mushroom cultivation. It was only after 1950 that the Dutch consumer became familiar with the mushroom, and in the meantime, there are various areas in the Netherlands that specialise in the cultivation of mushrooms, mainly south of the great rivers. The Dutch mushroom cultivation is especially known for the strict control it keeps on the cultivation.
In the last 50 years, the Netherlands has grown into the largest mushroom production country within the European Union, with an annual production of 270 million kilograms and more than 10,000 jobs. Next to China and the United States, the Netherlands holds 3rd place in the market. China is in first place with 70% of the world’s production. Every year, millions of tons of mushrooms are cultivated worldwide.
1651 Discovery of the mushroom in the vicinity of Paris by sprinkling the waste from melon crops with leachate from ripe mushrooms.
1707 First controlled cultivation of “edible fungi” in the vegetable garden.
1800 Mushroom cultivation in the underground stone quarries, where the climate is ideal for continuous mushroom cultivation.
1825 Mushrooms are cultivated on a country estate near Haarlem.
1900 Mushroom cultivation in the fluweelgrotten (Velvet Caves) in Valkenburg and in the St. Pietersberg caves near Maastricht.
1934 First scientific study of mushroom culture in the Research Station, Naaldwijk-The Netherlands.
1946 Laboratory for mushroom culture in Houthem St.Gerlach (South Limburg) under the guidance of the great mushroom pioneers Mr. Bels, M Sc, and his wife, Dr. Bels-Koning
1950 Construction of the first modern aboveground mushroom nurseries with several cultivation areas. The trays were made of concrete.
1953 Establishment of the CNC, the Dutch Cooperative Mushroom Growers Association in Mook. This association initiated the founding of the Research Station for Mushroom Culture in 1957 in Horst.
1955 Cultivation in wooden boxes in a tray.
1960 Cultivation in wooden beds on metal trays.
1975 Cultivation in fully metal trays, with mechanisation of inserting and removing the mushroom compost.
COMMON CULINARY MUSHROOM VARIETIES
Agaricus mushrooms, also known as white or button mushrooms, are the most commonly available, and widely cultivated variety in the world. These round, smooth mushrooms are typically white or beige and vary in size from small (“button”) to jumbo size. Their flavor is relatively mild, especially when eaten raw. When cooked, their woodsy mushroom taste is enhanced. They are used in a variety of different culinary ways and are a versatile mushroom, although not as flavorful as some other varieties.
Also known as cremini, Italian, or brown mushrooms, criminis are closely related to agaricus mushrooms. They have a similar shape and size as white mushrooms, but are brown in color. Their flavor is slightly stronger and earthier than their relative’s. They are used similarly to agaricus, but are more often stir fried, stuffed, steamed, sautéed, roasted, or stewed. These mushrooms taste like a more intense agaricus, imparting a slightly more intense flavor.
Portabellas, also referred to as portobellos, are the mature versions of crimini mushrooms. They are the largest of the edible mushrooms, growing up to 6 inches in cap diameter. Portabellas have a round cap and a brownish-tan color. Their gills are more visible than other mushrooms, as a result of their greater maturity. They have a meatier texture and taste than other mushrooms and make an excellent vegetarian substitute for beef. They are commonly grilled or sautéed, whole or in large slices, and added to sandwiches or pizzas. They marinate well, and are good stuffing mushrooms because of their size. Their hearty flavor enables them to handle stronger accompaniments like blue cheese and balsamic vinegar.
Chanterelle mushrooms have a distinctive vase-shape with curled edges. The gills are prominently featured on the underside, although they are not as substantial as portabella gills. Chanterelles come in a spectrum of colors, most commonly white, yellow, or orange. They have a nutty, sometimes mildly peppery taste and a delicate texture. Their subtle flavor makes them a suitable pairing for eggs, chicken, and fish. Their nutty taste can also handle heavier meats like beef, veal, or venison, which they commonly accompany in European dishes. They are also used in risottos, crepes, or as a topping on pizza.
Shiitake mushrooms, also known as Chinese, oak, black forest, and golden oak mushrooms, are more readily available worldwide than other Asian mushrooms. They have a distinctive umbrella-shaped cap with a thin, woody stem. Like portabellas, shiitakes range in color from tan to dark brown and have open “veils,” or visible gills. They have a soft, slightly spongy texture, and a strong, meaty, woody flavor. They are an excellent vegetarian meat substitute, and have long been used in this capacity in Asian cuisine. Shiitakes are most often stir fried, but are also used in pasta dishes. While their stems are usually removed because of their tough texture, they can be boiled to make strong, rich stocks.
Oyster mushrooms have a delicate texture and taste similar to chanterelles. Named for their faint resemblance and, according to some, slight flavor similarity to oysters, these mushrooms are a mainstay of Japanese and Chinese cuisine. They have perhaps the most color diversity of all of the edible mushrooms: white, yellow, pink, grey, brown, and black oyster mushrooms are common and prevalent. The distinct flavor or oyster mushrooms make them a delightful accompaniment to seafood and shellfish, although they also pair well with other meats like chicken. They are usually stir fried, but also take well to braising, sautéing, and stewing. They are also excellent raw.
Enoki are the smallest of the edible mushrooms, growing in tight clusters of long, yellowish, beansprout-like stems with tiny white caps. Unlike other edible mushrooms, enoki do not cook well; when used in cooking they are added at the last minute to prevent toughening. They are an ideal raw mushroom, making a satisfyingly crunchy addition to salads, sandwiches, and as a whimsical garnish to a variety of dishes.
Also known as king bolete, porcinis resemble fairytale toadstools, with thick pale stems, wide, spongy, brown or reddish-brown caps, and porous undersides in place of gills. Their meaty, nutty flavor lends itself well to a variety of dishes. They are a popular ingredient in Italian, Provencal, and Thai cuisines, adding depth to stews and stocks, a nutty flavor to pastas, and a meaty texture to salads.
Morels are the most unusual looking, and readily identifiable of wild edible mushrooms. Their nut-brown, cone-shaped, honeycomb-like cap and short stem distinguish them from other mushrooms. Like shiitake mushrooms, morels are often dried for commercial sale. Their distinctive sweet earthy flavor makes them an excellent flavor enhancer for sauces, however, morel enthusiasts often fry them, or use them in warm salads. Although morels have long had a cult following among mushroom hunters, they have more recently become a prized delicacy in haute cuisine akin to truffles. Although featured in a variety of different types of cuisine, they are most often found in French dishes.
Perhaps the most coveted of fungi, truffles have a long history as a culinary luxury. Unlike other mushrooms, truffles are subterranean fungi that bear little resemblance to their other edible brethren. They are round, knobby, and irregular in shape, and can be as small as a walnut or as large as a human fist. The most well-known and highly regarded truffles are the French black truffle, and the Italian white truffle, although several regions around the world harvest their own endemic varieties for culinary use. The Oregon white truffle is a regionally popular variety that has recently developed notoriety for its excellent flavor and wide availability, and is fast becoming a substitute for the rarer European varieties. Truffles are perhaps the most pungent of the edible fungi, with a strong earthy scent that can fill a room. They are used sparingly in cooking almost like a spice, often grated or minced and added to oil or butter to flavor a dish.
Although many mushrooms resist captivity and can only be found in the wild, a variety of edible mushrooms are commercially cultivated. All of the above listed mushrooms are currently farmed, bringing a wider fungal bounty to national and international markets.
Mushroom farming relies on controlling the temperature and humidity of the growing environment, and providing the desired fungi with an appropriate organic substrate for it to feast on. For many mushrooms, wood is ideal, however, many commercial farmers use a variety of carbohydrate-rich substances depending on the type of mushroom they are cultivating: sawdust, hay, corncobs, recycled paper, brewer’s grain, coffee grounds, soybean meal, and urea are all used in bulk to produce mushrooms. To combat contamination by pests and microbes, which can result in failed production, mushroom farmers sterilize the growing substrate to destroy any bacteria.
A mushroom’s growth cycle begins when tiny spores are released from the gills of parent fungi that then grow into mycelium, a network of fibers that seek out nutrients deep under the soil’s surface. These mycelia release enzymes that break down organic compounds, providing fungi with nutrients. It is only when the mycelium has stored enough carbon and nutrients that the fungus produces its fruiting bodies, which are the recognizable and edible components of mushrooms.
Since our hunter-gatherer origins, humans have been scouring forests for mushrooms as a tasty and nutritious dietary component. Mushroom hunting is a finely honed skill, requiring specialized knowledge of the growing patterns, ecology, and potential hazards such as toxic environments and poisonous species.
Mushrooms typically grow in moist, temperate forests where there is a significant amount of decomposing matter for them to feast on. Morels and oyster mushrooms are particularly popular for mushroom hunters because they are easy to identify, resemble few toxic varieties, and have distinctive growing patterns. Other mushrooms are not as easy to identify and gather. Truffle hunting proves especially daunting because their fruiting bodies grow underground. Truffle hunters use specially trained dogs and pigs to sniff out the distinctive odor of hidden bounties.
Although mushroom hunting can prove difficult and potentially harmful for amateur gatherers, experienced mushroom hunters reap the rewards of their knowledge, benefiting from a wide cornucopia of fungal edibles that have yet to reach commercial markets.
A feast of wild mushrooms is one of the few vestiges of our hunter-gatherer beginnings, a surprisingly ancient practice in our industrial food marketplace.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF MUSHROOMS
The health benefits of mushrooms include relief from high cholesterol levels, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes. It also helps in weight loss, and increases the strength of your immune system.
Almost all of us are familiar with mushrooms and their miraculous, beneficial powers. Particularly those who have read or heard a lot of fairy-tales such as Alice in Wonderland, Three Bears and a baby or even those who have played the Super Mario Brothers video game.
You have probably seen mushrooms making someone bigger or acting as a shield against some dangerous monster. These aren’t just popular culture references, they are actually symbolic representations of the actual health benefits of mushrooms. They truly can make you bigger and protect you against diseases and infections, as they are full of proteins, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antibiotics and antioxidants.
Mushrooms are edible fungi with various scientific names, but the family name is “Agaricus”, and then there are many secondary names for different species. They are essentially Saprophytes, the organisms (plants without chlorophyll) which thrive by extracting nutrients from dead and decaying plant and animal matter. They vary greatly in their color, texture, shape and properties.
There are approximately 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi in the world, but science is only familiar with about 10%, while only 100 species or so are being studied for their potential health benefits and medicinal applications. Some of the most well-known benefits of mushrooms are explained below.
CHOLESTEROL LEVELS: Mushrooms themselves provide you with lean proteins since they have no cholesterol or fat and are very low carbohydrates. The fiber and certain enzymes in mushrooms also help lower cholesterol levels. Moreover, the high lean protein content in mushrooms helps burn cholesterol when they are digested. Balancing levels of cholesterol between LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and HDL (“good” cholesterol) is essential in the prevention of various cardiovascular diseases like artherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.
ANEMIA: Anemic patients are characterized by having low levels of iron in their blood, resulting in fatigue, headaches, reduced neural function, and digestive issues. Mushrooms are a good source of iron, and over 90% of the nutritive iron value can be absorbed by the body, which promotes the formation of red blood cells and keeps people healthy and functioning at their full potential.
BREAST CANCER & PROSTATE CANCER: Mushrooms are very effective in preventing breast and prostate cancer due to the significant presence of various polysaccharides, like Beta-Glucans and conjugated Linoleic Acid, which both have anti-carcinogenic effects. Out of these two, linoleic acid is particularly helpful in suppressing the harmful effects of excess estrogen. This increase in estrogen is one of the prime causes for breast cancer in women after menopause. The Beta-Glucans, on the other hand, inhibit the growth of cancerous cells in cases of prostate cancer, and numerous studies have shown the antitumor properties of mushrooms when applied medicinally.
MUSHROOMDIABETES: Mushrooms are an ideal low-energy diet for diabetics. They have no fats, no cholesterol, very low levels of carbohydrates, high protein content, and a wealth of vitamins and minerals. They also contain a lot of water and fiber. Moreover, they contain natural insulin and enzymes which help the breaking down of sugar or starch in food. They are also known to contain certain compounds which help proper functioning of the liver, pancreas and other endocrine glands, thereby promoting the formation of insulin and its proper regulation throughout the body. Diabetics often suffer from infections, particularly in their limbs, which tend to continue for long periods of time. The natural antibiotics in mushrooms can help protect diabetics from these painful and potentially life-threatening conditions.
BONE HEALTH: Mushrooms are a rich source of calcium, which is an essential nutrient in the formation and strength of bones. A steady supply of calcium in the diet can reduce your chances of developing conditions like osteoporosis, and can also reduce joint pain and general lack of mobility that is associated with bone degradation.
NUTRIENT ABSORPTION: Vitamin D is a relatively rare vitamin to find in vegetables, and in fact, edible forms in general are not particularly common. However, mushrooms have it, and this essential vitamin can facilitate the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous. Mushrooms also contains levels of these two nutrients, so the combined effects of having all of these nutrients in one powerful source, mushrooms, makes it a good idea to eat them whenever possible.
IMMUNE SYSTEM STRENGTH: Ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant present in mushrooms, is very effective in providing protection from free radicals as well as boosting the immune system. It is actually an amino acid that contains sulfur, which is something that many people are deficient in, despite not knowing it or seeing its effects. That being said, the presence of this “master antioxidant” which is unique to mushrooms, can give you a major boost to immune system health. It helps to eliminate free radicals, which are the dangerous compounds that are released during the metabolic processes of cells, and can float throughout the body and cause significant damage and disease, so antioxidants, like ergothioneine, are vital elements for overall health.
Mushrooms contain natural antibiotics (similar to penicillin, which itself is extracted from mushrooms), which inhibit microbial growth and other fungal infections. Those same polysaccharides, beta-glucans, can stimulate and regulate the body’s immune system. They can also help heal ulcers and ulcerous wounds and protect them from developing infections. The good combination of vitamins A, B-Complex and C that is found in mushrooms also strengthens the immune system.
BLOOD PRESSURE: Studies of various types of mushrooms, including shitake and maitake mushrooms, have shown them to be high in potassium content. Potassium acts as a vasodilator, relaxing tension in blood vessels and therefore reducing blood pressure. High blood pressure is connected to a number of deadly conditions, particularly heart attacks and strokes. Potassium also increases cognitive function, because increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain stimulates neural activity. Studies have shown that increased levels of potassium improve memory and knowledge retention.
COPPER CONTENT: Copper has a number of beneficial effects on the body, and can be found in mushrooms. Calcium can regulate and stimulate the absorption of iron from food, and properly utilize it by getting it released from primary storage spots in the body like the liver. Mushrooms also have high levels of iron, so the two work together for healthy bones and preventing anemia.
SELENIUM CONTENT: The selenium content in mushrooms is one of the most beneficial elements that is often overlooked. The primary source of selenium is in animal proteins; however, due to their classification as fungi that feed off animal and plant matter, mushrooms are the best way for vegetarians to obtain the necessary amount of selenium.. Selenium is found in large quantities in mushrooms, and can benefit bone health by adding to bone strength and increasing durability. It also strengthens the teeth, hair, and nails. Furthermore, this essential nutrient is a powerful antioxidant, which rids the body of free radicals and generally strengthens the immune system. The bioavailability of selenium in mushrooms differs on species, but the majority of commonly consumed mushrooms have significant levels of this important mineral.
MUSHROOMBENEFITSWEIGHT LOSS: Would you believe me if I said that a completely lean protein diet is ideal for losing fat and building muscle mass? Well, believe it or not, it’s true. Most fats are burnt to digest proteins found in our food, more so when the protein is accompanied by a very low carbohydrate count, no fat or cholesterol, and a good amount of fiber. This is exactly the combination that mushrooms offer to help in losing weight! Due to their nutrient density, they actually rank higher than most fruits and vegetables, and some researchers say that mushrooms are one of the rare foods that people can eat as often as possible, with no side effects.
One study replaced red meat with white button cap mushrooms, approximately one cup per day, and found that those test subjects who ate mushrooms not only lost a significant amount of weight over a standard period of time, but they also decreased their waistline, and were better able to maintain their new weight, rather than ballooning back to the original weight as in most crash diets.
A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION: On a much more serious note, mushrooms can be very dangerous! Most species of mushrooms are not edible, are highly poisonous and look strikingly similar to their edible counterparts. Don’t ever try picking mushrooms for consumption from the woods unless you have been trained to identify them very well. Mushrooms have the unique ability to absorb the material that they grow on, either good or bad. This quality is what gives mushrooms so much of their beneficial power, but also their dangerous aspects. Many mushrooms, when picked in the wild, contain heavy metals, which can be very toxic, as well as air and water pollutants.
Also, do not trust any unknown vendors when you buy mushrooms. Always trust sealed products from reputable companies or those which you have grown yourself under controlled conditions after buying their seeds (called spawns) from a trusted source. A single poisonous mushroom among others in a dish can threaten a large amount of people’s health, resulting in comas, severe poison symptoms, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, cramps, insanity. Many species can even be fatal if ingested. Always avoid eating discolored mushrooms or those which are different in color than the typically accepted color of their species.