Editor’s Note: Food writer Casey Barber says September is the month to make room for mushrooms on your meal plan. Stay tuned for her October recipe selection, and for all the months that follow.
Mushrooms are having a moment, whether it’s the recent documentary “Fantastic Fungi” or their newfound trendiness as a vegan leather. September is National Mushroom Month, but because of mushrooms’ fertile growing capabilities and versatility in many dishes, any month is a great one to be celebrating fungi.
“Mushrooms are recyclers,” said Olga Katic, owner of Mushroom Mountain, a South Carolina mushroom farm and educational center. They can grow on natural byproducts, such as corn husks, wood chips, sawdust, seed hulls – and, yes, manure – that would otherwise be discarded.
Mushrooms are also a sustainable crop because they don’t need many resources to flourish. “They really do not require lots of water and don’t require a lot of space either,” Katic said. It takes only 2 gallons of water to grow one pound of mushrooms, versus approximately 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.
Because mushrooms can be grown indoors, no farmland is necessary for crop production. One acre of space can produce 1 million mushrooms per year, according to the American Mushroom Institute. In addition, mushrooms emit very little carbon dioxide while growing – less than 1 pound per pound of mushrooms.
Beyond their benefits to the environment, mushrooms are great for our bodies, too. They’re a healthy source of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, while being low in fat, cholesterol and calories.
Mushrooms can be a potent source of vitamin D which can be “powered up” with sunlight, according to studies. “If you get some mushrooms from the store and expose their gills — the feathery ribs on the underside of the mushroom cap — to sunlight, their vitamin D content shoots up,” Katic said.
“There are so many interesting compounds in them,” Katic added, including selenium, potassium, and beta glucan, a type of soluble fiber which can help fight heart disease and lower cholesterol.
The earthy, savory taste of mushrooms makes them a versatile and delicious ingredient in so many dishes. So cozy up with fungi this fall and explore the many common varieties – both wild and cultivated – that you’ll find at your local markets with these recipes and cooking ideas.
But before you start, clean your mushrooms. It’s a common misconception that you can’t use water to clean mushrooms. Though they have a high water content on their own, food scientists have shown mushrooms don’t absorb much water when rinsed or even soaked.
Save yourself time in the kitchen and stop wiping down individual mushrooms. Instead, rinse stemmed mushrooms in a colander or strainer, then gently transfer to a cotton (non-terrycloth) kitchen towel. Gently roll up the towel to dry the mushrooms, then slice or prep as needed for the recipe you’re making.
Dig into the wide world of fungi
Button mushrooms and cremini mushrooms are the most common varieties you’ll see at the grocery store: both are round and Ping-Pong ball-sized with a mild flavor. They’re easy to slice and sauté, taking on flavors that complement many recipes.
Button mushrooms are the baby of the Agaricus bisporus mushroom species – the most common mushroom – and are the earliest harvested. Cremini mushrooms are left to grow slightly longer, so they take on a brown color and have slightly more flavor.
If you don’t know what variety of mushrooms to buy and use for your meals, start with these, since they’ll go with anything. Make simple sautéed mushrooms that can be added to pasta, served over polenta or risotto, or used as a bruschetta topping.
Whether spelled portobello or portabella, the mushrooms are the same. These mushrooms are the mature, adult version of the cremini mushroom and have a more earthy flavor. (You’ll often see cremini mushrooms referred to as “baby bella” mushrooms because they’re the immature version.)
Sliced portobello mushrooms take a lot of room to cook, so they’re ideal candidates for a sheet pan, where they can caramelize and char at the edges. Try them in sheet pan mushroom fajitas or as the main event in teriyaki mushroom rice bowls.
Whole portobello caps can be grilled like steaks or stuffed with almost any combination of ingredients that strikes your fancy, whether it’s spinach and cheese, vegetables and quinoa or pizza toppings.
Shiitake mushrooms have a bouncy, chewy texture and can handle high-heat cooking methods like roasting or grilling. Marinate and toss whole shiitake caps on the grill or roast them sliced to give them crispy browned edges.
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Maitake mushrooms, also called hen of the woods, look like feathery petals growing off a thick trunk-like stem. Remove the beige, petal-like caps from the stem to cook, and save the stem for a homemade mushroom stock.
Because of their shape, maitake caps can be both meaty on the thicker stem end and delicately silky at their frilled edges. Use that to your advantage and roast maitakes in the oven or air-fry them to crisp up the edges, using the same method as for cauliflower florets. For the ultimate crispy mushroom appetizer, make breaded and fried maitakes in the deep fryer, air fryer or oven.
Oyster mushrooms come in two different sizes: There are smaller oyster mushrooms, which grow in clusters similar to maitake, and the larger king oyster, a thick-stemmed mushroom also known as king trumpet. Use the small oyster mushrooms, which have a soft texture and mild flavor, as you would maitakes. They’re also great at soaking up sauces in stir-fry dishes.
King oyster mushrooms are incredibly firm, which makes them a vegetarian’s best friend for creating many meat and seafood substitutes.
Cut them horizontally into coins and make vegan scallops or mushroom calamari. Slice them lengthwise into planks and make BBQ mushroom bacon. Or shred the mushroom stems – unlike most of the other varieties mentioned here, you’ll want to eat the stems of oyster mushrooms — and make vegetarian “pulled pork.”
Enoki mushrooms are wispy-thin, with a tender texture similar to al dente noodles. Like oyster mushrooms, their long stems are the main event. Try them simply steamed and tossed with a spicy garlic sauce or as a component in a mushroom and boy choy ramen or with other noodle dishes. When pan-fried, enoki mushrooms also crisp up into crunchy strings to make a vegetarian substitute for shredded pork carnitas.