Though mushrooms are usually grouped under vegetables in pizza places and supermarkets, they aren’t vegetables. Nor are they fruit. And — biologically speaking, anyway — they aren’t really even plants. Mushrooms are fungi, a kingdom so vast it encompasses more than 2 million species. These prolific growers flourish in unlikely places all over the world. They push out of the soft earth in densely forested areas, wriggle out of sand dunes, grow on decaying wood, in open meadows or on horse (or elk, or deer or moose) dung. These curious organisms hold surprises at just about every turn: Some have more potassium than bananas. Some glow in the dark. They’re great sources of naturally occurring vitamin D. Some are infamously poisonous. Many are loaded with essential vitamins, such as riboflavin and niacin, which are crucial for good health.
“Essential vitamins are vitamins that your body really needs for regular cell function,” says Dr. Adetunji Toriola, a Washington University assistant professor of surgery at Siteman Cancer Center. “Your body can produce non-essential vitamins, so if you don't get them from food sources, you’ll be OK. But essential vitamins, you need to get from food.”
Mushrooms are densely packed with many other vitamins and nutrients, including zinc, folate, copper and magnesium. And for vegans, they are a particularly important source of fiber and protein — all while remaining very low in calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol. Mushrooms also contain antioxidants — biochemical compounds such as proteins, vitamins or minerals that are found in food and dietary supplements. “Antioxidants prevent or delay cellular damage, and they help the body recover,” Dr. Toriola says. “During the aging process, there’s a lot of breakdown in the body. Tissues wear out, and the rate of cellular turnover is higher. Antioxidants mop up free radicals — which cause damage to cells — and keep us in good health.” Mushrooms are also high in selenium, an antioxidant that may strengthen the immune system.
The more vibrant a fruit or vegetable is, the healthier it tends to be. That isn’t the case with mushrooms, which are often bland in color. Still, they brim with nutrients. And because they can be eaten raw, grilled, microwaved, baked or fried, there are plenty of ways to incorporate them into your diet. But remember that not all mushrooms are edible. “Some can be poisonous, so be wary about eating any you find in the wild,” Dr. Toriola says. Consider checking out local farmers’ markets to find unusual, off-the-beaten path mushrooms rather than trekking through the woods in search of your own.
Oh, What Fungi
They aren’t frilly or exotic or expensive or hard to pronounce, but that’s part of the charm of button (or white) mushrooms. For starters, they’re incredibly versatile and last much longer in the fridge than other varieties — up to a week in their original packaging. Buttons are high in protein and potassium, can help fight inflammation and they’re good for the immune system — doubly so when cooked in red wine. Slide them onto kebobs, toss them onto pizzas or simply sauté them in oil to add a mild, earthy counterpoint to any meal.
When they come into season in September, golden-hued chanterelles announce the arrival of fall like a trumpet blast. They’re shaped like the instrument, too. Full of vitamins B and D, chanterelles’ tart and woody flavor sings in simple dishes like frittatas and salads. Though they flourish in forests all over the state, it’s probably best to leave the finding to the pros: A lookalike species known as the false chanterelle also grows in the wild, and it can be poisonous.
Most mushrooms are known for their caps, gills or frills, but enokis bring something entirely different. White, long and slender, they artfully punctuate ramen and beckon from bibimbap. They are delicate — in looks and in taste — and lend a slightly fruity flavor to stir-frys and salads alike. Use enokis to complement noodles in miso soup, or replace the noodles with them altogether if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. Though enokis’ effectiveness in fighting cancer is under debate, their high antioxidant levels are without question.
Hen of the Woods
This bewitchingly named mushroom with feather-like ruffles grows at the base of trees, often in large clusters. They can reach up to 50 pounds, which also explains their “king of mushrooms” nickname. In Eastern cultures they’re revered for their medicinal qualities — thought to improve fertility, kidney and liver function — and they’re quickly gaining popularity in Western cooking, too. Chefs prize them for their strong, funky taste.
Young portobellos (commonly known as crimini mushrooms) have a nutty flavor, but as they grow the flavor mellows, making them perfect for entrees — and if ever a mushroom could be described as meaty, it’s this one. Low-calorie portobellos are high in potassium and excellent swaps for ground-beef burgers. They’re especially delicious when grilled; see the terrific recipe. Portobellos’ healthy doses of potassium and niacin hold even more good news for the body.
In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.