Mushrooms—what are they and how do you eat them? If I had to guess, most Americans would say that they encountered mushrooms either as a topping on pizza or as an ingredient in Chinese food. For me, growing up in the 1980s in the Midwest, mushrooms were not on my culinary radar. If I had a slice of pizza with mushrooms on top, I likely picked them off. I didn’t like their texture and was suspicious of their flavor. Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and you’ll find me eating mushrooms several times a week. Mushrooms are everywhere, they’re not just found in ethnic cuisines, but in salads, soups, as a substitute for meat and even in lattes!

In scientific terms, mushrooms are not a type of vegetable, nor are they plants. Mushrooms belong to the kingdom of fungus, which are living organisms that also include molds and yeasts. Sounds a little gross, right? Aren’t those the things that we are supposed to avoid ingesting? There are more than 38,000 species of mushrooms all over the world, and about 2,000 of them are edible.

Most people have seen and probably tried the most common types of edible mushrooms: white or button mushrooms, cremini or baby bella, portobello and shiitake are varieties that are cultivated and widely available in our grocery stores. Then there are the more exotic varieties, which are foraged by the mushroom-obsessed and often found at farmers markets and gourmet shops: porcini, chanterelle, morel, maitake, oyster and lion’s mane, to name a few.

Mushrooms have both culinary applications and medicinal uses. It is important to use the correct fungi for the intended purpose. From a culinary perspective, mushrooms add amazing texture and depth of flavor to many recipes. The sixth category of taste in foods is umami, which corresponds to the flavor added by the presence of glutamates. Mushrooms are naturally rich in glutamates, giving a characteristically savory and hard-to-describe flavor. Perhaps you have seen a portobello mushroom “steak” on a restaurant menu. Some people find the “meatiness” of these large, dense mushrooms to be comparable to actual meat.

Beyond taste, mushrooms have tremendous nutritional value; although composed mostly of water, they provide protein, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates, fiber, trace minerals and various antioxidants. While it is common to only consume the mushroom cap, all parts of the mushroom can be used, and there is plenty of flavor and nutrition found in the often-discarded stems of the mushroom. The recipes I share here make great use of mushrooms in their entirety, leaving no part wasted.

Ancient and traditional societies have used mushrooms medicinally for millennia. Only more recently has the medicinal use of mushrooms become trendy in Western societies. There are various types of non-culinary fungi, many of which are used like medicinal herbs; they are skillfully harvested and turned into potent healing substances. Of all the medicinal mushrooms available in the health-food stores or online, the most commonly used is the reishi. This adaptogenic mushroom has been used for centuries in China and Russia, where it is thought to support the body’s immune response and build defenses against non-specific stressors.

Medicinal mushrooms are also used to promote skin health and beauty; healthy blood sugar and weight; detox and liver support; digestive/GI health; endurance, performance, recovery and energy; heart health and good cholesterol; and memory and cognition. Use of medicinal mushrooms should always be monitored by a skilled practitioner, as there can be contraindications to their use along with prescription drugs. However, if used appropriately, they can easily be incorporated into many delicious recipes.

However you choose to incorporate mushrooms into your daily routine, always buy them from a trusted source. Cultivated mushrooms in the grocery stores are considered the safest option for fresh mushrooms, but a variety of lesser-known types are often available at farmers markets. Talk to foragers and learn from people who are passionate about the fungi kingdom. Expand your culinary repertoire by incorporating more mushrooms into your menus, starting with some of my favorite mushroom-centric recipes.

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash