As we learn more about mushrooms and the fungus kingdom, there are seemingly as many new questions created as answers found. At first glance, mushrooms and other fungi are incorrectly identified as simple vegetation, but it has recently been discovered that these fascinating species are more closely related to animals than plants. Somewhere around 1.1 billion years ago, fungi and animals branched away from plants, and only later separated from one another (taxonomically). This means that mushrooms and humans have more DNA in common than fungi do with the rest of the plant kingdom.
So what are fungi and why are they so important to our health and the health of the planet? There are over 140,000 known species of fungi ranging from edible to deadly and everything in between. This kingdom includes molds, mildews, rusts, smuts, yeasts, and mushrooms. Fungi are everywhere—in our water systems, in the air, under our feet, and inside our bodies. They have contributed to the development of life-saving medicines like the Penicillium mold that sparked revolutionary scientific advancements. The vast mycelial network growing beneath us connects plants through complex root systems that allow for important communication and nutrient transfers throughout ecosystems like forests. Fungi consume decomposing organic material, contributing to soil biodiversity, transforming nutrients into food for plants, and powering the carbon cycle. Research has even found that some fungi are capable of breaking down certain types of plastic and will be a crucial piece in combating our planet’s plastic pollution problems.
Humans have used mushrooms and other species of fungi culinarily and medicinally for thousands of years. Yeasts and fungi are essential to the creation of various cultured items like bread, cheeses, and fermented products such as beer and kimchi. Across cultures, other fungi are treated as delicacies—think truffles, morels, and chanterelles.
Six percent of known fungal species have medicinal benefits including antibacterial, antioxidant, disease prevention, and immune-boosting properties… not to mention that some are plain delicious.
Our digestive tracts are advanced ecosystems, hosting up to a thousand symbiotic microbes, including bacteria, protists, archaea, viruses, and fungi. Imbalances in these microbiotas can contribute to various health problems including metabolic diseases and digestive issues. Think of our gut as a second brain, helping to control many functions within our body. It is important to keep our gut buddies happy to keep ourselves healthy.
There are over ten thousand known types of mushrooms with only 1-2% of them safe to eat. This means that, from a foraging perspective, the likelihood of finding health-damaging fungi is pretty high, so make sure you are educated and prepared when mushroom hunting. That being said, the culinary adventures awaiting mushroom lovers are full of delicious possibilities. From pizza to shaved truffles, you will find these delicate, earthy delights in kitchens across the globe, each with its own unique flavors and textures. This is what makes mushrooms so beautiful—their incredible versatility.
Let’s talk about truffles. You can visit your local market and purchase a basket of oyster mushrooms for under $10, but a pound of truffles can sell for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars. The high cost of this fungal delicacy is mostly due to its difficult growing needs and short shelf life—the perfect combination for setting a lofty price. Truffle farmers often spend years cultivating the perfect growing conditions for their mushrooms and chefs around the globe delight our taste buds with the pungent, earthy flavors of different truffle varieties.
Here are some tips for cooking mushrooms at home:
1. Mushrooms grow in the dirt, so make sure to properly clean them before cooking. If they’re covered in dirt you can briefly soak or rinse them, but if they are mostly clean, use a damp cloth to wipe away the excess soil and inside any crevices.
2. Every mushroom has a different flavor and texture, so choose the variety based on the intended dish, or build your recipe around the mushrooms available. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of mushrooms and find your favorites.
3. Mushrooms are made up of mostly water, so when heat is applied they will release this moisture. When you are cooking mushrooms on the stove, add them to the pan without fat or broth. Once the excess liquid has evaporated, add your fat (oil or butter) and any seasonings, then cook until your desired texture is achieved.
*The information provided in this article is for educational purposes. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or health habits. Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous and should only be attempted with the proper education and knowledge.