An edible mushroom is the fruit that is produced by some fungi. Its “seeds” are microscopic pores that form on the underside of the mushroom’s cap. Some mushrooms break down decaying wood, plant and animal matter, releasing their nutrients and minerals into forest soil. Others grow within living trees in a symbiotic relationship, absorbing minerals and water for the tree, but leaching nutrients.
There are about 10,000 known mushroom varieties, only half of which grow in the United States. About 100 edible mushroom varieties exist, and they can be found on nearly every natural surface, from trees and logs to leaves, dung, compost, mulch, and soil.
Popular Edible Mushrooms
White or button mushrooms are actually called Agaricus. They’re the type of mushroom you’ll typically find in your grocery store and on basic salads. They come in all sizes and can be used both raw and cooked.
Oyster mushrooms can be white, tan or ivory, and are shaped like oyster shells. Their white gills run down a short, off-center stem. Oyster mushrooms grow in clusters of overlapping caps and are always found on wood. There are several mushrooms that are oyster mushroom look-alikes, but none of these is harmful. At worst, their taste is unpleasant or woody. Some people even detect a faint seafood taste.
Chanterelle mushrooms are funnel or trumpet-shaped, with wavy cap edges. They will typically be bright orange or yellow. However, make sure the chanterelles have a network of blunt-edged ridges down the stem. If they are knifelike gills, they could be poisonous jack-o’-lanterns. Chanterelles are best for salads and rich sauces or risotto.
Crimini mushrooms have an earthier flavor than button mushrooms; they feature a light-tan to dark-brown cap and can be used the same way as button mushrooms.
Shiitake mushrooms have a broad, umbrella-shaped cap that can be up to 10 inches in diameter. Their rich, full-bodied flavor is quite meaty when cooked. Many chefs recommend removing stems before cooking and using them to flavor soup stocks. Shiitake mushrooms have wide, open veils and tan gills.
Enoki mushrooms are beautiful fungi with long stems and tiny, snow-white caps. These tiny white mushrooms are joined at the base; together they resemble bean sprouts.
Portabella mushrooms are giant crimini mushrooms. Their long-growing cycle provides the mushrooms with a deep, meaty flavor and thick texture. They can be grilled whole or sliced, baked, stir-fried, and deep-fried. The fibrous stems are to be removed before cooking.
Porcini mushrooms look like the white-stemmed, red-capped toadstools of fairytale lore. Porcini mushrooms can weigh up to a pound each with caps up to 10 inches in diameter. They can also weigh just a few ounces.
Morels are close relatives of the truffle. Their tan- to dark-brown color is set off by a cone or sponge shape and smoky, nutty flavor. The darker the mushroom is the more pronounced the flavor will be. Since the morel has a dimpled cap, it should be cleaned well when fresh.
By Marissa Brassfield
Source: excerpted from “Gourmet Edible Mushrooms: A Guide to Edible Mushroom Identification,” originally published February 19, 2008 at