Last Chance Foods: The Weird World of Mushrooms

Call them creepy, poisonous, delicious, or beautiful — what is certain about mushrooms is that they are essential to a functioning planet. Fungi comprise approximately 25 percent of the world’s biomass, yet they exist in a strange category that is neither plant nor animal, explains Eugenia Bone, the author of the new book, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms.

A food writer and co-president of the New York Mycological Society, Bone notes that fungi are integrated into almost every aspect of life on the planet. From a culinary perspective, edible mushrooms provide an enormous range of flavors and deliver an umami-packed punch.

Mushrooms also are prized — and lucrative — finds for foragers. By some estimates, wild mushroom harvesting represents the largest legal cash crop in the country. This year’s wet weather, in particular, has brought a bounty of mushrooms such as black trumpets.

“We’re moving toward the end of the season, but it’s been unbelievable,” says Bone, whose book is out this week from Rodale. “I guess, the silver lining of hurricane Irene was all of these mushrooms.”

While wild varieties like oyster mushrooms and hen-of-the-woods claim a prized spot on menus at high-end restaurants, white button mushrooms also have their place in the kitchen.

“I think those white mushrooms can taste pretty good actually,” Bone says. “The white button mushroom and the cremini, little brown one, and the portobello are all the same species. It’s all the same mushroom. They’re just selected for color, and a porcini is just a grown-up cremini.”

One advantage of store-bought mushrooms is that they don’t really need to be washed. They’re grown in sterile soil, so Bone just cuts off any dirty parts. Mushrooms should only be rinsed right before use, and there’s no need to painstakingly wipe each one with a damp cloth. Don’t soak the mushrooms, but be sure to give wild mushrooms a thorough rinse.

Most importantly: Cook all mushrooms.

The main reason for that piece of advice is because mushrooms aren’t very digestible in raw form. “Mushroom cell walls are made of chitin, the same thing that shrimp shells are made from,” says Bone. “It’s one of the things that makes scientists say that mushrooms are closer to us on the evolutionary scale than they are to plants.”

In particular, wild mushrooms should also be cooked because microorganisms might be lurking the cracks and crevices. To put it simply — if indelicately — uncooked wild mushrooms have the potential for giving people worms.

White truffles, however, are an exception to the cooking rule. Bone explains that the chemicals that give truffles their rich, musky flavor are gases that dissipate within a few days and with heat. That is why it’s traditional in Italian cuisine to shave raw truffles over pasta.

When it comes to the much-touted truffle oil, Bone has some bad news: Almost all of it is synthetic. A chemical is synthesized to replicate the flavor of the fungi.

“A few droplets [of the chemical] are put into some olive oil, and it’s poured into a tall skinny beautiful bottle,” Bone says. “Then you pay a fortune for it, but it’s probably 40 cents worth of product in the bottle.”

Try Bone’s recipes for porcini salt and porcini butter. Both are good ways to use mushrooms throughout the year.