Of the more than 10,000 known types of mushrooms, very few are edible and many are even deadly. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (propagated by spores) of vast underground mycelial networks, and are neither animal, vegetable nor mineral. They were cultivated by the early Greeks and Romans and have been used culinarily and medicinally worldwide for thousands of years.

mushrooms in handUntil quite recently, mushrooms were thought to have little or no nutritional value. But mushrooms contain amino acids called glutamates and research strongly indicates the presence of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and possibly, anticancer properties. Furthermore, these same glutamates embody the oft enigmatic fifth basic taste: umami (alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter). In other words, mushrooms are delicious. Like icing on the cake, mushrooms are low in fat and calories.

Environmentally, without fungi, the rapid accumulation of biological waste would choke us right off the planet. Pick up a copy of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake for a most entertaining and informative read. Written with wit and authority, it’s all you’ve ever wanted to know about fungi and then some.

Cultivated common white ‘button’ mushrooms are the easiest to find and their flavour is mild yet bestows a pleasant earthy counterpoint to countless preparations from soups, sauces, stews and risottos to savoury vehicles for a vast variety of fillings. Mix them with more exotic (and expensive) varieties for a bigger bang for your buck.

Closely related, and considered a little more flavourful, are cremini. These small brown mushrooms are in fact baby portobellos. When fully mature and opened like an umbrella at 7-10 cm (3-4 inches), they can be marinated and grilled, providing a tasty alternative to meat. As a matter of fact, because of their pronounced umami flavour, mushrooms generally, stand in wonderfully for meat in countless recipes. When buying button mushrooms, both white and brown, look for specimens that are firm and unwrinkled, with caps that are closed at the stem (no gills showing).

Oyster mushrooms have been successfully domesticated and are now quite easy to find. They grow, fan-shaped, in taupe-shaded clusters. Slightly more assertive, they have an agreeable mushroom flavour, nonetheless. The edges tatter easily; look for firm specimens without any bruising or sliminess. Most oyster mushroommushrooms are quite fragile and should be handled gently. It’s become ubiquitous to sell mushrooms in plastic punnets covered with cling film. Best to avoid those when you can. Moisture prior to cooking is a mushroom’s nemesis. Store them in something porous (use the little brown paper bags provided).

The shiitake mushroom, originally from Korea and Japan, has a deeper, more pronounced flavour. It’s being cultivated extensively in the Pacific Northwest. A sturdy darker brown mushroom with a curled edge and classic shape, it shines in Asian-influenced recipes, holding its own against soy and sesame sauces. The stems are tough, but don’t throw them out. They’re full of that prized umami flavour and a welcome addition to your freezer collection of stock ingredients. That can be said for any mushroom stems or those past their prime.

To keep for future use, mushrooms dry better than they freeze, particularly Boletus edulis, known commonly as porcini. A jar of dried mushrooms is a boon to any pantry. Reconstituted in hot water, wine, or brandy, they can be chopped fine and added to other mushrooms or almost anything savoury. Don’t forget to utilize the strained liquid as well.

Mushrooms, if they’re particularly dirty and you’re short of time, can be gently washed, contrary to a common dictum. Be quick and only rinse right before using. Usually all they require is a delicate brushing. They do need to be dry before sauteing, however. Mushrooms are 80-90 per cent water to start with and don’t need the extra moisture, especially if you want them browned and crisp.

Editors note: In the last edition of Fresh Market, we neglected to include 300ml (1-¼ cups) sugar granulated sugar in addition to the icing sugar in the lemon crinkle recipe. We apologize for any inconvenience (our sour cookies) this may have caused.