By Lauren Banks, R.D.
Did you know that mushrooms are not a vegetable but are actually considered a fungus? Even if the idea of eating a fungus may not sound very healthy, mushrooms are a low calorie food item and a great source of a number of helpful vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamins B and D, and more.
Mushrooms are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle, and one of the few non-fortified food sources of vitamin D, meaning that the vitamin occurs naturally in the food rather than being artificially added later. Vitamin D helps us build and maintain strong bones by facilitating the body’s absorption of calcium. Potassium helps control blood pressure by maintaining normal fluid and mineral balance, and it also supports healthy nerve and muscle function, especially in the heart. B vitamins provide energy to the body by breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The riboflavin in mushrooms helps us produce hormones and plays an important role in the nervous system. Mushrooms are also a great source of pantothenic acid—which promotes healthy skin and digestive and nervous system function—as well as niacin, copper, and selenium, all of which support the creation and maintenance of healthy red blood cells.
Ever wondered when mushrooms began to be eaten? While Hippocrates noted their medicinal value in 400 B.C., the first mention of mushroom cultivation—as opposed to harvesting them from their chance appearance in the field—was in l652. However, those first mushrooms were described as excellent for “making into compresses for ripening boils” but not mentioned as good to eat. The first record of year-round commercial production was in l780, when a French gardener began to cultivate mushrooms in underground quarries near Paris. After the Civil War, gardeners introduced mushroom cultivation to North America by growing them in dark areas underneath greenhouse benches. Today, there are many of different varieties of edible mushrooms available, but there are a few that you are likely to find in your grocery store:
- In the United States, the most common mushroom is the button, which is also known as the white mushroom. The flavor is mild, and this works well as an all-purpose mushroom that can be used raw or cooked. Cremini, or baby bellas, are the same species, but are brown. The name “baby bellas” comes from the fact that button mushrooms are actually just young portabellas.
- Portabellas are larger and have a meatier texture. They can be a good meat substitute.
- Porcini are similar to portabellas, but have a nuttier, earthier taste and are commonly used in Italian dishes.
- Shiitake mushrooms, used mostly in Asian cuisine, are great for stir fries and soups.
- Morels, commonly used in gourmet cuisine and French cooking, are usually sautéed in butter and also go well in pasta dishes.
- Oyster mushrooms, originally cultivated in Germany, grow in clusters and are great sauteed.
Mushrooms are very versatile when it comes to cooking them. They can be steamed in the microwave, roasted in the oven, cooked on the grill, or sautéed on the stovetop. Cooked mushrooms can even be frozen for later use, but it is not recommended to freeze uncooked mushrooms. Here are some tasty ways to enjoy mushrooms:
- Swap out your burger patty for a grilled portabella on bun with your favorite condiments.
- Try baking thinly sliced mushrooms to create “chips” to dip in a warm pesto sauce.
- Sauté mushrooms and mix them into about anything, such as pasta dishes, baked dishes, or salsa.
- Substitute mushrooms for ground beef in a burrito or taco salad.
- Stuff button mushroom caps with cheese and spices and roast in the oven.