While considered fresh produce, mushrooms are neither fruit nor vegetable, but fungus. Mushrooms are extremely versatile and can serve as a tasty food source as well as a useful fertilizer for trees and soil.
Unlike most other produce, mushroom growth is actually hampered by sunlight. Instead, mushrooms feed on decaying organic matter and thrive in the dark.
Cultivated for centuries in China, there are more than 38,000 varieties of mushrooms (some highly toxic), with only about 300 edible species.
Before the advent of commercial agriculture, mushrooms were typically gathered in the wild and some varieties are still harvested this way.
Good quality, edible mushrooms can be difficult to grow; the cultivation process is not only labor intensive but highly sensitive to changes in the composting material.
Mushrooms are a staple in many international cuisines, particularly Asian dishes, which have been responsible for the worldwide popularity of shiitake mushrooms in particular.
The edible portion of a mushroom is the toadstool, which includes the stem and the cap. The wheel spoke-like underside of the cap contains the gills, which hold spores for reproduction.
Types & Varieties
Popular edible mushroom varieties include button, portabella, oyster, enoki, shiitake, crimini, lobster, porcini, and morels. Button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are the most commonly grown in the United States. These are usually classified according to color: whites, creams, and browns.
Less than 15 mushroom types (including include button, shiitake, enoki, porcini, straw, oyster, common oyster, golden top oyster, phoenix tail, bear head, wood ear, hair wood ear, silver ear, and ling zhi) can be grown domestically due to the difficulty of cultivation. Pennsylvania leads the nation, producing two-thirds of U.S. production.
Morels, oysters, and chanterelles are often gathered in the wild, especially in the northeast and Pacific Northwest of the United States. Matsuke, white truffles, and black truffles are exclusively gathered from the wild as they need to interact with animals and trees in their natural environment to thrive.