An Introduction to Gourmet Mushrooms
Gourmet mushrooms have made their way into cuisines across the globe. Their unorthodox shapes, textures, and tastes make them great to add to dishes and give food that extra kick. Many gourmet mushrooms are grown on small scales, but some can only be harvested from the wild. In this article, we’ll give you a quick introduction to gourmet mushrooms – what they are, where to find them, and even some ideas to experiment within the kitchen!
What Is a Gourmet Mushroom?
All mushrooms are members of the fungus kingdom. Typically, the mushrooms we eat are the fruiting bodies of a fungus, the part of the organism that produces spores it needs for reproduction. The rest of the fungus is usually underground or coursing through decaying organic matter in strands called mycelium. But enough about the biology of fungi, we’re here to talk about the delicious varieties of edible mushrooms.
You may be familiar with the common white mushroom, also called the crimini mushroom, the most common edible mushroom worldwide. These are the ones you can find in small styrofoam boxes in the supermarket. Many people have only ever eaten white mushrooms because they are unfamiliar with, or don’t have access to the gourmet mushrooms out there. There are several popular kinds of gourmet mushrooms, with different levels of rarity. Some are extremely hard to come by compared to others and are therefore quite expensive. Here’s a list of some of the most popular gourmet mushrooms, and what you can do with them!
Oyster and Shiitake Mushrooms
Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are very similar in terms of cultivation but quite different in terms of taste. They are also probably the most common types of gourmet mushrooms on the market. Both oyster and shiitake mushrooms grow naturally on decaying wood in the forest, but both can easily be grown in controlled settings. Small to large scale farmers grow them indoors in bags, where the temperature and humidity can be easily controlled for maximum yield. You can even cultivate them in a garage or a spare room of a house because they are so easy to grow. Local restaurants are often on the lookout for these mushrooms, making small scale production quite lucrative. Even a hobbyist mushroom grower can make some extra money by selling their crop to local restaurants or grocery stores. There are many growing kits on the market making it easy to start your own homegrown oyster or shiitake mushrooms.
In terms of taste, oyster and shiitake mushrooms are quite different. Oyster mushrooms get their name from the taste being reminiscent of shellfish, albeit more peppery and earthy. Their hardy texture makes them great for stews and other dishes that require long cooking times. Shiitake mushrooms are famous for their tough, dark caps and meaty flavor. The stems are too tough to eat, but the caps are so tasty they can be eaten on their own or as a main ingredient in stir-fries or oven-roasted dishes.
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Many other types of gourmet mushrooms are cultivated, like clamshell, maitake, and blewit mushrooms. Each one has its own taste and uniqueness. Most other gourmet mushrooms are more often collected from the wild, as cultivating them is difficult or impossible.
Wild Gourmet Mushrooms
Many gourmet mushrooms are found in the wild, and mushroom hunting is a popular hobby. Many people seek out wild mushrooms to eat themselves, but some people harvest enough to sell to stores or restaurants in small quantities. Whatever the case, tons of different types of mushrooms are harvested from the wild. Here are just a few.
NOTE: There are lookalikes of many gourmet mushrooms that are extremely poisonous. If you go mushroom hunting yourself, you should be a trained expert. Better yet, go with a mushroom hunting expert!
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Morel mushrooms, also just called morels, are one of the most popular gourmet mushrooms out there. They are difficult to cultivate, so collecting them from the wild is the more popular method of retrieval for gourmet mushroom lovers. Morels emerge from the forest floor in spring, so they are only available seasonally, making them that much more coveted. They also have a short shelf life, so storing them is not an option without pickling or drying them. Morels are famous for their nutty, earthy, and smoky flavor. They are so flavorful, that gently frying them in butter is enough to make an excellent side dish. Along with their decadent taste, their unique shape and texture add an extra layer of complexity to any dish.
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Chanterelles are another very popular type of gourmet mushroom and are only found in the wild. Their golden color makes them really stand out against the dead leaves on the forest floor. They emerge from the ground during mid-summer through the fall, making them just as seasonal as morels are. But, unlike morels, people have figured out ways to preserve chanterelles, and you can buy them dried or canned. Their taste is very fruity and nutty, so, along with their brilliant color, they make an excellent addition to many dishes. Just make sure you don’t cook them for too long, or else they will become tough and chewy.
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Truffles are perhaps the kings and queens of all gourmet mushrooms. They are a pain to grow, difficult to find, and lose their rich aroma in less than a week. Still, they are an extremely coveted luxury ingredient that will elevate any type of dish you put them in. Like other mushrooms, truffles are the fruiting body of a fungus. These are entirely subterranean – that is, they only grow underground. As if finding them wasn’t hard enough, humans and our poor sense of smell make it impossible to locate the buried mushrooms ourselves. So, people use pigs and dogs to locate truffles. Once the animal starts digging, the human knows where to look and carefully excavates the gourmet mushroom from the ground.
Truffles are traditionally used in Italian and French cuisine, although people now incorporate these mushrooms into dishes around the world. The mushroom itself is incredibly rich and overpowering, so rarely do people use the entire mushroom. Instead, they are cut into very thin slices or grated onto food. For better storage and preservation, truffles are also made into oil or butter. Because they are so hard to find, their intense and decadent flavor, and their very short shelf life, truffles are one of the most expensive food ingredients in the world! In fact, white truffles can sell for $168 an ounce, or thousands of dollars per pound! Now that’s gourmet.