Mushrooms: Edible, Medical, & MagicalLast Updated: October 24, 2020
When you think of the word 'mushroom', most likely you see an image of a stout little white stalk with a white or brown cap, or perhaps even red. These are button mushrooms (probably, but more on that later), one of the most widely available and popular varieties of edible fungus. Maybe you even know a few edible varieties, and even some health benefits. Some cultures even based sacred rites around their so-called 'magical' properties, though those are a slightly different 'shroom'.
Edible (Culinary) Mushrooms
Fungi have been growing for as long as humans have, but for most of our recorded history, humanity utilized mushrooms as medicinal tools. They didn't become the culinary revelation that they are now until around the 1900s.
The Portobello mushroom is by far the most widely-used mushroom staple, in one of its various forms. The Agaricus bisporus, also known as button mushrooms, baby mushrooms, or white mushrooms, are in fact the young form of the adult Portobello. In middle-age, these mushrooms can also be termed cremini mushrooms. No matter the nickname, the Agaricus bisporus is a mild, meaty mushroom that has a mild overall flavor. It's used in spaghetti sauces the world around, sliced on top of pizzas, and might be the key ingredient in your favorite vegetarian staples.
But Portobellos are far from the only culinary contribution of fungi.
Far from the everyday are the more exotic spores like the Yartsa Gunbu, which grow only from the recently deceased remains of one specific breed of caterpillar, and can cost upwards of $2000 for an ounce. Outlandish as that might seem for a fungus, it is far from the most expensive.
That would be the rare European white truffle, clocking in at over double that. These culinary oddities are most often seen shaved atop the finest of fine dining dishes as a final touch to provide an incomparable earthy aroma and meaty taste. Among truffles are dozens of varieties, many of which are not only delicious, but in short supply.
The expense, however, does not necessarily equate to health benefits. Instead, many cultures see these rare fungi- and the ability to afford the delicacy of consuming them- as a symbol of status. However, the simple button mushroom in your local grocery store is not to be ignored. It will help your wallet and your immune system far more than its indulgent, extravagant cousins.
Honorable mentions for kitchen-friendly fungi include sweet-tasting Oyster mushrooms, bright and peppery Chanterelles, nutty Porcinis, rich and smokey Black Trumpets, earthy Morels, and the meaty, ever-popular Shiitakes. Each comes with their own variety of growing, cleaning, and cooking methods as well as unique flavors and health benefits, and with so much variety, there's room for a little shroom in every budget.
Several varieties of fungi are praised and prized for their savory flavors and health benefits. One of the most common among them being several immune-boosting properties that many shrooms share. However, there are others which can improve health in different ways, such as lowering blood pressure, decreasing bad cholesterol, and potentially even treating or preventing certain types of cancer.
One of the most widely known mushrooms which is considered both culinary and medicinal is the Shiitake. It is prominent in Asian cuisine, but has made its way into the plates, palates, and hearts around the world. They are appreciated for their taste and texture, but in addition, these fun fungi contain specific terpenoids which have been shown to display anticancer properties.
However, this doesn't mean you should start ordering your pizzas with an extra heap of buttery shrooms.
Most of the medical properties of mushrooms are directly related to the very specific conditions of the growing environment. Each variety of fungi typically requires extremely precise conditions to successfully grow, and recreating those in mass settings is far from simple. Commercially produced food-grade mushrooms- like the shiitake and button packaged in your grocery store- often don't deliver the most potent medicinal effects unless consumed almost every day.
Maitake is another popular variety for immune support, and is especially helpful for helping those with diabetes to lower blood sugar levels. Once they grow to a certain size thought, the outer skin becomes tough and chewy, and not at all pleasant to eat. It can also be ground into a powder and dissolved into a tea-like beverage, or taken in supplement form.
Perhaps the crowd favorite when it comes to medicinal mushrooms, however, is the Lingzhi mushroom, also known as Reishi. These mushrooms boast inspiring claims such as fighting types of cancer and maybe even HIV, though they are still undergoing clinical trials. Reishi are cork-like in texture and nearly impossible to eat, though they can be commercially cultivated.
Another very effective method of ingesting the immune-boosting effects of mushrooms without having to incorporate them into every meal is adding a mushroom supplement to your regular daily diet. It is often far simpler to obtain a supplement and take one each day than it is to learn to shop for or cultivate mushrooms, then clean, prep, and cook them every day.
It is vitally important that- if you do decide to forage and cultivate your own mushrooms- that you either are or bring along a mushroom expert to identify before you harvest. There are countless varieties of poisonous, wild fungi which can appear almost identical to normal, safe mushrooms. A local mushroom expert will be familiar with the details of your area, and be able to tell you if your bounty will be tasty or trippy.
For example, pictured above is the Psilocybe Azurescens mushroom, which looks quite a bit like a common button mushroom. However, this variety contains a compound called psilocybin, an infamous psychedelic which causes hallucinogenic effects if ingested. Not a recommended pizza topping, especially unexpectedly
In the 1960s, several clinical studies began trials of psilocybin for treating a wide variety of mental disorders such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, among several others. Before conclusive evidence could be found, psilocybin was ruled as a Schedule One Narcotic, alongside Opiates, Heroin, and Cocaine.
Studies were halted for decades, until the turn of the millennium brought about law changes which allowed some scientists to begin a scant few tests, very quietly. While modern science is still inconclusive about this particular genus of mushroom and how effective or destructive it could potentially be, species of psilocybin-containing fungi have been utilized in ancient rites and traditions as far back as 6000 years ago.
Consider a Supplement
Mushrooms, in their many edible varitals, are a delicious and nutritious addition to your weekly menu. But even Popeye didn't eat spinach EVERY day. The best way to get the most potent forms of the essential vitamins and benefits inside a wide selection of mushrooms is to take a daily mushroom supplement. An ideal supplement would include several of the beneficial fungi we talked about above, such as Shiitake, Maitake, Reishi, or other additional ones such as Chaga or Turkey Tail. Learn more.