Mushrooms, often referred to as fungi, belong to the mold, yeast family, and inhabit a unique realm in the natural world. These enigmatic organisms live in symbiosis with other species and play a crucial role in the decay of organic matter. However, what sets them apart is their remarkable ability to thrive without chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to harness energy from sunlight. Instead, mushrooms derive their sustenance from various substances and other living organisms.
One striking characteristic of mushrooms is their high-water content, comprising 80-90% of their composition. They have a thin outer layer known as the cuticle, and cell walls are reinforced by chitin—a complex carbohydrate amine complex found in insects and crustaceans’ exoskeletons. This stiff fiber, chitin, forms an indigestible barrier for humans, yet it contains immune-stimulating compounds called beta-glucans, a specific type of polysaccharide. Mushrooms are higher in protein and vitamin B12 than other living plants.
Hot-water extraction remains the only proven method to break down the chitinous cell walls and extract these bioactive polysaccharides intact. The complexity of these polysaccharides makes synthetic reproduction challenging. Beta-glucan molecules stimulate macrophage activity, bolstering the body’s immune response.
Mushrooms exhibit diverse types of relationships with their surroundings. Some, like boletes and truffles, engage in symbiotic partnerships, while others, such as corn smut or huitlacoche, follow a parasitic lifestyle. Most edible mushrooms, however, thrive on the decaying remains of dead plants.
Cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus found in high-altitude regions of China, Tibet, and Nepal. It’s known as the “winter worm,” “summer grass,” and “caterpillar mushroom” in China. This rare and expensive fungus grows on the caterpillar larvae of moths, consuming the host.
The constituents of Cordyceps sinensis include D-mannitol, polysaccharides, amino acids (including essential ones), mycoses, ergosterol, sterols, palmitic acid, cordycepin, and micronutrients. The fruiting body (fungus) and the worm (caterpillar) are used together to harness its benefits.
Medicinal Properties of Mushrooms
Certain mushrooms hold medicinal value. Cordyceps sinensis, Maitake, Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), and Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) are notable examples. Cordyceps sinensis, in particular, has gained recognition for its adaptogenic properties, promoting overall health and aiding in fatigue management, lung and kidney health, athletic performance, and even supporting conventional cancer therapies.
Its diverse applications include antiaging, fatigue reduction, enhanced sexual function, kidney and liver protection, blood pressure regulation, and potential support in autoimmune diseases, cancer, asthma, and immune system enhancement. It also demonstrates protective effects against hepato- and nephrotoxic drugs, such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Depending on intended therapeutic effects, dosage recommendations typically range from 1 to 6 grams daily. Cordyceps sinensis has a remarkably safe profile with no known safety concerns.
Mushrooms for Culinary
Regarding culinary delights, mushrooms offer a wide array of distinctive flavors. They are known for their rich, meaty taste and contain a high content of free amino acids, including glutamic acid, a natural monosodium glutamate (MSG) source. Certain varieties, like the shiitake mushroom, are rich in guanosine monophosphate (GMP), enhancing their meaty flavor. Additionally, mushrooms produce octanol, which contributes to their savory profile. Brown and field mushrooms are more flavorful and are even known to help deter snails and insects.
Mushrooms offer a delectable array of flavors and textures, each with its unique culinary potential:
- Abalone is best enjoyed when cooked. It shines in dishes like stir-fries and hearty stews.
- Black trumpet is part of the chanterelle family; it boasts an aromatic, smoky, cheese-like flavor, making it a fantastic addition to rice dishes.
- Chanterelle with its golden hue and delicately fruity, apricot-like flavor, the chanterelle delivers a chewy, meaty texture. It thrives when sautéed or braised, enhancing pasta, sauces, and soups.
- Cremini are originally from Italy, these brown mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are rich in flavor and possess a meaty texture, thanks to their lower moisture content.
- Enoki are mild-flavored and white-creamy, originate from the enoki tree in Japan. They bring a crisp-tender freshness to salads and add a delightful twist to various dishes.
- Lobster are a fascinating fungus living on other mushrooms (Russula and Lactarius genera), making them palatable. They introduce vibrant colors and a meaty texture to your dishes.
- Morels are found in yellow, brown, and black varieties and collected in spring, morels provide a deep earthy and smoky flavor with a satisfyingly chewy texture. They work wonders in creamy pasta, rice, or alongside fish and poultry.
- Porcini are known as the king of boletes, porcini mushrooms are woodland treasures collected in late summer or fall. Light brown in color, they boast rich, meaty, nutty flavors, lacking gills but featuring a spongy layer.
- Portobello embark on a flavorful journey with these dark brown Italian mushrooms, ranging from 3 to 8 inches in diameter. They are best enjoyed marinated and grilled when their gills are fully exposed, offering a flavorful, meaty texture.
Storing mushrooms requires care. Keeping them in a paper bag in the fridge is best to extend their freshness. At room temperature, mushrooms can lose up to 5% of their energy reserves within four days. Refrigeration reduces their metabolic processes, but they should be used soon after purchase. While some recommend washing, simply wiping them down suffices. If washed, they should be cooked immediately.
In conclusion, mushrooms are a fascinating corner of the natural world, offering distinctive flavors and potent medicinal properties. Their bioactive polysaccharides, particularly beta-glucans, make them valuable for enhancing immune function and overall health. So, remember the remarkable world hidden within these fungi marvels next time you savor a delicious mushroom dish.
With the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Culinary Health and Healing program, which focuses on the developing field of culinary/health medicine, learn more about the role of culinary to promote healthy diets, celebrate global cuisine, and create multicultural-specific meal plans. Additionally, it combines the fields of nutrition and cooking, preparing students with the evidence-based principles and practices of choosing and preparing whole foods as a foundation for health and wellness.
Yance, D. (2013). Adaptogens in medical herbalism. Healing Arts Press https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27408987/
Hirsch, K. R., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Roelofs, E. J., Trexler, E. T., & Mock, M. G. (2017). Cordyceps militaris Improves Tolerance to High-Intensity Exercise After Acute and Chronic Supplementation. Journal of dietary supplements, 14(1), 42–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/19390211.2016.1203386 naturalmedicines-therapeuticresearch-com