From the poisonous and obscure to the delectable and familiar, there are enough mushroom varieties out there to fill many a book. Of course, most of us can recognize at least a few varieties—your common button mushroom or the meaty, umbrella-like portobello, for instance. And if you know your way around chanterelles, shiitakes, porcini, and morels, you can personally attest to just how dramatically flavor can differ from one type to another. It's what makes mushrooms such exciting ingredients—and such intimidating ones.
To help eliminate the guesswork, we've broken down our favorite mushrooms and fellow fungi, from the ones you're most likely to find at your local grocery store to less common fungi that may take some extra legwork to track down.
Before we jump into specifics, let's go over a few FAQs.
Q: What should I look for when buying mushrooms?
The biggest indicator of mushroom quality and freshness is their moisture. Fresh mushrooms should feel relatively dry and firm to the touch. As mushrooms age, their internal structure starts to break down, giving them a blotchy appearance and wet or slimy texture. Look for mushrooms with no deep discolorations or wet spots. Dirt on mushrooms is to be expected and not an indicator of quality, though obviously the more dirt you find on a mushroom, the more cleaning it's going to require down the line.
Q: Should I wash mushrooms?
You may have heard that you should never, under any circumstances, submerge your mushrooms in water. The argument goes that the porous mushrooms will absorb excess moisture and become slimy when cooked. But we've put it to the test, and while we found that mushrooms will absorb a small amount of moisture—we're talking one or two percent by weight—it's not enough to actually effect your cooking. Got a dirty batch of mushrooms? Give them a rinse under cold running water and then spin them dry in a salad spinner.
For particularly dirty wild mushrooms, a damp paper towel or a small brush can be used to remove dirt and mud from cracks and crevices. You can read more about mushroom prep read more about mushroom prep here.
Q: How should I store mushrooms?
Mushrooms, with their high moisture content are ideal targets for mold and bacterial spoilage. The best way to ensure that they last as long as possible it to store them in the refrigerator with plenty of air circulation. A loosely folded paper bag or in a single layer in a plastic container with the lid kept cracked open should help your mushrooms stay fresh for a week or so.
If storing your mushrooms for a few days, we recommend waiting to wash them until just before cooking to discourage any excess moisture retention.
Q: What's the best way to cook mushrooms?
Obviously individual recipes will vary depending on your final goal, but for the majority of cooked applications, whether it's a mushroom pasta bake, a mushroom ragú, mushroom soup, or mushroom risotto, sautéeing is the first step. The key is to make sure that you cook them for long enough. Mushrooms have plenty of moisture that sogs up the pan during the early stages of cooking. Only once you cook off that liquid will the mushrooms brown and concentrate in flavor. The biggest mistake first-time mushroom cooks make is not cooking them long enough. Make sure to leave them in the pan and wait until you hear that sizzle and see that browning!
Q: Can dried mushrooms be substituted for fresh?
Most wild mushrooms have a short picking season that last for a few months or less, making dried mushrooms like porcini, morel, or chanterelle an attractive option for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, dried mushrooms cannot be used interchangeably with fresh mushrooms, though they are excellent when rehydrated and used in saucy or simmered dishes like soups and stews.
Q: What's the best way to cook with dried mushrooms?
We like to rehydrate our dried mushrooms in hot water or stock by placing them in a microwave-safe container, covering them with liquid, then microwaving them on high power until steaming hot. Once out of the microwave, we cover them with plastic wrap and let them rest until fully hydrated (this takes more or less 10 minutes depending on the type of mushroom). Don't have a microwave? Bring water or stock to a boil in a pot, remove from heat, add your dried mushrooms, and cover with a lid until they're hydrated (about 10-20 minutes). After draining and squeezing the mushrooms dry, you end up with rehydrated mushrooms ready for sautéing and a cup full of flavorful mushroom-enhanced water or stock that can be reincorporated into the dish.
Cultivated mushrooms are typically available year-round. Broadly speaking, cultivated mushrooms are saprobic, meaning that they get their nutrients from dead material such as rotting logs. Not all of these mushrooms are available in your average supermarket. They may require a trip to a farmer's market, Asian market, or high end grocery store. Alternatively, mushroom-growing kits can be purchased online—it makes a fun gardening project or gift for the mushroom fanatic in your life.
Button, Cremini, and Portobello
When most Americans head to the store to buy mushrooms, they're buying one of these three so-called "varieties." But what you may not know is that the button mushroom (also known as the white mushroom), cremini (also spelled "crimini" or called baby bella), and the portobello (sometimes spelled "portabella") are all the same species of mushroom—Agaricus bisporus. Any recipe that calls for mushrooms without greater specificity is likely expecting you to use Agaricus bisporus. They're a standard item cooked up with butter, battered and fried, added to risotto, turned into gravy, or used to flavor creamy soups.
- Button mushrooms are a special cultivar that grows mild, soft, and white. They're sold (and are best eaten) when immature and relatively small. Enjoy them sliced raw and served on top of a salad, sautéed for sauces, or roasted whole with olive oil and herbs until tender and browned.
- Cremini mushrooms, like button mushrooms, are an immature Agaricus bisporus. What sets them apart is their brown exterior, firmer texture, and slightly more pronounced flavor. They're solid enough to marinate and grill on a skewer or trim, stuff, and roast with delicious fillings like crab and fontina cheese. They're often combined with other varieties of mushrooms in hearty stews or pasta fillings, but they can also be used in all of the same preparations as a button mushroom—take this mushroom-cream pan sauce, for instance.
- Portobello mushrooms are adult cremini (hence the cremini's other name: baby bella). They're significantly larger and often sold with their stems removed, for an unfurled, flattened cap and a more pronounced earthy flavor. The caps are often used as a source of savory, meaty flavors and textures in vegetarian or vegan recipes, like mushroom bolognese or this marinated carpaccio.
The "official" oyster mushroom is called Pleurotus ostreatus, but many different Pleurotus species are consumed as oyster mushrooms, such as the king oyster (which makes a mean vegan 'bacon'). They come rounded, their shape more akin to clamshells than oyster shells, but grow in clusters like an oyster bed, stacked shelf-like on top of one another. They're most often white or tan, but can be found in the wild growing in shades of gray, blue, pink, and yellow.
The oyster mushrooms you find at farmer's markets or in the supermarket are almost certainly cultivated, rather than foraged. While they are a step up in cost from cremini or portobello mushrooms, oyster mushrooms are modestly priced compared to mushrooms that can only be found wild.
For a meatier flavor, these novel fungi can be used in many of the same recipes for which you would use cremini and portobello mushrooms—sautéed, grilled for a savory summer supper, battered and fried, or added to a creamy soup for a hearty winter comfort food. Just be aware that when cooked with added liquid, oyster mushrooms can get slimy, reminiscent of their bivalve namesake.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms are relatively small, gilled mushrooms native to East Asia, and have been cultivated for hundreds of years for both culinary and medicinal purposes. In the West, you're most likely to find them in their fresh form at the supermarket, where they can be used for everything from Asian stir-fries and soups to Western recipes like pizza toppings or pasta. Dried shiitake are highly prized in Asia for their intense aroma and are used primarily for soups and stews like congee, noodle soups, or braises.
The mushrooms are remarkably versatile, which is why you'll find them incorporated into cuisines around the world. Think rich, French-style soups, Italian-inflected pasta dishes, or even pickled in Eastern Europe. They pair well with everything from fish to steak.
The stems of shiitakes are woody and should be removed before cooking. If you make homemade stock, mushroom stems add a nice flavor. Undercooked or raw shiitake can cause a rash, so proceed with caution before trying them raw.
Maitake means "dancing mushroom" in Japanese, and its taxonomic name is Grifola frondosa. In Western cuisines, you may see it called hen of the woods (not to be confused with an entirely different orange and yellow edible mushroom called chicken of the woods), presumably because it looks like a ball of short gray feathers. In North America and Japan, maitake appear in the fall at the base of oak trees. Maitake is a polypore mushroom, which means that if you look on the underside, it will have tiny holes, rather than the gills common to other mushroom varieties. Like its fellow polypores, maitake must be eaten young, before they become too tough and woody. Batter up maitake for a tempting tempura, throw it on a pizza, or mix it with other sautéed mushrooms for a savory pasta sauce. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it, though, is cut into big chunks, seared or roasted with olive oil until the delicate ruffled edges crisp up and the core becomes meaty and tender.
In the wild, Flammulina velutipes is known as velvet foot or velvet shanks and appear in the colder months when most mushrooms do not dare, growing in reddish or orangish brown clusters on dead wood. But cultivated enoki (or enokitake) can be purchased fresh or canned, bundles of white pins that resemble bean sprouts, pale because they grow in near-darkness. They're extremely mild in flavor—faintly nutty and earthy—but add a crunchy texture to Japanese food, especially soups and stir-frys. Gently cooked in olive oil, they acquire a sort of al dente spaghetti-like quality, good to bolster pasta dishes. You can also deep-fry them with onions for crisp fritters, add them to Chinese hot pot, or toss them into a bowl of mushroom-packed udon.
Wood Ear Fungus
Until fairly recently, this mild, faintly bitter mushroom went by the name "Jew's ear" (although supposedly the name has to do with Judas Iscariot rather than Jewish people). But these days, preferable names for Auricularia auricula-judae are wood ear or jelly ear. The mushroom does look quite like an ear: curved, bendy and folded; the color is typically reddish brown to black. It's found worldwide, usually sold dried, and used both medicinally and as a culinary ingredient.
Wood ears, with their crunchy, almost cartilaginous texture, are popular in Chinese cooking for stir-frys or hot and sour soup. They also make a great addition to everything from pan-fried dumplings to clay pot rice.
Unlike many other dried mushrooms, the liquid leftover from wood ears during soaking is not particularly flavorful and can be discarded. Wood ears have a stiff nub where they connect to the tree that should be pulled off and discarded after soaking and before cooking.
Many mushrooms cannot be cultivated, or are cultivated in some circumstances but without widespread success. These mushrooms typically require symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees and other fungi, or they only grow under just-perfect situations. Their prices and availability depend on changing weather and dynamic conditions. Most mushrooms like it on the cool side of warm, but not so hot they dry out, and damp, but not so wet they rot. Hence the main mushroom seasons are early fall and late spring.
Here's my obligatory warning: Never eat a mushroom you find in the wild unless you are absolutely sure you know what it is. Doing so can result in severe illness.
Porcini is Italian for piglet, and also goes by names like cep in French, king bolete, or penny bun. Their round brown caps make fresh porcini look sort of like dinner rolls scattered about the woods, usually under conifers, birches, or oak. The primary porcini season is in the fall, but a type of king bolete is available in the spring around the same time as morels.
Young, fresh porcini are nutty and firm, and are lovely grilled or added to soups, gravies, and pastas. More common are the far more pungent dried porcini, which have a pronounced, almost cheesy, odor. Less is often more when it comes to cooking with the dried porcini—it's easy for their flavor to overwhelm other ingredients. They're typically rehydrated in water before cooking, which means you're left with additional liquid that makes a great addition to stocks, stews, and soups. Use the porcini themselves as a base for rich holiday gravies, mixed into delicate pastas, ground and incorporated into spiced rubs, or cooked into sticky-rich sauces for red meat.
Morel mushrooms are a marvelously earthy and nutty fungus all the more treasured (and highly priced) for their elusiveness—the petite spongy caps are quite difficult to find, since they often blend into their surroundings. While morels are found in many parts of North America, they are most plentiful in the Midwest. They grow in the spring, and are most often found after fires, or in wet riverbanks. You may even find them amidst the wood chips in your garden (though again, do not eat wild morels without consulting an expert!).
The hollow morel has a honeycombed appearance and, while certainly a fungus, is not considered a true mushroom. We've got more detailed tips for selecting, cleaning, and cooking morels, but the best advice I can give is to let their flavor shine—they're lovely simply sautéed, added to pan sauces, or served over bread with fellow spring vegetables in a bright-but-simple tartine.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus) are one of the most popular and well-known types of wild mushrooms. In the West, chanterelles appear in the fall, but on the East Coast, some strains grow in the spring and summer. These vase-shaped fungi are sweet-smelling, fruity, nutty, and a little peppery. Their color depends on the species, and range from white or yellow to pink, or even reddish.
Chanterelles have wrinkled gills under their cap and a fibrous, but not tough, texture—they'll peel down the stalk like string-cheese. The density of the chanterelle makes it reliable to store for over a week and resistant to bugs. They're best served in dishes with relatively mild ingredients that let their complexity come through—think wild mushroom soup, pasta, or chicken.
Winter chanterelles (Cantharellus tubaeformis) are also called yellow-foot. Although they are true chanterelles, with a similar flavor profile. winter chanterelles look different from regular chanterelles and have their own unique texture. While regular chanterelles grow in the duff of the forest floor, winter chanterelles are often found on rotting logs and can tolerate colder temperatures. They have long, hollow stems and a more pronounced cap, smaller than two inches in diameter. While a regular chanterelle is vase-shaped, the winter chanterelle looks more like a tiny umbrella. Because they have less mass than a regular chanterelle and a hollow stem, they have a chewier quality when cooked.
In France, winter chantarelles are often referred to as simply "chantarelles," while what we call plain chantarelles in English-speaking countries are called "girolles."
Quite popular with chefs, rare in grocery stores, but more likely available at a farmer's market, black trumpets are difficult to spot in low-lit forests. Black trumpets are a type of chanterelle, but unlike their chanterelle cousins which are most often eaten fresh, black trumpets are well-regarded for their robust flavor when dried. fruit in the fall across North America, Europe, Japan, and Korea, and are indeed funnel-shaped like a trumpet. Because of its shadowy look, black trumpets are also called the trumpet of death.
Hedgehog mushrooms are delightfully silly-looking. They are toothed-fungi, meaning that the underside of their cap is covered in delicate spines. They range from white to tan to pale yellow or pinkish in hue. Hedgehogs are late-season mushrooms and come in two varieties. The larger kind (Hydnum repandum) is about palm-sized. The smaller kind (Hydnum umbilicatum) has a cap around the size of a quarter with a dimple in the middle and is called the belly-button hedgehog. They have a similar texture to the chanterelle and can be cooked the same ways.
Most matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) harvested from the Western United States gets shipped to Japan, where demand for the prized mushroom is high. Matsutake means "pine mushroom" in Japanese. In Japan, they are most commonly served shaved paper thin on top of bowls of clear soup where their distinctive cinnamon-like aroma can be appreciated. Their sweet-and-spicy flavor can be controversial, but they're delightful steamed with a little butter flavored with soy sauce and sherry.
Written with additional reporting from Niki Achitoff-Gray and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt