Fungus - including Mold and Yeasts
An individual fungus may weigh more than a blue whale but it's all hidden in the ground - but 400 million years ago Prototaxites, now known to be fungus, towered over all other land life on Earth at nearly 30 feet tall.
Many fungi are highly medicinal with antiviral and antitumor
properties. Some are noted below, but this is a culinary page, so only
commonly eaten mushrooms (and a few to avoid) are covered here.
How could fungus evolve into animals? That seems totally far fetched - yet we have a current example of how it could happen. Slime molds are no longer lumped in with fungus, they're closer to plants, but are similarly structured. Ordinarily they are independent single cell entities, but when times are tough and it's time to move on, they assemble into a multi-cell creeping critter, an "animal" if you will, and head off to seek their fortune. Some cells modify themselves to fill particular roles, as we would expect from a proto-animal. Slime mold photo by Dr. Jonathan Gott contributed to the public domain.
Takes some of the pressure off to realize you're just a really advanced fungus, now doesn't it? We have not found a transition form between fungus and animals, and it may be extinct, but we have stumbled on several other "extinct" transition forms, so it's possible we eventually will find one.
Unlike plants, but like animals, funguses do not generate their own energy but subsist entirely by breaking down and absorbing dead or living plant or animal material (which in some rare cases are other funguses).
The funguses (fungi) we know as "mushrooms" consist almost entirely of fibers which live in the ground or in decaying vegetation and some are among the largest, heaviest living things on earth - but all unseen to us. When times are good they send up fruiting bodies which are the "mushrooms" we pick for food or "medicinal purposes".
Many mushrooms are highly toxic, and some toxic varieties look very much like edible ones, so wild mushrooms need to be carefully identified before consumption. A few varieties which are themselves non-toxic cause alcohol to become highly toxic.Varieties
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but includes those I've found available for purchase at reasonable prices. Not included are most of the edible varieties only found wild, though I have included links to sites that do list those.
Not long ago it was difficult to find any but supermarket white mushrooms, but with a proliferation of ethnic markets in the US, variety is growing steadily and prices are declining. Because of its large Asian population, many mushroom growing operations have been set up in California. Currently (2010) there is a large operation being set up as a joint venture with Japan. and this should improve the situation even more as it ramps up.
[Amanita muscaria and many other Amanita spp.]
This large family of mushrooms includes many highly toxic varieties that should not be consumed on penalty of death (self enforcing). Milder varieties are sometimes taken in sub-lethal doses for psychoactive purposes beyond the scope of this document. Some Amanitas are used in cooking but rarely in the US.
With proper preparation (boiling in plenty
of salted water which is discarded) the dread Amanita muscaria (photo) has
been reported edible, but other toxic mushrooms are not disarmed by cooking.
Death from mushroom poisoning is generally from liver failure, takes several
days and is not pleasant.
Photo © bs0006.
Beech Mushroom - see Hon-Shimeji.
Bai-Ling - [Bailing
Mushroom, Abalone Mushroom, Pleurotus eryngii var. ferulae was
Pleurotus ferulae var. Lanze]
If any mushroom deserves the name "abalone mushroom" this is the one. About the size of a very large abalone (the kind you can't get any more), sliced it looks like abalone steaks and when cooked it even tastes a bit like abalone.
Very meaty and almost chewy this is a really fine
mushroom. It is also very durable, able to last more than two weeks loosely
bagged in the fridge. The photo specimen on the left was 4-1/2 inches across
and weighed 5-1/2 ounces, about average. Originally from Outer Mongolia
it is now commercially cultivated in China and can be found in Asian
groceries in Los Angeles (from $3.99/# to double that).
Black Fungus -
[Wood Ear, Cloud Ear; Kikurage (Japan); Mu-ehr (China);
Auricularia polytricha, also A. auricula-judae,
Hirneola auricula-judae and others (variation in color)]
This thin nearly black fungus is sold dried and will expand to about 4 times the dried volume when soaked. It is often used in soups and stir fries in China and Korea for its slippery but crunchy texture. It has little flavor of its own but does absorb flavors from other ingredients it's cooked with. In the photo there are three dried ones on the left, each a little over and inch across, and on the right a rehydrated one that was originally the same size as one of the others.
It is held in Chinese medicine to improve blood circulation and relieve
atherosclerosis. Preliminary tests in Western medicine are encouraging and
include confirmation of anticoagulant properties.
Black Trumpet -
[Black Chanterelle, Horn of Plenty, Trumpet of Death; Trumpets de Mort
(French); Craterellus cornucopioides]
These mushrooms belong to a genus closely related to Chanterelles (Cantharellus). They tend to look pretty ugly, often tattered, but the flavor and aroma are excellent, and they stay reasonably firm when cooked. They are usually found wild in leaf debris of temperate deciduous forests in North America, Europe and southern Australia, particular around oaks.
Black Trumpets are particularly popular in France, where they are quite
common. They dry well, and dry ones are sometimes powdered as a flavoring.
Some use black trumpets (fresh or dry) to flavor dry white wine, slipping a
few into a freshly opened bottle and refrigerating overnight. The largest of
the photo specimens was 7 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, weighing 3/4
Blewit - [Blue Foot
(when cultivated), Lepista nuda]
Wild and cultivated mushrooms with blue tinted stalks and light beige caps.
These mushrooms should be cooked to bring out their unique flavor and because
some people are sensitive to blewit toxins when eaten raw. Their flavor is
robust enough to complement casseroles, risottos and other substantial dishes
- if you can afford them. The cultivated photo specimens, purchased at Whole
Foods Market for $40/pound, were typically 2 inches across the cap and weighed
1/2 ounce each.
Boulet - See Porcini.
Cep - see Porcini.
Chanterelle - [Girolle
(Italy), Pfifferling (Germany), Cantharellus cibarius,
C. craterellus and other spp.]
This funnel shaped mushroom is very highly regarded among food
enthusiasts in Europe and the U.S.. They are only found wild since all
attempts to cultivate them commercially have failed, so they are seasonal
and expensive. Always served cooked to bring out their woodsy flavor, they
are sturdy and can stand up to being stirred and sautéed.
Cloud Ear Fungus - see Black Fungus
Crab Mushroom -
[Hypsyzygus tessulatus alt H. marmoreus]
This appears to be a cultivar of the Shimeji group, very
similar to the white Hon-Shimeji except for the very long relatively thick
stand up quite well to light cooking, as in soups. The flavor
mellows a little but stays about the same. This cluster was 7 inches long
and weighed 4-1/2 ounces. The largest caps were about 7/8 inch across,
though I have seen bigger ones.
Crimini - [Italian Brown,
Similar to the White Mushroom (note the same species
name) but darker in color and with a deeper, earthier flavor. These are
called for in many Italian recipes. They will keep up to 7 days refrigerated
in a paper bag.
Earthstar - [Black
Mushroom; Astraeus hygrometricus]
Varieties of this mushroom grow wild in northern California, but these are canned ones from Thailand. The can was labeled with three names, "Black Mushroom", "Earthstar" and Astraeus hygrome trieus. These mushrooms are the shape of a slightly flattened leathery sphere which encloses a puffball. When the fungus is ripe, and the weather is damp, the sphere breaks into a star shape exposing the puffball. If the weather dries the star closes. These were picked well before maturity. Be aware that safety of wild varieties is not proven. See links (F6 and F7
The spherical enclosure is somewhat crunchy and a bit leathery in texture.
Simmering for half an hour softens it only a little, but the mushroom develops
an interesting meaty flavor - more meaty than any other mushroom on this page.
The larger photo specimens are about 1 inch diameter while the smallest
in the can was 1/2 inch. They averaged a little under 1/4 ounce each.
This distinctive mushroom grows in clusters of long thin stems each
topped with a very small round cap. A favorite of Japanese cuisine, they have
a mild flavor and a slight crunch and are generally used raw. If you attempt
to cook them, they become limp and stringy and the flavor does not improve.
left attached to their growing matrix and loosely wrapped they will keep up
to 14 days in the refrigerator.
Enoki - Golden - 
These have just appeared in some of the Asian markets in Los Angeles - until
now enokis were always white. The photo specimens were 3-1/2 inches high and
the caps were up to 0.28 inches diameter but they grew much longer in the
refrigerator. These seem a bit sweeter with a bit more mushroom flavor than
regular enokis. When cooked they remain crunchy, but the color becomes muddy
and the flavor a bit washed out. All in all, I think these are best used raw
scattered as a garnish as the white enokis are.
Hazelnut Mushroom - 
The package says these mushrooms are found in Northeast China growing under hazelnut trees. From fragments in the package it looks like these can grow to about 3 inches diameter, but most were much smaller. The package suggests these be used in stews, stir fries and soups.
This mushroom produces a dark soaking liquid with a dark, woodsy, slightly
sharp, slightly spicy flavor. The caps sty fairly firm. The stems should be
chopped for use. Use these in recipes where stronger flavors are appropriate.
Hon-Shimeji (Brown, White) -
[Beech Mushroom, Clamshell Mushroom, Hypsyzygus tessulatus
alt H. marmoreus]
In nature these tiny mushrooms grow high in beech trees but are grown
commercially on prepared corn cobs. They're sold in clusters of medium length
stems with caps 1 inch in diameter and smaller. Both light tan cap and white
cap varieties are sold in Japanese and Korean markets. They are used cooked
(they're a bit bitter raw) and "stem on", sautéed or in stir fries
or soups and remain slightly crunchy even with longer cooking. The flavor
is quite mild, slightly sweet, slightly nutty so use them in dishes that won't
overpower them. They will keep for about 10 days refrigerated in a paper
bag if left on their substrate.
Jinding Mushroom -
[Elm Yellow Mushroom, Jade Emperor Mushroom, Orange Mushroom,
Elm Sanyuan Mushroom; Pleurotus citrinopileatus]
These are very fragile dried, but cook up rather firm, with the somewht
tough stem fading into the cap. It's best to chop them up after soaking.
The soaking liquid is light and mushroomy. They would be good for light
soups and the like. The largest in a package obtained from a large Asian
market in Los Angeles was 1.6 inches diameter with a 2 inch long stem,
but most were much smaller.
Lichens are used as food by many cultures around the world sometimes as
a survival essential and sometimes as a delicacy. The photo specimen is from
India, sold as Dagad Phool, essential to Goda Masala, a curry powder used in
the Marathi cuisine of Goa and Karnataka.
Details and Cooking.
Lobster Mushroom -
[Hypomyces lactifluorum growing parasitically on Russula
or Lactarius species mushrooms.]
This is a case where a mold-like fungus parasitizes a mushroom, transforming it into something different. When the parasite is mature the host mushroom may be impossible to identify, but it has not been known to infect poisonous mushrooms. The photo specimen, purchased at a Southern California farmer's market, was 5-1/4 x 4-3/8 inches and at its thickest point wss 1-5/8 inches thick. Weighing 4-7/8 ounces, it cost US $8.24 or $1.69/ounce.
Exact flavor can depend on the host mushroom.
In the case of Lactarius piperatus it tones down the hotness and
makes it more edible. Texture is firm, somewhat crunchy, and remains so
with cooking. This mushroom is often used in soups, particularly seafood
soups since it sometimes has a sort of seafood flavor.
Maitake - [Hen of the Woods,
These frilly funguses start from a tough base and become somewhat
crumbly at the outer edges. They are just a bit bitter raw and are generally
cooked to bring out their woodsy taste and distinctive aroma. Maitakes have
generally been hard to get and very expensive, around US $25/pound, but
prices are dropping as production methods are improved. I purchased these,
imported from Japan, for about $7.50/pound in an Asian market in Los Angeles.
This cluster was about 4-1/2 inches across and weighed 4-1/4 ounces.
Left on their substrate and loosely wrapped they will keep up to 10 days
[Butterscotch Mushroom, Pholiota nameko]
Much appreciated in Japan, this mushroom is very difficult to find fresh in the USA but can be found canned in some Asian markets. Fresh Namekos have a slippery gelatinous coating on the cap which may be a turn-off to some but is appreciated by others. When canned this coating becomes part of the canning liquid which will be gelatinous to a greater or lesser extent depending on processing.
The photo specimens were purchased in an 880 ml jar.
The largest was 3/4 inch across the cap and 1-3/4 inches long but they do
grow to as large as 1-1/2 inches across the cap. The average weight of the
specimens was 0.08 ounces (13 to an ounce). In Japan they are often added
to miso soup.
- [Pleruotus ostreatus, P. sapidus, P. pulmonarus,
P. citrino-pileatus and others]
Porcini - [Boulet
(US), Cep (French), Boletus edulis]
Considered by some the "king of mushrooms", the boulet has a dome shaped cap ranging from tan to reddish brown with a sponge like underside rather than gills. The stem is thick and white to yellow. Fresh porcini can be ordered on-line, but must be shipped express because they are rather prishable.
Dried Porcini are becoming fairly common in U.S. groceries, but at about
$5.00 per ounce and up. The soaking liquid is very fragrant with good
mushroom flavor, and so is the flesh, but it becomes very mushy, so depend
on these for flavor, not texture.
Portobella - [Portabello,
A variety of Crimini that is given a longer growing
cycle allowing it to become more mature before harvesting. Note the species
name is the same as the Crimini and the White Button
mushroom. It can reach sizes
of up to 6 inches across and is often used for stuffing or as a substitute
for a meat patty in vegetarian hamburgers. The flavor is deeper and meatier
than the less mature Crimini. They can be kept up to 10 days refrigerated in
a paper bag.
Pom Pom - [Monkey's
head, hedgehog mushroom, Lion's Mane, Bear's head, Old Man's beard, Satyr's
beard, Yamabushitake, Hericium erinaceus]
Irregularly spherical with no stem, these mushrooms grow on hardwood
trees. Their mild sweet taste and firm texture are said to make them suitable
to replace lobster in recipes. Now the flavor is intriguing but I'm not
about to tell you it tastes like lobster. The photo specimens were
canned but they are also available dried. The one to the left is 2-1/2 inches
from bottom to top but these fungi grow to over a foot across. As you can see
from the slice they are solid and meaty.
Psilocybin - [Magic
Mushroom, Psilocybe Cubensis and other spp.]
A popular cultivated psychoactive mushroom the use of which is beyond the
scope of this document. Unlike some other psychoactive mushrooms, the
toxicity of psilocybins is very low. Photo @copy;
Puffball - 
These small puffballs were canned in Thailand. They have a leathery but crunchy
outer shell containing a spore mass which varies in color depending on
maturity of the individual ball. The spore mass has a faintly medicinal
flavor and darkens with the color. The outer shell has a mild mushroom flavor.
Puffballs in the can varied in size from 0.43 inch to 1.12 inches.
Royal Sun Agaricus -
[Almond Mushroom; Himematsutake, jisongrong (Japan); Agaricus
subrufescens common but improper A. blazei]
Originally found in northeastern North America, this mushroom has also been found in California, Brazil, Taiwan, Philippines and in some regions of Western Europe. Unfortunately, its widespread discovery has resulted in a whole pile of wrong scientific names, with A.blazei most common in the health food industry.
This is an excellent eating mushroom, somewhat sweet with a scent and
taste of almonds. While grown in northwest U.S. and exported from Brazil
and China, demand is so high for its medicinal properties few are available
for eating. It is noted as a stimulant for the immune system and as a
treatment of diabetes and radiation exposure (so it's very popular in
Japan right now). Photo by Nathan Wilson distributed under
license Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike v2.5 Generic.
Shiitake - [Chinese,
Black or Forest Mushroom, Oak Mushroom; Hed Horm (Thai);
Varying from tan to dark brown, Shiitakes, both fresh and dried are almost always used cooked. They are much tougher than Criminis and have a more intense mushroom flavor. Dried they run from 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and weigh 7 to 10 to the ounce. Fresh they run from 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter and weigh 3 to 5 to the ounce. Of the photo specimens the three on the left are fresh and the two on the right are dried.
Dried Shiitakes are generally sold as "dried black mushroom" or
"dried forest mushroom". In any case they are easily identifiable due to the
texture of the top of the cap. Fresh shiitakes are now produced in large
quantity in several areas of the U.S. and are ever easier to find. In many
East Asian markets a special grade of dried shiitakes that is very light in
color with deep crackling on the top surface is sold at very high prices,
often in windowed gift boxes. Shiitakes, along with some other mushrooms
have been found to have significant antitumor and antivirus properties.
Details and Cooking.
Silky Mushroom - 
The grower calls these "Silky Mushroom" to describe the texture when cooked. This name is suboptimal, because it is in use for another "Silky Mushroom". The texture and flavor of that one is not well described because persons who sampled them were too distracted by the business of dying. These are not fatal, and may, in fact, be dried Namekos. They are from north eastern China and were obtained forom a large Asian market in Los Angeles.
The soaking liquid is light in color with good mushroom flavor. The stems
are relatively and the heads have a silky texture similar to that of properly
soaked fresh shiitakes, but the flavor is much lighter, with a hint of white
mushroom flavor. These are good for inclusion in lighter soups and the like.
[Bamboo Fungus, Bamboo Heart, Maiden's Veil, Veiled Lady;
Stinkhorn is available dried in well stocked Oriental groceries. They look very unpromising as nearly weightless papery shreds but they rehydrate into a mesh stem with an ethereal floating veil. Rehydrate them by soaking in lightly salted water for 20 minutes, then in boiling water for 1 minute.
They have just a little earthy flavor of their own but a delicate crunchy
texture that holds up well to cooking and a mesh structure that holds light
sauces and broth flavors extremely well. Use them in soups, stews and other
light liquidy dishes where they are attractively suspended (the photo
specimens are floating in water) and they'll add substance and texture.
Nutritionally they are high in fiber and amino acids.
Straw Mushrooms -
[Thai straw mushroom, Paddy Straw Mushroom; Nam rom (Viet);
These are grown on rice straw and are not yet widely available fresh even in California. They are, however, available canned in stores catering to Asian communities. Mistaking the almost identical but highly toxic death cap (Amanita phalloides) for straw mushrooms has resulted in death and/or need for liver transplants among Asian immigrants to the US and Australia.
Straw mushrooms are canned in two forms: egg shaped with the cap and
stem still completely encapsulated by a shroud called the volva, or partially
opened with a conical cap on a short thick stem. These are called "unpeeled"
and "peeled" on the can but the "peeled" is just a more mature form of the
"unpeeled". The unpeeled can be much larger than the one in the photo.
They are also available dried (right in photo) but not so commonly. Straw
Mushrooms are very important in Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai.
In Vietnam they may be found growing wild on old termite mounds. These are
much stronger in flavor than cultivated and fetch a much higher price.
Details and Cooking
Suillus Granulatus -
[Granulated slippery Jack, Suillus granulatus]
This Boletus type mushroom is rather a newcomer to the commercial market but
is now being grown in China. It appears mostly in marinated form, as the
photo specimens are. In the wild they grow up to 3 inches across but the
photo specimens were about 1-1/4 inch, As with other Boletus type mushrooms
the underside of the cap has pores rather than gills. A light flavored
Tea Tree Mushroom -
[Willow Mushroom; Agrocybe]
The Chinese guy behind me in the check-out line called these "Very special mushroom", which was a lot more information than the package provided. I was able to identify them from Chinese food and mushroom grower sites. These mushrooms have very long stems, to 6 inches, and thin caps to 2 inches diameter. A 3-1/2 ounce package was US $4.19, not bad compared to the price of European dried mushrooms around here.
"Very Special Mushroom" is an apt description. Soaking liquid is medium
color with very good mushroom flavor. Stems are only moderately tough,
though you'd probably want to chop them fairly small. Cooked, both the
soaking liquid and the mushrooms have a unique sweetness. The caps are
tender but not mushy. Certainly one of the best dried mushrooms you can
Toriashi Mushroom - 
These are quite common in Asian markets in Los Angeles, generally
produced in Taiwan but probably also China. Except for a couple exporter
listings and one menu item from a caterer in Singapore they are unknown on
the Internet, at least under the name toriashi. They are available canned
and are pretty much interchangeable with straw mushrooms except they need
to be cut differently because they are a little firmer and more elongated.
The largest of the photo specimens was 2.75 inches long, 0.9 inches diameter
at the stem end and weighed 0.63 ounce.
White Fungus -
[Silver Ear, Tremella fuciformis]
White Button -
[Supermarket Mushroom, Paris Mushroom, French Cultivated,
This common mushroom is not particularly interesting from a
flavor standpoint but it's easy and economical to grow in quantity. It
was, in fact, the first mushroom cultivated in quantity with production
started in limestone quarries outside Paris in the 18th century. They will
keep up to 7 days refrigerated in a paper bag, but darken and start to
shrivel. They will become slimy and rot within hours if kept in plastic.
The photo specimens are around 2 inches across, fairly typical, but they
are also sold somewhat larger and quite a bit smaller. Small ones are
also available canned.
Wood Ear Fungus - see Black Fungus
[found in divisions Ascomycota and Basidlomycota]
Like mold, yeast is a term of convenience rather than a precise scientific definition. Unlike mushrooms and molds, yeasts are mainly single cells, though some may string together. They reproduce mainly by budding or division, but under some conditions can produce spores. Yeasts, particularly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, are of great importance in the baking of bread, brewing of beer and fermenting of grapes into wine. Yeast fermentation is also the first step in making vinegar, followed by a bacterial fermentation which turns alcohol into acetic acid.
The low temperature yeast used to brew lager beer has long been a mystery.
It was clearly a hybrid of an ale yeast and something else, but the "something
else" could not be found in the wild in Europe. Now it has been found
(99.5% DNA match), in sweet galls on beech trees in Patagonia (southern
Argentina). Now the question is, how did a Patagonian yeast get to Germany
well before Columbus' first voyage?
Mold - [found
in divisions Zygomycota, Deuteromycota and Ascomycota]
"Mold" is a definition of convenience rather than anything precise and scientific, and there are thousands of known species. Like mushrooms, molds grow in filaments and reproduce by releasing spores. While they are major spoilers of food, they are also useful, particularly in the maturing of cheeses and sausages, fermentation of soy products and production of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. The photo shows Gorgonzola cheese with blue mold and Italian dry salami with a coating of white mold.
Some molds are highly toxic and others generate allergies, so moldy food
should not be eaten unless it is a traditional mold enhance product or one
known safe with the mold scraped off (jams are a traditional example).
General exposure to molds, particularly respiratory exposure, should be
avoided as numerous health problems can follow.
Toxicity: Many fungi are highly toxic, including many reputed to have psychoactive properties. Extreme caution must be exercised, and any fungus that is not positively identified should not be consumed in any form. In at least one case, Coprinus, the mushroom is safe but it renders alcohol highly toxic. Commercially grown mushrooms do not contain dangerous levels of toxins.
Benzine & Hydrazine: Raw white mushrooms are known to contain some amount of benzine and hydrazines, both known carcinogens. Hydrazines can survive even extended cooking. These mushrooms also contain other compounds, including antioxidants, which suppress tumor formation and growth (3). The total impact on health is unknown but in general even raw white mushrooms are considered safe in commonly consumed amounts.
Vitamin D: Mushrooms are pretty much the only non-animal source for vitamin D - unless you lump them in with animals as we do here. The importance of vitamin D has been greatly emphasized by recent research, and most people are reported to be deficient in this critical nutrient. It has recently been found that even short exposure to ultraviolet light greatly increases the vitamin D content in mushrooms, whether applied before or after harvest. It does, however, cause white mushrooms to be browner, more like crimini mushrooms. This is the same as when you expose yourself to the sun's ultraviolet radiation, you get browner and vitamin D is generated. The mushroom industry is, of course, planning to market "D enhanced" mushrooms.
General: White mushrooms (and presumably others) are a good source for copper, potassium, selenium and the B-vitamins niacin, pantothenic acid and riboflavin. They also contain a powerful antioxidant, ergothioneine, in greater quantity than in the next best sources, chicken livers and wheat germ. Mushrooms are very low in calories and are fat and cholesterol free (4).
Pharmaceuticals: Many varieties of mushroom are currently under intensive study. Various properties, depending on variety, are antiviral, antibacterial, antitumor, immune system enhancement, athletic enhancement, cholesterol control and reducing insulin resistance for diabetics. Clovegarden is a culinary site, so we do not detail medicinal information here.Links