Mushrooms are packed with nutrients, low in calories, and just plain delicious. They boost your recipes to a new level of mega flavor and depth.
If you want to cook with mushrooms more but don’t know which ones to buy (or how to keep them from turning to brown slime in your fridge), this guide will help!
The 5 Common Types of Mushrooms
In culinary terms, we think of mushrooms as vegetables. But they are not plants! Mushrooms are members of the fungi kingdom, which also includes mold and yeast.
There are scores of edible mushrooms in the world, but only a tiny fraction of them are cultivated on a large scale. Here are the most common kinds:
- White mushrooms
- Cremini mushrooms
- Portobello mushrooms
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Wild mushrooms
Let's take a closer look at each of these!
White (a.k.a Button or Field) Mushrooms
Classic! If you see only one kind of mushroom in the store, this is it. According to the American Mushroom Council, white mushrooms account for 90% of the mushrooms purchased in the United States. They have a mild flavor and can be used in nearly any recipe calling for mushrooms.
Cremini (a.k.a Crimini, Baby Bella, or Brown Mushrooms)
These have a more robust flavor than white mushrooms. Their shape is about the same, but they are slightly firmer, with light brown caps and pale brown interiors.
Fun fact: Creminis are the same species as white mushrooms, but grow from a different strain of spores. Any time you’d like a smidge more oomph in your mushroom recipes, reach for these.
When cremini mushrooms go through a growth spurt, they become the large-capped portobellos we’ve all seen grilled as alternatives to hamburger patties.
That’s right, portobellos are simply mature creminis! You can marinate and roast them, stuff them, or cut them into thick slabs and layer them over grain dishes or into lasagna. Or you can chop them up and use them just as you would white or cremini mushrooms.
Shiitake (a.k.a. Shitake Mushrooms)
These guys are firm and umbrella-shaped, with tan caps on woody stems. Of grocery store mushroom varieties, they gave you the most flavor, and they’re notably more expensive.
Shiitakes are very sturdy, and they cook up nice and chewy. Brown them and add them to braises and stir-fries, or add their sliced caps to brothy soups. These mushrooms originated in East Asia, and you’ll see them in a lot of Japanese and Chinese recipes.
"Wild" and Gourmet (a.k.a Mushroom Blends)
These are spendy little cartons with a mix of cultivated—not wild—fresh mushrooms such as oysters, creminis, and shiitakes. While they are not truly wild, you can go wild with them for fun and variety!
Take a close look at the carton before you sling them in your cart, though, because often these cartons contain mostly lower-cost creminis with only a scattering of the more expensive “exotic” ones like oysters and shiitakes.
What to Look for and What to Avoid When Buying Mushrooms
Have you ever bought mushrooms with the best of intentions, only to shove them in the back of your produce drawer ... and then a week later, you dig out a carton of sad brown goo? I’m guilty. So, it pays to look closely and get the freshest mushrooms you can, because those will last longer in the fridge.
With any variety, look for mushrooms that are smooth, firm, and dry. Slimy, soft, and spotty is bad. Avoid those!
Younger mushrooms are more compact, with closed caps. Slightly more mature mushrooms have caps that open to reveal the gills on the undersides. These mushrooms have more flavor, but their texture means they might be a bit slimier when cooked, because those dark, feathery gills break down easily when exposed to heat.
Buying Loose vs. Packaged Mushrooms
A lot of stores offer mushrooms in bulk. You select your own from a bin and stick them in a bag. I like doing this, because I can choose the size I need (larger for stuffing, smaller for marinating), and I can also see up-close if the mushrooms are clean, dry, and fresh. They also waste less packaging.
Buying Sliced vs. Whole Mushrooms
How do pre-sliced mushrooms hold up to whole ones? Since sliced mushrooms have more surfaces exposed to air, they don’t keep as long as whole ones.
This does not mean sliced mushrooms are inferior. It just means you need to take extra care when selecting them to make sure what’s in the carton is in good shape (clean, firm, etc.), and then try to use them within a few days of purchase.
Whole mushrooms last a few days longer in the fridge, and they offer more cooking options, like cutting them into cubes or wedges, which some recipes might call for. But sliced mushrooms offer ease of prep, which is certainly nothing to sneer at.
How to Store Mushrooms
Even though mushrooms usually come from the store in a film-wrapped carton, it’s best if they breathe.
A brown paper bag is ideal. An airtight bag, like a Ziploc bag, is worst case scenario. Keep mushrooms in their original packaging or a paper bag. If you’re lucky, they’ll keep for up to one week in the refrigerator.
If your mushrooms are looking borderline, it’s okay to cook them. Rinse them, dry them well, and proceed. If they are floppy and slick with slime, pitch ‘em. (And yes, it’s okay to get mushrooms wet!)
Don’t freeze fresh mushrooms; it will destroy their texture and render them into slime. You may, however, freeze cooked mushrooms.
Fast Facts About Mushrooms
- The good old state of Pennsylvania accounts for about 60% of total U.S. mushroom production.
- It’s not a good idea to eat raw mushrooms. It’s not unsafe, but your body can’t digest uncooked mushrooms, and it can lead to gastric distress—which is unpleasant. Tens of thousands of salad bars across the country prove that many people eat raw mushrooms without a second thought. In any case, your body can’t absorb the nutrients in raw mushrooms because their cell walls are too thick. Cooking the mushrooms breaks down their cell walls, making their nutrients available to you.
- Commercial mushrooms are grown indoors. They don’t need light to grow because they’re not plants, so they grow around the clock.
- Mushrooms grow fast, doubling in size every day.