Not so long ago, button mushrooms dominated the marketplace, but today you’ll find dozens of different mushrooms—both cultivated and wild, fresh and dried—in greengrocers, gourmet stores, ethnic markets, and farmers’ markets. Many mushrooms are also available by mail order.
Here are some of the more popular mushroom varieties. Some can be quite expensive, but even just a few wonderful specimens can transform a dish.
Button mushroom (white mushroom, champignon): For many years, these mild-flavored, smooth, round-capped mushrooms were the only ones grown commercially in the United States. In fact, they still make up most of the domestically cultivated crop. These mushrooms can be found in several different colors—white, off-white, and brown (often called cremini or crimini)—but they all belong to a single species, Agaricus bisporus. They range in diameter from one-half inch (the real “buttons”) to 3 inches (called “jumbos”) and are often sold prepackaged. Their mild flavor intensifies and improves when cooked.
Chanterelle (girolle, pfifferling, black trumpet): The name chanterelle covers an entire family of trumpet-shaped mushrooms with frilly caps that range in color from white and yellow-gold to black. In France, black chanterelles are known by the misleading name trompettes de la mort (“trumpets of death”), though they are not poisonous. Chanterelles aren’t cultivated, but are gathered wild, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, where specimens larger than a foot wide and heavier than 2 pounds are not uncommon. They are also imported. Chanterelles have a flowery, fruity aroma and a light peppery taste. Dried chanterelles can be quite rubbery when cooked.
Chicken-of-the-woods (sulfur shelf mushroom): Not to be confused with hen-of-the-woods, this large mushroom grows on tree trunks as a series of sulfur-yellow to orange fan-shaped shelves, each most commonly 2 to 10 inches across. The name chicken-of-the-woods comes from its meaty, almost chicken-like texture and flavor. Though it can grow to 16 inches across, only the younger, smaller mushrooms are worth eating.
Cremini mushrooms: Also called brown or Italian brown mushrooms, cremini are actually a variety of button mushroom with a more intense flavor. Mature, full-grown cremini are marketed as portobellos.
Enoki (enokitake, enoki-daki): Native to Japan, ivory-colored enoki are used in many Asian dishes. They have tiny caps and look like a cluster of long-legged sprouts joined in a clump at the base. Their mild, almost sweet taste and crisp texture is best appreciated when they are served raw, or very lightly cooked.
Huitlacoche (cuitlacoche, maize mushroom, Mexican truffle): This fungus grows primarily on sweet corn in damp weather, causing a disease called corn smut. The infected kernels become swollen and oddly shaped, turning black inside and silvery gray outside. Long considered a delicacy in Mexico, huitlacoche can be purchased fresh or frozen by mail order or canned in some Hispanic markets. Traditionally it’s most often used in tacos, quesadillas, and other tortilla-based foods as well as in soups. Nowadays you can find it in a variety of gourmet dishes. Whether fresh or canned, the fungus exudes a black juice when cooked and has a taste that has been variously described as “mushroom-like,” sweet, savory, woody, earthy, musty, and even smoky. Do not buy fresh huitlacoche if the fungus looks dry and powdery; it’s too old.
Maitake (hen-of-the-woods): This Japanese mushroom, which resembles the body of a small hen, is now commonly cultivated in the United States. Maitakes have a distinctive aroma and a rich, woodsy taste. They are also available dried.
Morels: One of the highest-priced mushrooms because they are usually harvested in the wild (though they are grown commercially in Michigan), morels are small, dark brown mushrooms with conical, spongy caps. They have an especially intense, earthy flavor, which some describe as nutty or smoky. The morel’s honeycombed surface—which requires special attention to clean—makes it ideal for absorbing sauces, and its hollow cap is perfect for stuffing. Morels are also available dried.
Oyster mushrooms (tree oyster mushroom): These mushrooms come in a range of colors, including off-white, pink, yellow, and gray-brown. Oyster mushrooms grow in tight clusters and are incredibly tender. In fact, they melt in your mouth. They have an elusive mild flavor that some say is reminiscent of oysters. They are also available dried.
Porcini (king bolete, cèpe, Steinpilz): These mushrooms have a stout stem and a spongy surface, rather than gills, underneath the brown caps. Porcini mushrooms range in diameter from 1 to 10 inches. In the United States, they’re found in Washington and Oregon. They’re imported from France and Italy during the summer and fall. Porcinis are expensive, but their earthy, nutty, woodsy flavor is well worth the cost. Most porcinis are sold as dried slices or powder. The dried porcinis are typically used as a spice—adding umami as well as their earthy, nutty, woodsy flavor to cooked savory dishes—rather than as a dish in themselves. Dried porcinis can last almost indefinitely when stored correctly.
Portobellos (Romas): Originally imported from Italy, but now widely grown in the United States, tan/brown portobellos are actually fully mature cremini mushrooms. (The name “portobello” was coined by marketers.) As large as 4 to 5 inches in diameter, these hearty mushrooms are rather meaty-flavored and textured. Unlike many other mushrooms, their black gills are completely exposed. Portobello mushrooms are especially well-suited to grilling or roasting.
Reishi mushrooms:Widely prized in Asia, where they are believed to be an immune-booster, bitter-flavored reishi can be found both fresh and dried in Asian markets and by mail order. Try these mushrooms in Chinese soups.
Shiitake mushrooms (goldenoak, forest, black forest, Chinese black): Grown for hundreds of years only in Japan, China, and Korea, shiitake mushrooms are now cultivated in the United States. The caps have a leathery feel and a pronounced mushroomy taste, with a slightly peppery finish. Several packaged commercial brands are available in supermarkets and gourmet stores. Dried shiitakes are often sold in Asian and other markets as “Chinese black mushrooms.”
Straw mushrooms (paddy straws): These are the classic little mushrooms used by Chinese restaurants in stir-fries. They are almost always sold canned, but can be purchased fresh or dried by mail order and in some gourmet markets. It’s worth keeping an eye out for dried straw mushrooms, because they have a far more intense flavor than the canned.
Truffles: These so-called “diamonds of the kitchen” grow completely underground on the roots of oak trees. Truffles are considered by many the ultimate gourmet mushroom, with a uniquely intense earthy flavor and aroma. Scarce and exceptionally difficult to cultivate and harvest—they require a trained pig or dog to sniff them out—these delicacies cost a small fortune. Prices fluctuate, depending on the quantity of a year’s harvest, from as low as $600 to higher than $1,000 a pound.Black trufflesusually come from Périgord in southwestern France.White trufflesare gathered around Alba, Italy. White and some black truffles are also being grown in Oregon. Fresh truffles are only available from late December to March. They are also available in cans and jars at some gourmet shops.
Wood ears (cloud ears, tree ears, black fungus): This short-stemmed mushroom grows wild on the trunks of walnut, elder, and beech trees. Once sold only in dried form in Asian markets, fresh wood ears are now more widely available. They have fitted caps that vary greatly in size and may have a damp, jellylike appearance (this is normal). The mushroom’s slightly gelatinous, almost crunchy, texture provides an interesting contrast in stir-fries, noodle and grain dishes, soups, and stews.