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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Types of Mushrooms

[Extracted from Wisegeek's website]

As organic and vegetarian cooking has become more popular, people are branching out in their eating choices, even in so humble a domain as the mushroom. Most people are familiar with the white button mushrooms found in cartons and cans everywhere. However, there is a host of other varieties available, both in stores and by finding them wild on "mushrooming" expeditions. In every kind of cuisine, fresh mushrooms add delicate flavor and spongy texture to a variety of dishes.

People have tramped into damp forests and scoured meadows, mushrooming for these tasty fungi morsels for centuries. Many delicious, edible mushrooms are available, but only about three percent of wild mushrooms are safe for humans to digest.

Puffballs, morels, meadow mushrooms, and shaggy manes sprinkle hillsides and woods during many seasons. Enthusiasts target wet fields or fallen logs to pick whole mushrooms, pack them in wax paper, and carry them home to identify. The climate, vegetation, and kind of soil narrows down the mushroom variety, as well as coloring and shape.

Some edible mushrooms are so rare that they are now cultivated. These gourmet mushrooms include truffles, enoki, chanterelle, portabella, shiitake, and oyster. These cultivated varieties are also becoming more popular in the better grocery stores. Some businesses even sell "mushroom logs" that are seeded with several varieties of mushrooms for the enthusiast to grow and enjoy, secure in the knowledge he is getting a "wild" mushroom, but not a dangerous one.

Mushrooms are largely interchangeable in recipes. They can be used in sauces, soups, stews, stir-fry dishes, pasta accompaniments, on pizza, and raw, on salads. Like tofu, they tend to take on the flavor of what they are cooked with, all the while adding an earthy element of their own. Thousands of recipes are available in cookbooks and online.

In fact, those looking for wild mushrooms must consider a question of critical importance: are these mushrooms safe to eat? The fungi might grow out of a tree trunk or under a log, have red spots or pink gills, but for safe eating, they must be categorized as nonpoisonous.

Experts carefully describe characteristics of common mushrooms so aficionados can learn to identify them correctly. However, mushroom hunters must be extremely careful when ingesting any mushroom whose identity hasn't been confirmed. The best way to avoid poisonous wild mushrooms is to either leave them strictly alone, or to go mushrooming with an expert who knows how to tell the difference among the species. Some gardening cooperatives offer classes in mushroom hunting.

Poisonous mushrooms, feared as "toadstools" by past generations, have the power to kill a victim in under a week--sometimes in hours. They can often be identified by a cup at the bottom of the stem, called the volva. A deadly species called Amanita releases amatoxins and phalotoxins as they are digested over a period of days.

The first signs of poison might be cramps and headache, and soon the chemical destroys the liver and kidneys, resulting in organ failure and death. Galerina mushrooms also pose a major threat to humans. The Inocybe species can cause serious problems, such as a drop in blood pressure and heart rate, yet wil rarely cause death. Many species induce discomfort, such as vomiting and nausea, without resulting in long term damage.

Some mushrooms contain a chemical known as psilocybe, which can be considered a mild poison. Many of these "little brown mushrooms" are part of the entheogenic use of plants in shamanist ritual. In a spiritual context, ingestion of the sacred plant or fungi produces a divine experience through psychoactive substances. Some hallucinogenic mushrooms cause unpleasant side effects such as vomiting and fever.

Amateurs may want to start finding out more about mushroom varieties just by picking up a "variety" package at the supermarket. These will all be safe to eat and the cook can experiment to see which mushrooms suit which recipes. Then, maybe he or she will want to attempt cultivating edible mushrooms at home before hunting them in the wild.

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