Mushrooms have long been essential and delicious ingredients in Mediterranean kitchens, but a wide variety of fungi have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to promote well-being and long life.
Their immune-boosting capabilities are becoming well known in Western kitchens, and their many phytonutrients and bioactive compounds are currently being studied around the world as potential medicines.
Current research suggests that by helping to support our immune system, many edible mushrooms may have potent anti-cancer properties, and may play a role in modulating immune responses to better recognize and neutralize threats to our cells. In particular, phytonutrients in the mushrooms explained as polysaccharide-protein complexes have been shown to stimulate immune system responses in small scale clinical trials of both animals and humans. These complexes are also thought to have anti-tumor effects, but the mechanism is still unknown.
Though this emerging global research is exciting and shows promise in harnessing the power of mushrooms to help bolster the immune system in its fight against cancer, it is important to note that this research is still in its early stages. Its findings cannot yet be applied to humans, used to inform specific recommendations, or promote mushrooms as a miracle cure. However, research like this makes a strong case for the inclusion of mushrooms in all of our diets to maximize our plant-provided health benefits and protect against chronic illnesses of all types, cancer included.
Not to mention, all edible mushrooms contain a number of antioxidant compounds that help protect our bodies from damage to our cells from free radicals. Mushrooms are also one of the few sources of vitamin D suitable for vegetarians and vegans, though this depends on their exposure to UV light. Sun-dried mushrooms provide the richest vegetarian food source of vitamin D you can eat due to their exposure to UV light.
They also contain important nutrients — including B vitamins, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and copper — that are necessary for maintaining health before, during, and after cancer treatment.
- B vitamins play many indispensable roles in the body. They are essential for energy production and macronutrient metabolism, as well as cell signaling, DNA synthesis, and repair.
- Potassium concentrations are tightly regulated in the body to support normal physiological function and maintain proper fluid balance.
- Phosphorus plays essential structural roles in the body in all our bones and cell membranes. It is also vital to energy production and storage, and the transmission and storage of our genes. Additionally, it helps to maintain homeostatic pH balance so that our bodies can perform all physiological functions.
- Selenium is an integral component of our internal antioxidant systems, which help to prevent and repair oxidative damage by free radicals in the body. It is also an important part of the regulation of our thyroid hormones, which have a hand in normal cell growth, healthy brain development, and regulatory mechanisms of the metabolism.
- Copper is also an important part of our internal antioxidant systems, helping to mitigate cell damage caused by free radicals. Copper is involved in many other important processes in the body — most notably, energy production and cell communication.
- Vitamin D is essential for healthy bone building and maintenance, and recent research has suggested it plays many other vital roles in the body, particularly to support healthy cardiovascular and immune function.
Mushrooms make a great vegetarian substitute for meat in any meal. Rich in nutrients and higher in protein than most vegetables, they add a hearty taste and texture that will leave you feeling satisfied after a mushroom-filled meal.
Here is our glossary of commonly available mushrooms, along with some ideas on how to get your fungi fix.
Portobello – Portobellos are the most widely cultivated mushrooms and are available in large and small varieties. The larger ones are great for grilling and are commonly used as a stand-in for a beef burger. They can also be chopped and used in many of our recipes. Try our Balsamic Sautéed Mushrooms.
Shiitake – Shiitakes are the second most cultivated mushroom and are very popular in Asian cuisine. They can be found fresh at many supermarkets and are often available dried in the Asian food aisle of many grocery stores. You can also purchase them from trusted vendors online. If you get the dried variety, they need to be rehydrated by submerging them in a bowl of warm water for about 30 minutes. Try using shiitakes in our Stovetop Mushroom & Barley Paella for a delicious vegetarian main dish.
White button – White button mushrooms are picked young. They have a subtle earthy flavor when raw that blossoms into a satisfying earthiness when cooked. Try sprucing up your white mushrooms with Angelo Garro’s Mushrooms & Fettuccine for your next meal.
Maitake – Also known as hen-of-the-woods, this mushroom has a rich and woodsy taste, and can be sauteed in olive oil as a side or included in any dish that calls for other mushrooms. They are delicious served over brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.
Porcini – These mushrooms are often found in Italian cuisine and have a rich, nutty flavor. They can be a little more expensive than other varieties, but worth the splurge every once in a while, giving even the most everyday dishes a gourmet touch. Porcini mushrooms do exactly that in our Brown Rice & Chard Risotto.
In general, when shopping for mushrooms, look for firm dry mushrooms with no dark slimy patches or clammy skin. All mushrooms have a distinctive light, almost sweet smell when fresh. If they smell dank or sour, they are past their prime. Take care especially when buying pre-packaged mushrooms. The plastic film creates condensation that can encourage spoilage in the mushrooms underneath, plus the packaging can camouflage not-so-fresh produce.
Mushrooms are very delicate and should never be washed. Washing them can change both their taste and texture. It’s best to simply wipe the top of their caps with a damp paper towel, or even cheesecloth to gently remove the dirt.
Button mushrooms should have clear off-white skin, with an almost silky dry feel to them. Never buy shiitake, portobellos, or any other open flat mushrooms, unless you can check their undersides. The gills should be a velvety, pink-brown color with no dark, wet patches.