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posted: 8/22/2012 5:00 AM

A little mushroom history, facts and tips, too

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  • Shiitake stems are tough and should be trimmed before cooking.

    Shiitake stems are tough and should be trimmed before cooking.


A mushroom is a mushroom is a mushroom; right?

Not exactly. Sure they're all fungi, but not all mushrooms are created equal.

Spotting fresh shiitake (she-TAH-key) mushrooms at my local farmers market got me thinking about mushrooms and led to some interesting discoveries.

Let's look at the basic button mushroom. Button, or white, mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are the most common mushroom. They command the most space in the produce section and are the ones most often in cans of soup and on our pizzas.

Discovery No. 1: Buttons are an immature Agaricus bisporous form, but that's not why they're white. They're white, so the story goes, because in the 1920s a Pennsylvania farmer noticed a clump of white mushroom caps (up until then, button mushrooms were always a light brown color) and believing they would appeal to more consumers, he began cultivating them. The white-capped button mushrooms you see today are descendants of that nearly century-old discovery.

Discovery No. 2: Button mushrooms, cremini mushrooms, baby Bella mushrooms, Swiss, Roman and Italian brown mushrooms are all different names for the same mushroom. How can that be?

Today's button mushrooms stem from that Pennsylvania farmer's discovery. Those other mushrooms with the more brown coloration are grown from the pre-1920s mushroom, the original "brownish" Agaricus bisporous strain.

Discovery No. 3: Large portobello mushrooms are really a matured button mushroom from the original strain. Bet ya didn't know that!

The shiitakes (Lentinula edodes) I saw at my farmers market are different from buttons all together. Shiitakes are native to Asia and where a button's cap is high, round and white, a shiitake cap can be low and flat, irregularly round and a mix of beige, brown and sometimes a touch of yellow.

Where a button mushroom's stem is fairly tender and can be eaten raw or cooked, shiitake stems are tough and should be discarded.

Discovery No. 4: The water content of button mushrooms averages almost 93 percent, while shiitakes average about 89 percent. This is why shiitakes deliver a meatier, firmer texture and slightly bigger flavor than buttons. Shiitakes also throw-off less moisture when sauteed.

Discovery No. 5: The two mushrooms are grown in different ways. Button mushrooms grow in a medium made up of sterile, composted manures and straw, while shiitakes grow either in oak sawdust or on oak logs. Many believe that log-grown shiitakes deliver the better flavor.

Last discovery: Mushrooms don't need to be grown in the dark, as I once believed. Cool air, shade and moisture builds a great mushroom.

If you find shiitake mushrooms at your farmers market take the time get to know them, and the grower. It made lead you to your own discoveries.

Try this recipe: Mushrooms add loads of flavor (including umami, the much talked about fifth flavor) to any dish. In this recipe they're the star of the show. Give it a try.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at

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