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What about all the new mushrooms?

What about all the new mushrooms?

In the not-so-distant past, buying mushrooms was like buying a Model T Ford: one shape and a limited color range. Now, in addition to the familiar brown and white buttons, markets are selling more kinds than ever before.

In produce sections, you regularly find shiitake, enoki, and oyster mushrooms. In markets with fancy produce, you are also likely to find angel trumpets, wood-ears, butter mushrooms, and pompons blancs. The most commonly sold kinds are shown in color at left.

These mushrooms are cultivated rather than collected in the wild. How do they differ in taste and uses from the buttons? Are they safe? And what about wild mushrooms, which often appear too?

Here we'll try to answer these questions and allay some fears.

A basketful of cultivated mushrooms

The mushrooms shown in the color photograph are currently cultivated in sufficient quantities to supply markets, although the distribution of some is still limited.

For more than 200 years, the French have cultivated Agaricus species; the Japanese have grown shiitakes for 2,000 years. In this country, commercial cultivation began just over a century ago, and in 1926 a white agaricus sport became the progenitor of the standard market mushroom, the white button (Agaricus bisporus or A. brunnescens). Its dark-skinned look-alike is the brown or brown button mushroom (also A. brunnescens). Both come in a wide range of sizes.

Three of the best-known Oriental mushrooms are the oyster, enoki, and shiitake. The most varied genus of commercial mushrooms is the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus). It has many names, and many species and hybrids; typically all look quite fragile and flare one-sided from the stem. You will see pearl-gray to ivory hiratake, oyster, or tree-oyster mushrooms (P. ostreatus or P. sajor-caju), and lighter-color angel trumpet (a hybrid of P. ostreatus). Scarce, but in production, are blue, pink, or yellow oyster ones.

Pompon blanc and bearded tooth are the same mushroom (Hericium erinaceus). It looks like a hairy golf ball or a white sea sponge.

Butter mushroom, or golden pholiota, (Pholiota aurivella) is a bright gold with dark spots, shaped like plump shiitake.

Tiny, slender, white, and long-stemmed, enoki (Flammulina velutipes) are also called enokitake, velvet stem, or winter mushrooms. Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) are also called black or black forest mushrooms; they have a broad-brimmed classic mushroom shape.

The thin, rippled wood-ear, cloud-ear, or tree-ear (Auricularia polytricha) has a rubbery-crisp feel, and a jelly-textured dark brown top with dry tan underside.

Like all mushrooms, the nine cultivated kinds shown are fragile and highly perishable, and must be handled with care; see page 186 for storage instructions and some basic recipes.

Cultivated mushrooms are as safe as any food. However, when trying a new kind, you should proceed with caution to be sure you are not sensitive or allergic to it; see details on pages 80 and 81.

How do these "new' mushrooms taste?

Mushrooms' looks, taste, and taxture make them appealing to eat, but the distinctions of one kind from another can often be very slight. So why choose one over another? Or pay premium prices for subtle nuances?

Here's a consensus of impressions from our taste-testers about the nine cultivated mushrooms shown here. Qualities admired by some were considered faults by others. All the mushrooms quickly absorb additional seasonings.

Brown and white button mushrooms are the most alike in the way they taste and behave. Browns are slightly sweeter, with more intense flavor, but both have the "mushroom' taste we know best. They hold their shape as they cook.

Although oyster and angel trumpets look a lot alike, they cook differently. Oysters hold their shape and give up little liquid as they cook; they are tender-firm like brown or white button mushrooms, but a little chewier, and the flavor is faintly woodsy and sweet. Angel trumpets wilt more when cooked, are earthier and more woodsy in flavor--enough so that some considered them bitter.

Pompon blancs, sliced and sauteed until browned with crisp edges, have a uniquely sweet flavor--described by some as similar to very fresh crab. If cooked in liquid, they become soggy and have little taste.

Butter mushrooms have a very woodsy flavor, also bitter to some. When cooked, they have a texture like brown or white buttons. A curious characteristic of butter mushrooms is their thickening effect when cooked with liquids. If the sauce is very concentrated, it can be rather stringy.

Enoki mushrooms have a very delicate flavor; to some they have more texture than taste. Uncooked, they give a dainty, exotic look to salads or as garnish. Cooked, they retain a surprising amount of texture but look limp.

Shiitake are often referred to as meaty in flavor and fleshy in texture. The stems are tough and should be discarded. The caps hold their shape as they cook. If you are used to dried shiitake in Oriental dishes, the fresh will seem bland by comparison unless seasoned well.

Wood-ears have almost more texture than taste. They are crisp to chew; the shiny look doesn't affect how they feel in your mouth. Like shiitake, if you know them dried from Oriental cooking, they seem rather dull unless in well-seasoned dishes.

How to choose fresh mushrooms

Select whole, undamaged mushrooms that are fresh looking and pleasant smelling --although often with aromas reminiscent of the forest. But because mushrooms are fragile and often tender-brittle, parts break off easily, and you may have to overlook minor imperfections. The mushrooms should feel dry, not slimy, to the touch; however, wood-ears feel gelatinously slick on one side, and butter mushrooms feel somewhat slippery.

Mushrooms are often dried to preserve them, and, if fresh ones look a little dehydrated (not deteriorated), their cooking quality is still fine.

Cook mushrooms as soon as you can; if stored properly, however, they can generally be held successfully from a few to many days, depending on the variety.

As mushrooms deteriorate (from bruising, poor storage, age), signs of poor quality include sliminess, visible molds, and/ or unpleasant (often ammonia-like) odors. At this stage, they may develop toxins that could make you ill.

Mushroom farming: how it works

Growing mushrooms isn't much like growing carrots or lettuce. First of all, most farms are indoors. Mushrooms require carefully controlled environments, usually in huge sheds. Many farms are concentrated in cool, moist areas where the climate minimizes the cost of maintaining the artificial environment.

Cultivated mushrooms can be produced in steady quantities, usually year-round. And production can be impressive: a large agaricus farm may ship up to 50,000 pounds a day. However, most exotics are produced on small farms harvesting only hundreds of pounds daily or weekly.

Like other forms of fungus, mushrooms have no true roots, flowers, or leaves. They contain no chlorophyll: that's why they're not green. They start as spores, which germinate to produce webs of filaments (mycelia) in moist soil or organic matter. The filaments expand and multiply to form "fruiting bodies' (the mushrooms). When mature, they release millions of spores, some of which land to repeat the cycle of growth.

The challenge is to duplicate the precise growing conditions each species needs. Once this environment is determined, the mycologist germinates spores to grow mycelia, inoculates the growing beds with the mycelia, and regulates the environment for growth and fruiting.

Recent breakthroughs have yielded morels and a few other lesser-known mushrooms. But attempts to cultivate other popular mushrooms, such as the bright orange chanterelle and French black, Italian white, and native Oregon truffles, haven't succeeded so far. Says Dr. James Trappe, mycologist at Oregon State University, "These fungi fruit only in association with certain trees and soil microorganisms; if we can discover what it is they provide, we can perhaps produce the mushrooms.'

The first taste: proceed cautiously

Health departments inspect cultivation facilities, and the U.S.D.A. may sample mushrooms for quality and package weight. But experts agree: when eating any mushroom for the first time, proceed with caution. Do not eat it raw. Do not eat a lot of it.

Typical allergic or other sensitivity reactions --like those from shellfish, chocolate, milk products, and many other everyday foods--are fairly common with mushrooms. Generally, these reactions-- headache, shortness of breath, or stomach or intestinal upset--will occur within an hour or so of eating and will resolve themselves in 4 to 6 hours. On the other hand, a toxic reaction to a poisonous mushroom will not occur for 8 to 12 hours; immediate medical treatment is essential.

Button, enoki, and angel trumpet are commonly eaten raw. But you should follow the guidelines at right when eating a mushroom raw, even if you have previously eaten the same type cooked. In some mushrooms, cooking destroys substances that cause illness.

Authorities are issuing cautions on raw button mushrooms. The University of California's Berkeley Wellness Letter, published in association with the School of Public Health, reports that button mushrooms naturally contain hydrazines that have been known to cause cancer in animals. Cooking or drying quickly destroys hydrazines.

How to taste. Buy just a few of any new kind of mushroom. Store one in the refrigerator and cook the remainder. Extremely cautions authorities recommend you follow the same procedure used to determine any food allergy or sensitivity: eat only a teaspoon or so of cooked mushrooms the first day. If there are no ill effects, try a little more the next two days.

If you get sick and need medical attention, use the reserved mushroom to help doctors determine treatment.

Directions for cleaning, storing, and cooking mushrooms are on page 186.

Photo: Nine cultivated mushrooms shown here at about half life size are ones most commonly found in markets; you may see others

Brown Agaricus brunnescens The flavor you expect from mushrooms. Use interchangeably with white buttons in any recipe that calls for "mushrooms'

Angel trumpet Pleurotus ostreatus hybrid Hybrid of oyster, but less common; bigger, whiter, wilt more when cooked

Enoki Flammulina velutipes Slender stems, tiny caps; sold in clusters still attached to growing medium. Surprising crunch; delicate flavor

Oyster Pleurotus ostreatus Interesting tender-firm texture, slightly meaty flavor. They look fragile but hold up well cooked

Pompon blanc Hericium erinaceus These look like little sea sponges; solid in center, with "teeth' on surface. Develop sweet flavor when sauteed crisp

Shiitake Lentinus edodes Meaty, hearty-flavored caps; stems too tough to eat. Soaks up flavors well

White button Agaricus bisporus Sports of brown mushrooms, these dominate the marketplace, come in varying sizes

Butter Pholiota aurivella Smooth, moist surface; bright orange color dotted with brown. Woodsy flavor

Wood-ear Auricularia polytricha Oriental cooks prize its crunchy texture. Brown jelly-like top, tan and dry underneath

Photo: In Berkeley market, a dozen bins offer mushroom options, from $1.39 a pound for cultivated white buttons to $12 for wild morels and cepes

Photo: Newport Beach shopper gives wood-ear mushrooms a closer look. They have a crisp texture, not much taste

Photo: Wall of cultivated oyster mushrooms grows year-round in controlled environment. To harvest, he slices clusters from growing medium
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Title Annotation:includes related article on wild mushrooms
Date:Oct 1, 1986
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