This guide to culinary mushroom varieties presents the more common types and as well as a few that are offbeat — how to prepare them and recipes for using them.
Not long ago, when a recipe called for mushrooms, it meant the white or button variety. After all, what else was there? Today, it’s not hard to find a wide array of tasty options like cremini, shiitake, portobello, and more. Other, still perhaps less common culinary varieties like enoki, maitake, wood ear, and porcini, are worth seeking out.
The earthy flavors and unusual (sometimes meaty) textures of mushrooms are what make mushrooms appealing, but there’s more to them than that. White mushrooms offer modest nutrients, but their more exotic cousins boast more substantial nutrients, including B vitamins, along with potassium, iron, and other minerals. All mushrooms are practically calorie-free.
In Asian and other traditions, mushrooms are valued for medicinal properties. Some varieties are also considered adaptogens. But here, we’ll concern ourselves with an introduction to their culinary magic.
It would be impossible to list the myriad varieties of mushrooms available today, so the entries here are limited to those that have become best known and are relatively available in supermarkets, natural foods stores, and Asian groceries.
After a brief description to each of the mushrooms listed following, you’ll find a few simple ways to use them, plus links to vegan recipes in which they feature.
This post is long, so here’s a list that will allow you to preview which culinary mushroom varieties will be covered here:
Cremini mushrooms are also known as baby bella (short for baby portobella, even though the latter is more often spelled portobello these days). And like their larger cousin, they’re a brown, earthy-tasting mushroom that is, if anything, even more versatile.
Cremini mushrooms are cultivated, and often come with a fair amount of dirt, so clean them carefully. You can use the stem (if clean) or discard, as you prefer. Though they’re not as perishable as some other mushrooms, it’s still good to use them within 2 or 3 days of purchase for optimal freshness.
The earthiness and umami of cremini mushrooms are heightened with light cooking, and there’s no category of savory dishes in which they’re not welcome. They can be used interchangeably with white mushrooms, and are welcome in appetizers, soups, stews, potato dishes, vegan garbanzo flour omelets, tofu quiches, and used to top plant-based pizza.
- Lemony Asparagus with Mushrooms
- Chickpeas & Green Beans with Balsamic Mushrooms
- Pulled Mushroom BBQ Sandwiches
ENOKI (Enokitake, Enokidake)
With their long, slender stems and tiny caps, enoki are among the most exotic mushrooms readily available today. The shape and delicate flavor of the enoki mushroom might fool the eye and palate into believing that it is some sort of noodle. Generally imported from Japan, the cultivation of this mushroom is not unheard of in North America.
Time was when you could only hope to find canned enoki mushrooms in natural food stores and Asian groceries. Now, you can look for them fresh in supermarkets and Asian groceries.
Use them up quickly, as they’re highly perishable.
To prepare: simply separate them from the stem and rinse gently and make sure all grit is removed. Use right away, either lightly cooked or raw. Either way, blot gently with paper towel or clean tea towel
- Lightly cooked or raw enoki mushrooms are especially nice combined in a salad with snow peas, bok choy, sprouts, grated daikon and/or tender greens, and dressed in a sesame-ginger salad dressing.
- Enoki mushrooms can be added to brothy soups toward the end of cooking time. You don’t want them to get overcooked.
- Use as garnish for steamed vegetables or add to stir-fries at the last minute.
- Combine with fresh green beans with a bit of vegan butter, salt, and pepper.
- Enoki Mushrooms with Garlic and Scallion Sauce
- Warm Mushroom Salad with Sesame Dressing
- Vegetable Soup with Enoki Mushrooms & Bok Choy
In Japanese, maitake means “dancing mushroom.” Could it be perhaps because those who found them in the wild danced with joy to come upon them? Maitake mushrooms are also known as “hen of the woods.” They grow wild, literally in the woods — often, at the base of dead oak trees — but can also be cultivated.
As delicious as mistake mushroom is to consume, it’s one of the mushrooms considered to have a number of medicinal properties.
Maitake mushrooms are intensely flavored and have a texture that appeals to most palates, you won’t want to have them get lost in a dish. It’s best to prepare them simply. It’s not easy to find maitake mushrooms, so if you’re ambitious, have some dead wood, and are very, very patient, you can grow your own.
To get them ready, cut off the tough base and separated the feathery-looking sections. You can simply give them a quick rinse, since they don’t grow in dirt like some other mushrooms.
A simple sauté in a little vegan butter or olive oil (adding a chopped clove or two of garlic doesn’t hurt) until lightly golden brown is probably the best way to enjoy these mushrooms. Enjoy alone or combine with a steamed vegetable like green beans or asparagus.
- Seared Maitake Mushrooms with Leek Rémoulade
- Maitake Mushroom Soup
- Grilled Thai Marinated Maitake Mushrooms
OYSTER MUSHROOMS (Shimeji)
Mild, silken-capped oyster mushrooms are supposedly so named because they are thought to taste like and resemble oysters when prepared in certain ways. Oyster mushrooms grow prolifically in many parts of the world, but they’re particularly well loved in Asian cuisines.
It has become increasingly easy to find fresh oyster mushrooms in Western markets. They’re also easy to grow at home with a kit.
The mild flavor and firm texture of oyster mushrooms make them versatile enough to use in any dish where ordinary mushrooms are called for.
- They take to marinating beautifully, after which they may be sliced and used as a condiment or added to green salads or cold noodle dishes.
- Oyster mushrooms may also be simply sliced and added to brothy soups, where their delicate flavor can be appreciated.
- To serve as an appetizer, cut them in half and sauté in a small amount of vegan butter until golden brown. Add a squeeze of lemon and some minced scallion
- Because they have a nice amount of surface area, oyster mushrooms are also excellent to bread before sautéing.
- Try substituting oyster mushrooms for ordinary mushrooms in vegan egg-style dishes like garbanzo flour omelets.
Porcini are among the priciest of mushrooms, so you may need to savor them as a special treat. They’re also one of the mushrooms that are easier to find in dried form. Dried porcinis can be a bit less expensive than fresh, and easier to find, but are still no bargain.
Known as king bolete or cepes, porcinis have a cap that’s reminiscent of shiitake, but a thicker stem that’s usable. Especially beloved in French and Italian cuisines, porcini mushrooms have an earthy flavor that is also sometimes described as nutty.
Porcinis are delicate, so extra care must be taken in preparation. Rather than rinse them, clean gently with a damp paper towel.
Because these mushrooms are so precious, they should be used in dishes in which they can stand out. Perhaps that’s why one of their best-known uses is in risotto. They’re also used in soups and pasta dishes, and can go into any recipe in which you’d use mushrooms like cremini or shiitake (that is if you’ve had a windfall!).
Here’s some more useful information on porcini mushrooms.
If ever the terms meaty and “earthy are applied to mushrooms, they’re especially fitting in the case of portobellos. They’re variously spelled portobella and portabella, but lately, I see it spelled most frequently with the two o’s.
These hefty mushrooms originated in Italy and though they seem to have sprung up in the U.S. in the 1980s or so, they’ve been around for millennia.
With their large, plump caps, these mushrooms are the best choice for grilling and stuffing completely intact. Portobellos can also be sliced and broiled, sautéed, marinated, and added to stir-fries, pilafs, and pasta dishes. Make sure to use them cooked and not raw‚ since portobellos contain a natural toxin that dissipates with cooking.
To prepare, rinse or wipe clean with a damp cloth or paper towel, and remove the stem. Fortunately, most portobellos are cultivated indoors, so what’s on them isn’t as much of a concern as it was when they grew outdoors.
If you’re going to stuff them, carefully scrape out the gills, but otherwise leave them intact (unless you don’t like the gills; in that case, scrape away). Then, slice or cut in whatever way you need.
If you want to get into the weeds, so to speak, here’s some detailed info on portobello mushrooms.
- Stuff them with a simple grain pilaf for a pleasing presentation.
- Use your favorite marinade (teriyaki marinade, for example) and cook them on a grill for making portobello “burgers” served on buns with your favorite condiments.
- Toss them into stir-fries and sauté with onions and garlic to add to pilafs or to top cooked grains or pasta.
- Easy Creamy Coleslaw and Portobello Wraps
- Quick Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms
- Vegan Portobello Pot Roast
Intensely flavored shiitake mushrooms are a favorite variety in several Asian cuisines. Shiitakes are now being cultivated in the United States in addition to being imported.
Once only found in dried form in Western markets, shiitakes are now widely available fresh. They’re quite a bit pricier than ordinary mushrooms, but a little goes a long way.
Dried shiitakes: To have shiitakes on hand and available, you might consider keeping a quantity of them in dried form. Store them in a tightly capped jar in a cool, dry place and they’ll keep for at least a year.
To reconstitute, soak the mushrooms in hot water to cover for about 15 minutes, or until pliable. Squeeze them lightly, then remove and discard the tough stems and slice the caps. Save the flavorful soaking liquid for use in stocks and sauces. Shiitakes and their liquid are among ingredients often used to make the Japanese soup stock called dashi (vegans are going to leave out the bonito flakes, of course).
Shiitakes are quite versatile, and their uses should not be limited to the traditional. Use them in any recipe where standard mushrooms are called for, and where they’re not needed in great quantity — due only to their cost.
- Use them as you would ordinary mushrooms in grain pilafs, noodle dishes, soups, and stews.
- Add them to give flavor and texture to vegetable stir-fry recipes.
- Turn them into delicious plant-based “bacon” and use as a topping for savory hot cereal like steel-cut oats or grits, in sandwiches, or anywhere you want a bacon-y flavor. See a sample recipe, listed just below.
- Savory Steel-Cut Oats with Vegan Mushroom “Bacon”
- Vegan Caramelized Onion Pizza with Shiitake “Bacon”
- Gingery Miso Mushroom Soup
- Braised Bok Choy with Shiitake Mushrooms
Cremini and white mushrooms
If you like mushrooms, chances are great that you’ve had white mushrooms — they’re the most commonly cultivated variety in the world, constituting about 90% of the mushrooms on the market.
White mushrooms aren’t as interesting, flavor- and appearance-wise as other mushrooms, including all those listed above but are certainly not devoid of taste and texture, and are the most economical mushrooms to purchase. They’re also not devoid of beneficial properties, as you’ll read about here.
Like many of the mushrooms listed here, white mushrooms are cultivated, but you’ll want to give them a good cleaning. If you rinse them, you need to use them right away. If they look fairly clean, you still want to wipe them with a damp paper towel. Whether you used the stems or not is up to you; if they’re clean and not gnarled, there’s no reason not to.
White mushrooms come in an array of sizes, from tiny buttons to caps that are about 3 inches wide. There’s no real variation in flavor; with the smallest button mushrooms, it’s nice to just clean them and use whole.
White mushrooms are interchangeable with cremini, and as described in the listing of the latter, these common mushrooms can be used in almost any culinary category: Appetizers, soups, stews, potato dishes, vegan garbanzo flour omelets, tofu quiches, and used to top plant-based pizza. Not everyone likes uncooked mushrooms, but if you do, you can also use them raw in salads.
- Polenta with Mushrooms & Chickpeas
- Sautéed Garlic Mushrooms with Sriracha and Parsley
- Smashed Potatoes with Vegan Mushroom Gravy
This variety is also known as cloud-ear, tree-ear, and black tree fungus. Paper-thin when dried, one side of the wood-ear is almost black and the other side is tan, with fluted edges.
Most often available in dried form, this mushroom has little flavor, so its appeal lies mainly in its chewy texture. In addition, in Chinese and other Asian traditions, wood-ears have been associated with longevity.
Store dried wood-ears in a tightly lidded container in a cool, dry place, where they’ll keep for at least a year. When in doubt, refrigerate or freeze.
When reconstituted, the cloud-ear increases almost alarmingly in volume. Just 1/4 to 1/2 ounce dried is sufficient for an average recipe, unless you have an unusually strong passion for it.
To reconstitute: Sources differ widely as to how long wood-ears must be soaked, ranging from a soaking in hot water for 30 minutes to several hours’ simmering.
Covering them with boiling water in an oven-proof dish and letting them stand, off the heat and covered, for 45 to 60 minutes (depending on whether they’ll be further cooked in a recipe) usually is sufficient. Longer soaking doesn’t seem to change the texture.
After soaking, drain and cut into strips or bite-size pieces. Reserve the liquid for use in soup stocks and sauces, if you’d like. Exotic as wood-ears are, they simply aren’t flavorful enough to be the focus of a dish, but you can enhance your dishes with them in a number of ways:
- Add to stir-fried vegetable dishes, soups, and Asian noodle dishes.
- Stir-fry wood-ear strips in a combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, and dry sherry, and use as a garnish for pan-fried tofu or simple cooked brown rice.
- Wood-ears are especially nice in dishes containing other types of mushrooms.
- Wood-Ear Mushroom Salad
- Wood-Ear Mushroom Vegan Stir-Fry
- 8 Vegan Recipes with Dried Wood-Ear Mushrooms
If you enjoyed this guide to common culinary mushroom varieties, see more of our helpful food guides.
All photos: BigStock