Mushrooms are delicious, both as a main course and as a compliment to many foods and sauces. Some mushrooms are cultivated, but most of the highly prized, rarer mushrooms are only found in the wild. Not only can they be eaten as food, but also for their medicinal purposes.
However, it is of utmost importance to identify a mushroom as edible before eating it, as there are poisonous mushrooms that can be mistaken for edible mushrooms to the untrained eye. Here are a few of the most highly saught after gourmet mushrooms:
Truffles are a rare type of mushroom that grows below the surface amid the roots of certain trees. They are considered a delicacy in the culinary world. In 1847 Auguste Rousseau successfully began farming truffles, but nowadays they are mainly gathered in the wild making them one of the most expensive items on restaurant menus.
Truffles are found primarily in France, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia as well as in some parts of the United States, Africa, and the Middle East.
Truffle season runs from fall to spring and truffle hunting must be carried out by special truffle hogs or dogs. Truffle hogs were typically used in the past, because truffles give off a smell similar to that of a male hog, so they were easy for female hogs to find. Today, dogs (particularly the Lagnotto Romagnolo breed) are being used for this task.
Some of the more popular and desirable types of truffles include the Italian white truffle, the French black truffle, Chinese truffles, and summer truffles which are mostly found in Italy. Truffles can cost anywhere from $670 – $2200 USD per pound.
Truffles are typically used sparingly due to their high price, and can be bought fresh, dried, or preserved in brine. Truffles can be eaten raw, but are also used to add their distinctive flavor to cheeses and cured meats. Truffles are also used to make truffle oil, which is lower in cost and a good substitute for truffles as it provides the truffle flavor without the accompanying price tag.
However, it is important to buy good quality truffle oil as cheaper versions often contain no truffles at all. They consist of artificially flavored olive oil.
Chanterelles have a deep golden/orange color and grow wild in different parts of the world. European and Asian varieties are usually thumb sized, while those in the US range from fist sizes to larger, weighing two pounds or more. Chanterelles are highly prized for their distinctive earthy flavor and are used in a range of dishes.
Like truffles, they typically grow around certain trees making it very difficult to cultivate them. It is not advisable for untrained people to hunt for chanterelles as they can easily be mistaken with the Jack-O-Lantern, a poisonous mushroom.
Porcini mushrooms grow wild in evergreen forests across of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in Europe where they also have a long tradition in local cuisines. They have never been successfully cultivated, and are freshly available only in the fall. Collecting porcini mushrooms is generally safe as they do not resemble any poisonous mushrooms.
Porcini have a wonderfully nutty and earthy taste, and their firm flesh lends itself perfectly for use in a variety of dishes, most notable risotto, pasta, and soups. Young porcini are especially favored by chefs and gourmets alike as the older mushrooms tend to have a less intense taste, are often infested with worms and their flesh can be slimy rather than firm.
The high water content of porcini makes them ideal for drying, which intensifies their flavor. Good quality dried porcini mushrooms should consist of larger slices or cut up pieces rather than small crumbs or dust. They need to be reconstituted in hot water before they can be used for cooking.
The water can then be used when cooking risotto, adding a wonderful earthy flavor. Look for dried porcini from small Italian producers rather than brands found in supermarkets as these are often imported from China and of lesser quality.
Morels have a conical top with a distinctive honey-comb pattern. They only occur in the wild and are greatly valued for their taste, especially in France where they are highly popular. Several types of morels can be found in the wild, with yellow, white, and black morels being the most common ones.
Black morels are often considered to be superior in taste to other morels. Morels can easily be mistaken for a number of false morels which are poisonous. Morels should not be eaten raw as they contain small amounts of toxic substances which are eliminated during the cooking process. They are available fresh only in the spring, but can be dried which intensifies their flavor. Like porcini, they need to be reconstituted in hot water.