March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
They might be a type of fungus, but don't let that scare you away. Mushrooms are an excellent addition to your dinner plate: They're tasty, healthy and versatile. "Because mushrooms impart a fifth taste sense called umami, which is savory, hearty and 'meat-like,' mushrooms are an economical and nutritious way to enhance your main course," says Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Mushrooms are low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals. "Like all vegetables, they are nutrient-rich ... without many calories," says Thayer. One cup of raw sliced mushrooms has approximately 20 calories. Mushrooms are a good source of potassium and, depending on the variety, can provide selenium and copper. Mushrooms have significant amounts of three B-complex vitamins: riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid. The B vitamins help release energy from the fat, protein and carbohydrates in food.
"They can also be excellent sources of vitamin D if they have been exposed to ultraviolet light right before or after harvesting," Thayer explains.
There are more than 2,000 varieties of edible mushrooms. They come in many shapes, sizes and textures. Some of the most common edible mushrooms include:
- Agaricus (White or Button): White button are the most common mushrooms to appear on grocery store shelves. "They have a mild taste," says Thayer. Use them in just about anything from salads to sauces.
- Chanterelles: Chanterelles are funnel- or trumpet-shaped mushrooms with a fruity, apricot-like aroma and mild, peppery taste. Most are yellow or orange.
- Crimini or Italian Brown: "Crimini look similar to the white button, but are a little darker in color and have an earthier/stronger taste," says Thayer.
- Enoki or Enokitake: Enoki mushrooms are often used in Asian cuisine (particularly soups). They are long-stemmed and white, often packaged in clusters, and have a delicate flavor.
- Morel: Morels have a distinctive honeycomb-like shape and vary in color from light yellow to dark brown. They are earthy in flavor and should be cooked before eating.
- Oyster: Oyster mushrooms are smooth, trumpet-shaped and have a light flavor.
- Porcini: Porcini are reddish brown and have a nutty flavor. Try them in a classic Italian risotto.
- Portobello: Portobellos are larger, firmer and have a meatier taste, says Thayer. "[They] make great 'burgers' — I like to marinate in Italian dressing and then put them on the grill."
- Shiitake: Like portobellos, shiitakes have a meatier taste and are better cooked than raw, says Thayer.
One word of caution, says Thayer, "Don't pick and eat mushrooms in the wild that you don't know are safe. There are poisonous mushrooms."
Mushrooms provide plenty of opportunity in the kitchen. And, according to Thayer, this is one vegetable you're better off cooking as it releases more of the nutrients. Try grilling, stir-frying and sautéing to limit fat. Mushrooms can enhance certain dishes, but can also be a great substitute for meat in your entrees. "Chop them up and mix them in lasagnas, spaghetti, chili, even mixed with ground beef to make a burger that's part mushroom/part ground beef," says Thayer. Some other ideas to incorporate mushrooms on your plate:
- Cook mushrooms in sauces and pair with whole-grain pasta dishes.
- Combine mushrooms and vegetables in whole-grain wraps.
- Skewer mushrooms, peppers, squash and tomatoes; then, grill until slightly charred.
- Top a pizza or fill an omelet with mushrooms.
- Add dried mushrooms to risotto dishes and soups.
Selection, Storage and Prep
In general, says Thayer, choose mushrooms with a firm texture, even color and tightly closed caps. They can be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag for up to one week, but Thayer recommends using them within a few days. To prep: "Brush them off with your finger then rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. Do not soak them," says Thayer. "Some mushrooms, like shiitakes, should have their stem trimmed before cooking."