Tennessee guide to mushrooms: varieties, nutritional value and more

Mushrooms are one of those rare kinds of produce we can enjoy year round in Tennessee, and there are dozens of varieties.

But what should you look for when buying mushrooms? What kind of nutritional value can you expect? And what kinds grow best here in Tennessee?

WellTuned talked to David Wells, mushroom farmer and owner of Middle Tennessee’s HENOSIS, to learn more.

What are mushrooms?

“People tend to think of mushrooms as plants or animals, but they’re actually in their own kingdom: fungus,” says Wells. “The toadstool of a mushroom is similar to the fruit of a plant.”

Thousands of organisms are classified as fungi, including yeast and mold, and the antibiotic penicillin is actually produced by fungi. Unlike plants, mushrooms don’t use sunlight to make energy; instead they absorb nutrition from organic substances just as animals do.

What’s the nutritional value of mushrooms?

“Nutritionally, mushrooms absorb a lot of vitamin D as they grow,” says Wells. “Mushrooms are also high in zinc and selenium, so they’re a great way to get these vitamins and minerals naturally.”

In general, all mushrooms are:

  • High in vitamin D and zinc
  • Rich in copper, which helps your body make red blood cells
  • A good source of selenium, an antioxidant that protects your body and immune system
  • Rich in heart-healthy B vitamins, which aid in digestion and hormone production and keep skin healthy
  • High in potassium, which improves heart, muscle and nerve function

Nutritional value of mushrooms varies by type. For example, chanterelles are high in fiber, minerals and protein, while button mushrooms are low in the few nutrients they do contain.

Still, all mushrooms are healthy to eat because they’re:

  • Low in sodium and calories
  • Free of fat and cholesterol
  • A good source of protein

“If you substitute mushrooms for meat, you’ll get about half the protein of meat and none of the saturated fat,” says Wells.

What kinds of mushrooms are most common in Tennessee?

There are two varieties: cultivated and wild.

Cultivated mushrooms

Cultivated mushrooms include button, portobello, shiitake or oyster mushrooms. You’ll find these in most grocery stores.

Button and cremini mushrooms are both immature portobello mushrooms. Their designations change from “white button” or “cremini” to “portobello” when they reach 4 inches in diameter.

portobello mushrooms

Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are increasingly common as well. They have stronger flavors than button mushrooms, and they’re high in beta glucan, a dietary fiber that may improve cholesterol and heart health. If you typically only eat button or portobello mushrooms, shiitakes and oysters are an easy next step.

shiitake mushrooms

Lion’s mane mushrooms are also growing in popularity. Also called the ‘hedgehog mushroom” because of their shaggy appearance, they have a texture similar to crab and are known for their mood- and brain-boosting capabilities.

“Lion’s mane mushrooms have a high water content, so you need to start by extruding the water,” says Wells. “Cook them on a dry skillet or microwave them for a few seconds. Then you can cook them in butter or oil or add them directly to dishes.”

Lion’s mane mushrooms

Wild mushrooms

Wild mushrooms include truffles, morels and chanterelles. Because they must be foraged off of tree roots or other living things, they’re often easier to find at local markets, specialty stores or from growers.

Commonly foraged mushrooms in Tennessee include:

  • Chanterelles, which have a fruity, apricot taste and are found naturally in Tennessee from June-September
  • Chicken of the woods or sulfur shelf, which are bright orangey yellow and often taste like chicken
  • Hen of the woods or maitake, which are grey with a texture like an oyster
  • Morels, which are meaty and nutty with a honeycomb top and a short harvesting window (March-April)
  • Puffballs, which have a pillowy texture and can grow as big as basketballs

“When puffballs are young, they’re white with a pillowy texture,” says Wells. “When they’re mature, if you step on them, they produce a big puff of ‘green smoke,’ which is actually spores. If you buy puffballs, score them the same way you would a steak and fry them in a little bit of butter or oil. They have a great meaty texture.”

Are there benefits to buying local mushrooms?

“Produce degrades quickly when it’s shipped a long distance, so it’s always good to buy local if you can,” says Wells. “Oyster mushrooms break down especially fast. In general, local mushrooms should have more nutrients, taste better and be more satisfying.”

What should people look for when buying mushrooms?

“Mushrooms are all about texture,” says Wells. “Avoid any that are slimy, damp or dry, and any with green or red discoloration, which could be mold. White splotches, on the other hand, are natural; mushrooms are activated fungi, which means they’re still evolving after they’re harvested, and white spots on the cap should be fine. If you really can’t tell, do a quick sniff test. If they smell like fish or anything close to that, toss them.”

How should you store mushrooms?

“Mushrooms need air, so store them in an open paper bag in a cool, dark place, or put them in a crisper drawer in the fridge by themselves,” says Wells. “Don’t put anything on top of them, and never store them in plastic. They need to breathe.”

What’s your favorite way to eat mushrooms?

“Easy: mushroom toast,” says Wells. “Cook the mushrooms in butter with a little salt and pepper, add a splash of cream and serve them on a toasted piece of good bread. Sometimes I’ll add parsley or sun dried tomatoes. It’s a delicious dish, and one that lets you taste the mushroom, and it’s a great source of protein. Simple comfort food at its best.”

Want more mushrooms? Read 11 fruits and vegetables to eat year-round in Tennessee

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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