There are more than 10,000 types of fungi growing around the world. Some of these fungi produce above-ground reproductive organs – what we call mushrooms. According to mycologists, there are likely thousands more species of fungi that have yet to be discovered.
All fungi fit into one of four categories, which have to do with how the fungi feed themselves and reproduce.
release enzymes and acids that promote decomposition, so they’re often found on decaying plants, wood, and animal feces. The decomposition process is what feeds these mushrooms, which is why they’re so essential to our ecosystem.
Most edible mushrooms used in cooking are the reproductive bodies of saprotrophic fungi. While the majority of the fungi expand in a large network of cells underground or within decaying organic matter, they need to release their spores into the outside environment in order to spread and reproduce.
Mushrooms serve this purpose by releasing spores into the environment, which can be carried by the wind or animals to new locations. Common edible saprotrophic mushrooms include shiitake, white button, morel, and oyster mushrooms.
Unlike saprotrophic mushrooms, mycorrhizal mushrooms grow by weaving themselves into the roots of trees and other types of plants. This gives moisture and nutrients to the plants, while the mushrooms eat the sugars produced by the vegetation. Porcini mushrooms are likely the most commonly eaten mycorrhizal fungi. Some varieties never come above ground, making these fungi harder to find and observe.
For example, one of the most expensive mushrooms in the world – the White Truffle – is a type of mycorrhizal mushroom. These mushrooms grow symbiotically with oak, poplar, hazel, and beech trees. Essentially, mycorrhizal mushrooms break down nutrients for the tree and the roots of the tree provide the mushroom with sugar in a mutually beneficial relationship.
The prized “white truffle” is simply the underground reproductive body created by the network of fungi surrounding the roots of these trees. Because they are hard to see, many truffle hunters train pigs to find the mushrooms by scent to help locate and unearth these tasty fungi!
Parasitic fungi grow similarly to mycorrhizal mushrooms, but the relationship is really only beneficial to the mushroom because they will eventually infect and kill their host. While these fungi are not necessarily valuable as an edible species, they can serve a number of valuable functions for humans.
For example, the company Fungi Perfecti has patented cultures of a mushroom specifically designed to infect and kill an invasive ant colony. Unlike harsh chemicals and poisons normally used to eradicate these pests, parasitic mushrooms have evolved to infect only certain species of ants and are completely harmless to humans and other organisms!
are also invasive in a parasitic way, but instead of killing their host, they deliver nutrients and help combat harmful pathogens. This is the least studied type of fungi, and many researchers believe that some types of saprotrophic and parasitic mushrooms could actually be endophytic.
Most Common Varieties of Edible Mushrooms
These mushrooms are the most commonly used culinary mushrooms. They are not psychedelic or dangerous in any way, and all are packed with nutrients and boast plenty of health benefits. Be sure to read our page on the health benefits of mushrooms to discover the many reasons why fungi are an important part of the human diet.
White Button / Cremini / Portobello
While all three of these mushroom types are marketed with different names in the grocery store, they are actually all just varieties of the same species – Agaricus bisporus.
White button mushrooms are the most common type of mushroom consumed in the world. White button mushrooms are a pure-white variety, which you’ll often find sliced in the grocery store. Cremini mushrooms are browner in color than the white buttons, plus their texture is meatier and their flavor is more robust. They are often sold as “baby bellos”. Portobellos are simply the full-grown version of a Cremini, and they make a great burger replacement!
Shiitake mushrooms are most common in Japanese cuisine, but you can find them in stores all over the world. They have a thinner stem than the cremini family and often come in dried form for cooking (or eating as a snack). Plus, shiitake mushrooms have been found to have powerful effects on the immune system and may reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Morel mushrooms are the wrinkly wild mushrooms that look like a tiny brain on a stick. They are harder to cultivate in large quantities, so they’re typically found in the wild rather than at the grocery store. They taste similar to shiitake, with a stronger, more nutty flavor.
Oyster mushrooms have a thicker stem and a smaller cap than other types of mushrooms. They’re also one of the chewiest varieties. Oyster mushrooms are a commonly foraged mushroom because they have no poisonous doppelgangers, so it’s almost always a safe choice.
Porcini mushrooms are a common ingredient in Italian cuisine. They are brown to reddish-brown in color, and harder to cultivate because of their mycorrhizal growth in the roots of plants. The spongy caps and thick stems have a rich and robust flavor, especially when dried. Dried porcini can easily be added to soups, pasta, and other recipes to enhance flavor.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms are commonly consumed as supplements due to their high nutritional profile, but also have a rich taste that many chefs love to use in their cooking. As long as the strands and inner meat of the lion’s mane mushroom are white, it is considered safe to eat.
They are commonly found in the wild between August and November and are easily identified by their shaggy white mane. Unlike everything else on this list, Lion’s Mane mushrooms have no cap. Instead, they have small “teeth-like” strands that fasten them to their host.