The word “mushroom” conjures a number of associations for people. For many, the image of a wildly colorful fungus or toadstool comes to mind. While botanically correct, this connotation may be less than appealing, especially regarding ‘shrooms with oddball names like stinkhorn and yellow-pored scaber-stalk. But this extraordinary and diverse group of organisms play an important role in the ecosystem. They form the mycelium, the network of filaments (hyphae) that reside underground and participate in the earth’s recycling program by decomposing organic matter in the soil into food for the green canopy above. Some even form symbiotic relationships with the plants they serve.
Mushrooms are also unique in that, unlike animals that digest food internally, they are able to digest food externally and then draw the nutrients into their own cells. This makes mushrooms in general loaded with nutrients, particularly B vitamins, folate, vitamin D (in sun-loving varieties) and calcium, iron, potassium, selenium and other trace minerals. Due to the presence of polysaccharides, glycoproteins and other compounds, certain species offer a variety of other health benefits as well, most notably anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects. In fact, about half of the edible species of mushrooms are considered functional foods. Here are a few varieties to get to know…
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga has been used in Russian traditional medicine for hundreds of years. It contains a group of polysaccharides called beta-glucans that stimulate the immune system to increase production of lymphocytes, specialized white cells that create antibodies to fend off invading pathogens. Chaga is also abundant in antioxidants. A single cup of strong chaga infusion (tea) has an antioxidant value equivalent to – brace yourself -- 30 pounds of carrots.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
This species of mushroom has remained popular in Chinese traditional medicine since the Han Dynasty. Reishi is dubbed the Queen of mushrooms due to its anti-aging properties. In addition to also being highly antioxidant, adaptogenic and immune-boosting, reishi is reputed to promote better sleep and to counter the effects of oxidant damage in cellular DNA in the skin and brain. It is also thought to enhance the elimination of toxins. In addition, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, this is your ‘shroom of choice.
Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
Also known as forest mushroom and hua gu, this Asian species provides a significant amount of fiber and B vitamins, as well as amino acids. This mushroom is also rich in terpenoids, sterols and lipids that are responsible for its anticarcinogenic and cholesterol-lowering properties. In Japan, which produces more than 80% of the world’s supply, shiitake is attributed with “umami,” a term that refers to a flavor profile that embraces the taste sensations of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory, all at the same time.
You don’t have to be a mycologist or even leave your house to go “mushrooming” at all. You can easily bring the world of edible mushrooms into your diet by reconstituting dried forms in soups and stews and teas (works well with chai recipes, too). Powdered mushrooms can be added to smoothies, soups, stir-fries and other cooked foods, or the powder can be encapsulated and taken as a dietary supplement. Another option is to make an extract (recipe follows) to be added to teas, tonics, broths, etc.
How to Make a Mushroom Extract
This is a form of tincture, but because mushrooms contain both alcohol soluble agents (i.e., triterpenes) and water soluble compounds (i.e., beta-glucans), a two-step process is needed to extract all of the beneficial components. This method is known as a double-extraction. Don’t let the term scare you off…the process is actually quite simple.
Fill a clean mason jar halfway with a dried mushroom of your choice (or a combination of mushrooms). Cover the mushrooms with vodka that is at least 80-proof. Be sure the mushrooms are completely submerged but leave a half-inch space at the top. Replace the lid and place in a cool, dark location for 4 weeks, giving the jar a turn once each day. At the end of the infusion period, strain and reserve the liquid and mushrooms separately. Transfer the liquid into another clean jar; set aside.
Add 8 cups of filtered water to a Dutch oven. Bring to the boil and then immediately reduce to a simmer. Add the reserved mushrooms. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced to 2 cups (16 oz.), about 2 hours. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
Strain the mushrooms (compost!), reserving the water. Combine with the alcohol extract and bottle. This method yields a double-extract of about 25% alcohol, so it will be shelf stable.