You’ve stumbled on mushrooms growing in fields and forests, but have you ever stopped to wonder how the piles of shrooms in the supermarket actually made it to the produce aisle? Farmers aren’t harvesting them from the woods…right? Right. They’re growing them in secret climate-controlled bunkers.
Well, almost. The mysteries of mushroom production are revealed in the first episode of How Does it Grow?—a video series I created that traces our food to our plates, one crop at a time. (Rice, lentils, chickpeas: Do you know how any of these actually grow?) This video is peppered with facts you probably didn’t know about mushrooms, and here are just a few.
1. Mushrooms are more closely related to humans than to plants. As fungi, mushrooms don’t process chlorophyll or mimic many of the processes that define a plant. Plus, their genetics are more similar to ours than are any of their pals in the produce section.
2. Mushrooms haven’t been fully swept into the industrial food system. Modern technology may have revolutionized agriculture, but the American mushroom industry hasn’t reaped many of the benefits. Because mushrooms are very easily damaged and can’t be grown in neat little rows (video spoiler alert: mushrooms don’t grow from seeds), the fungi are painstakingly picked by hand.
3. Mushroom farms stink. If you’re ever traveling through a concentrated area of mushroom farms, your nose will surely know it. The pungent odor, however, is not the fault of the crop itself but of the smelly compost that mushrooms grow in.
4. Mushrooms can be nutty and sweet, but only if you eat them fast. Like most produce, the mushrooms you buy from the supermarket have lost some of their flavor by the time they hit your table. A mushroom picked fresh from its planting bed has both a nuttiness and a sweetness that few people ever get to taste.
5. Portobellos were once cremini. The big-P caps are prized for their size and meaty texture, and are considered a different kind of mushroom before they hit that size. When cremini are allowed to grow big enough for their veils to break (what’s a veil? Ahem… watch the video) and their moisture content drops so that they become a little drier (which means more concentrated flavor), that’s when cremini are called portobellos.
6. Shiitake, maitake…do you see a pattern here? Take is the Japanese word for mushroom. The shii in shiitake refers to the shii tree. It’s a type of oak tree that these mushrooms are fond of growing on. However, mai means “dance” in Japanese. One story goes that the mushroom got its name because people literally danced with joy upon finding them. Hey, you didn’t know you spoke Japanese!
7. Learn to love the fuzz. Speaking of shiitake, the next time you think you’ve spotted a pack of moldy ones in the supermarket, look a little closer. While most commonly cultivated mushrooms are smooth, shiitakes have a bit of natural fuzz on their caps. Most shiitakes lose this fuzz from being handled and processed before reaching the supermarket.