The Healing Power of Mushrooms
This excerpt from an article about Tero Isokauppila, whose family has farmed mushrooms since the early 1600's might answer some of your mushroom questions! Our mountains are bursting with mushrooms and the fundamentals are fun to learn about! Always do your research and be clear on what you are picking, cooking, and eating!
Why are mushrooms so healing? What’s so fundamentally beneficial about them?
Here’s a shocking fact: As humans, we share almost half of our genetic makeup with mushrooms, and are affected by a lot of the same diseases and problems as mushrooms. Thus, we can easily take advantage of the special immune-enhancing benefits and other survival methods that they build for themselves.
For thousands of years, ancient cultures all over the world have been using the fundamentally healing properties of mushrooms without any side-effects. So-called medicinal mushrooms have given us many important pharmaceutical medicines from penicillin to the first statin drugs and several anticancer treatments. Actually about 40% of western medicines nowadays utilize mushrooms.
Which part of the mushroom is the most valuable?
The whole mushroom is valuable. There is not a defined difference in the medicinal effects present in the stem or the cap. I prefer to use the whole mushroom, thus combining both just to utilize it all and not waste any of the good stuff.
Keep in mind that the “mushroom” is the visible part of the fungi in the forest (the fruiting body), or the kind you would buy from the grocery store. The root (the mycelium) is the part one shouldn’t eat, even though many supplements and capsulated products on the market are made from this cheaper mycelial biomass. The fruiting body is the part where the fungi collects all of its reproducing energy just like an apple tree collects it in the apple we eat.
Do all mushrooms have the same healing properties, or are different varieties beneficial for specific things?
Are mushrooms as beneficial when they’re dehydrated as when they’re fresh?
Medicinal mushrooms—like chaga and reishi—need to be extracted in hot water and alcohol in order to extract the fat soluble compounds and make the bioactive components bioavailable. It doesn’t matter if the extraction is done with fresh or dehydrated mushrooms.
The process is not overly-complicated, but it does take a long time. It’s almost like making bone broth at home. Essentially, you need to cook/boil the mushroom pieces for 12 to 24 hours for the water soluble benefits to become available (mostly good for the immune system). This is called the decoction. The fat soluble compounds (mostly “adaptogenic” which help balance the hormones) can be extracted with alcohol (called tincture) by putting the same mushroom pieces you had cooked into any strong alcohol for 4-8 weeks.
With edible mushrooms like porcini, the flavors tend to become concentrated when dehydrated. Even edible mushrooms unlock their flavor and health benefits when they are cooked with some fat (coconut oil, ghee, etc.) as a lot of their power is also in the fat soluble compounds, like with the more medicinal tree mushrooms.
If you dry any mushroom in direct sunlight, they convert the sun’s UV-rays into vitamin D, which is a great thing. Vitamin D is one of the most studied compounds in the world for our health, as many people are actually deficient in it. Mushrooms are also one of the only and best sources of vegan vitamin D supplementation.
You mentioned that stronger tasting mushrooms (reishi, chaga) have more health benefits—are cultivated mushrooms like white button mushrooms still good for us?
We all know the saying “tastes like medicine,” and the same goes with strong tasting, bitter mushrooms. There are differences between each mushroom species, and some contain more of the healthy components, which can be identified by their bitter taste. With today’s optimized cultivation techniques it doesn’t make a big difference with most mushrooms if the species are wild-crafted or cultivated. For example reishi mushrooms grown on real logs in greenhouses are as potent as the wild ones.
White button mushrooms or Portobello mushrooms cultivated on farms can still be great food and contain some valuable nutrients, but they are not even close to as medicinal as the more potent species are.
Do mushrooms need to be cooked in order to extract their value? If so, what preparation is best?
The cell walls of mushrooms consist of a hard compound which our digestive system cannot break down. It is the same stuff that lobster shell is made of, chitin, which I bet you wouldn’t want to chew on either. The good news is that high heat melts this down and allows the good stuff to dissolve from within the cells. The process is somewhat similar to making bone broth.
The medicinal mushrooms, in particular, are most often woody and hard polypores—they have to be boiled for several hours in water to get the value out of them.
For some of the soft mushrooms, such as button mushrooms or porcini, a good, long marinating in an acidic liquid can take care of some of this “cooking,” but exposing any of these edible mushrooms to heat by boiling, frying, or steaming will ensure that we get all of the nutrition and health effects we are looking for.
Lemon or vinegar based marinades tend to be the most popular ones. The spice part is a whole art form, but usually people add salt, pepper, oil, and fresh herbs. You could also use soy. The mushrooms are typically left in the marinade liquid for 1-12 hours (I wouldn’t keep them in the marinade for more than 24 hours). Essentially, it requires a lot of experimentation with flavor, type of mushroom, and the dish they are served with.