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The bizarre beauty of mushroom meat

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The bizarre beauty of mushroom meat

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So you’ve gone vegan, and there are loads of new meat alternative options now, right? But then you start to realise…what’s with all the mushrooms? They’re everywhere! Mushroom sausages, mushroom chicken wings, mushroom bacon, mushroom minced meat, even mushroom calamari – and you didn’t even like mushrooms that much to begin with!

What’s making vegans use mushrooms for everything?

I hear you! When I went vegan I didn’t even like mushrooms. I didn’t mind cream of mushroom soup and would eat a mushroom sauce around the actual bits, but I couldn’t stand the texture, and the taste was just so-so to me.

Learning to love the 'shroom

Over the past three years, I’ve experimented with cooking and eating different kinds of mushrooms in various ways, and I’ve tried meat alternatives from supermarkets and restaurants that all use this mysterious ingredient.

I can now tell you exactly why vegans use mushrooms for everything, and it’s because:

a) It works! Mushrooms are crazy versatile, especially when you realise there are more than just button and portobello mushrooms.

b) Mushrooms are tasty. I know! You might not believe me now but let me tell you about just a few of the ways you can eat mushrooms that might not be what you’re used to. I promise you not all mushrooms are lukewarm slimy button mushrooms served on toast.

Mushrooms you’re familiar with: a little background

While they’re often considered a vegetable, mushrooms are not a plant at all, but a fungus. When it comes to buying mushrooms at the supermarket in their base form, we tend to only have one mushroom species available to us – Agaricus bisporus.

Agaricus bisporus (button, chestnut, portobello)

Portobello mushrooms

What? Only one kind of mushroom? But there are so many! Button, chestnut, and portobello. Yup, turns out these are all the same species of mushroom, just in different colours and at different points in their maturity. These, too, can be used in many tasty ways.

Plant Pioneers Cumberland Shroomdogs from Sainsbury’s are made from these kinds of mushrooms. The versatility of these mushrooms and their texture in these sausages mean it’s impossible to tell you’re mostly just eating ordinary mushrooms.

If you’ve seen many vegan recipes, you might have noticed some that use mushrooms as a vegan mince alternative. I know, I was surprised too, but mincing the mushrooms takes away the texture a lot of people find unpleasant, allowing the mushrooms to reduce faster, and so end up with a similar texture to meat. So long as you season it right, a vegan lasagne with mushroom mince will hardly taste different to a meat one. As we vegans know, seasoning is the best part of meat dishes anyway. Here’s one recipe for a mushroom wellington that is simply delicious!

Other mushroom varieties

While Agaricus bisporus or “basic mushrooms” (no hate toward being basic! I still do love a good Agaricus bisporus!) are by far the most frequent in shops, they are by no means the only variety of edible mushrooms you might be able to find. Also fairly common are shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, and king oyster mushrooms.

Shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia and can be found in a lot of East Asian cuisine as a result, but they’re now grown globally. You should be able to find them at your local mainstream supermarket, Asian supermarket, or market, assuming you hopefully have 2/3 of those options.

Unique to shiitake mushrooms is their chewier texture and woody, deep, slightly umami flavour.

If chestnut and button mushrooms fail to impress you but you don’t particularly despise them, it could be worth giving shiitake mushrooms a go. They add an extra oomph to your food and keep things exciting.

Here is a simple shiitake ramen recipe which recommends using these mushrooms.

Oyster and king oyster mushrooms

King oyster mushrooms

King oyster mushrooms are often considered something special. They have such intense versatility and are used for all sorts of weird things in vegan food. I have seen and tried king oyster mushroom calamari, king oyster mushroom scallops, and even king oyster mushroom pulled pork. How can one mushroom variety be so many things at once?

With an even more intense flavour than shiitake mushrooms, king oyster mushrooms are distinctly umami and earthy in their flavour profile. They have large stems which are tender and edible as well as nearly always being larger than the head.

Because of their size and overall tenderness, there are so many ways to cut up and eat these delicious mushrooms. If you’re trying to veganize some fancier foods, king oyster mushrooms are the way to go!

If you’ve never used them before, I’d recommend starting with making king oyster mushroom pulled pork, both because if you’re less used to mushrooms, it tends to be a more comfortable texture, and for the fun of making it! Using a fork, one can easily shred the fibrous king oyster mushroom into pieces resembling pulled pork. Who doesn’t love shredding things up?

Here is one pulled pork recipe made with king oyster mushrooms that is simply divine.

Oyster mushroom The bizarre beauty of mushroom meat

When you go out to a vegan restaurant and see something like mushroom wings on the menu, chances are they’re made from oyster mushrooms, which are a different variety without the large stalk but hold a similar texture. Regardless, when fried like that, these mushrooms are the closest I have ever felt to experiencing vegan chicken wings, and I highly recommend giving them a go!

The same goes for vegan scallops or calamari– due to their texture in their non-vegan form, the stem of the king oyster mushroom tends to be used, cut into different shapes. For a unique taste that you didn’t think could be so delicious when veganized, try those out!

Foraging for mushrooms

Foraged mushrooms

With foraging growing in popularity, particularly in vegan and eco-conscious communities, more people are exploring different kinds of mushrooms. From blushers to beefsteaks to hen of the woods, new foragers are discovering the true variety that exists in mushrooms. If you’ve started on your mushroom journey and want to try foraging to experience some of that wider range, Wild Food UK has a great forager’s guide where you can learn the basics.

Be careful though, make sure you know your stuff before eating any wild mushroom, as many can be tricky to identify, and lots of mushrooms are toxic to humans! I’d recommend taking a foraging course or asking an expert before risking eating anything you found in the wild.

The world is your oyster (mushroom)

With such a range of mushrooms on the market, both in ready-made mushroom-based products, restaurant menu items, and cooking methods, the mushroom for you is out there. Whether you’re apprehensive about exploring mushrooms, or you’re looking to expand your range and palette with a bit of knowledge about what the other options are, the internet and your local vegan shop or restaurant are your friends when it comes to mushrooms.

Hale McGrath

Hale McGrath

Hale McGrath is a vegan freelance writer for sustainable blogs and businesses. When she's not writing or cooking, she's out hiking in the woods or supporting community spaces and events.

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