Beef and mushroom dashi stew

A comprehensive guide to mushrooms: from button to lion’s mane

by Great British Chefs 14 October 2022

Whether smothered in parmesan in risotto, deep fried with udon, or grilled until crispy, there’s nothing mushrooms can’t do. But, telling them apart can be a challenge - especially since each species seems to have half a dozen different common names. Not sure how to tell your oyster mushrooms from your maitake? Here’s a quick rundown of some popular mushroom varieties and their most common names.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

For many people, there is something intimidating, even a little bit creepy about mushrooms. They aren’t plants, but they aren’t animals either. They tend to be black, brown or grey and often thrive in places full of decaying and rotting matter. These same intimidating eccentricities, however, give mushrooms an undeniably roguish charm. In a world of monocultures and monotonously identical fruits and vegetables, the majority of mushrooms refused to be tamed.

While their variety and elusiveness delights cooks and foragers, it can make mushrooms an intimidating subject for beginners. As with wine and coffee, the world of fungi can feel like a rather unfriendly place, heavy on terminology and low on explanations. Here at Great British Chefs, we hope we can break things down for you.

What are mushrooms?

You may have heard mushrooms referred to as fungi, or even heard the words fungi and mushroom used interchangeably. But, the two aren’t exactly the same thing. Mushrooms are essentially the ‘fruit’ of fungi. They contain spores, just like an apple contains seeds, and these spores allow the fungus to reproduce.

However, just as not all plants produce fruit, not all fungi produce mushrooms. In fact, while there are an estimated 1.5 million different types of fungi on the planet, there are ‘only’ an estimated 20,000 different types of mushrooms - which is still rather a lot!

So, while all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms. Shiitake, maitake, portobellos - these are all types of mushrooms. But koji, the mould in stilton and baker’s yeast are fungi but not mushrooms.

What’s in a name?

Multiple names are often given to the same variety of mushroom, and sometimes different varieties of mushroom are all grouped together under the same common name. This can get confusing and even among expert foragers and mushroom scientists there are debates about what family different mushrooms really belong to. Many mushrooms have at least a French and an English name (like ceps and penny buns), or an English and Japanese name (like hen-of-the-woods and maitake).

Mushroom Variety Guide

Button mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms and portobello mushrooms

Yes, these are all in fact the same variety of mushroom! Agaricus bisporus is by far the most common mushroom eaten in the UK. Button mushrooms are the immature, white form of Agaricus bisporus and chestnut mushrooms are the immature, brown form, while wide, flat portobellos are the mature form. Despite their modern popularity, portobellos were mostly discarded by mushroom farmers until the 1990s, when they began to be marketed more heavily and became popular in burgers and on barbecues.

Chanterelles

The most common type of chanterelle available in the UK is the golden chanterelle, or Cantharellus cibarius. If you see something labelled simply as ‘chanterelles’ it’s likely to be this variety, which smells faintly of apricots. Golden chanterelles are also known as girolles, yellow chanterelles and (adorably) Pfifferling in German.

You may also come across recipes calling for ‘yellowfoot chanterelles’ (Craterellus tubaeformis), or winter chanterelles. These are actually a whole different species of mushroom, with a less fruity and woodier fragrance than the more common golden chanterelle.

Finally, there are the chanterelles you might not realise are chanterelles - black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides). These are also called horn of plenty, trompette de la mort or simply black chanterelles. Unlike golden chanterelles, these are rarely available fresh in the UK and tend to be sold dried.

Porcini

Porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis) are the same mushroom as ceps or penny buns, and they are a truly picture-perfect mushroom. Small and stout, with a brown cap and off white stem, porcinis are rarely found fresh in the UK, and instead tend to be available dried. Drying out porcinis intensifies their fragrance, and makes them perfect for risottos and soups.

Hen-of-the-woods

Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) are also known by their Japanese name of maitake. These are not to be confused with the bright yellow chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, which are another species entirely. Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms are light brown, and form in clusters, with lots of thin, frilly mushroom caps all clumped up together. Unlike chicken-of-the-woods, they can be commercially cultivated and so are fairly widely available in the UK.

Oyster mushrooms and king oyster mushrooms

Despite their similar names, oyster mushrooms and king oyster mushrooms look and taste quite different. The term ‘oyster mushroom’, as with chanterelles, can refer to a wide range of different mushrooms. Most mushrooms in shops labelled as oyster mushrooms are Pleurotus ostreatus (’ostreatus’ means oyster in Latin), which are a light greyish brown oyster mushroom with thin, slightly frilly caps. They form in clumps like hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and can also be referred to by their Japanese name, hiratake. Other types of oyster mushroom can be bright yellow or even bright pink.

The name king oyster mushroom on the other hand refers to just one specific species of mushroom - Pleurotus eryngii. King oysters are also called eringi, king trumpet mushrooms and French horn mushrooms. They have a thick, white stem, a small brown cap and a firm, meaty texture when cooked, earning them the nickname ‘vegan scallops’.

Enoki

Enoki mushrooms are pretty much exclusively known as enoki, although they will occasionally be labelled as golden mushrooms or golden needle mushrooms, especially when sold in tins. Enoki look quite distinctive - they are long, white and very skinny and grow in tight clumps. In Japan they are often served simmered in stews or stir-fried with bacon.

Shiitake

As with enoki, shiitake are almost exclusively known by their Japanese name. They are increasingly available fresh in the UK, but are still easiest to find dried. There are two varieties of dried shiitake which are particularly prized - donko and koushin. All donko shiitake have a very thick, closed cap, which has a delicious, meaty texture once the mushrooms have been rehydrated. Higher grades of donko are prized for the beautiful, flower-like pattern of cracks, which appear on their cap. Koushin shiitake on the other hand have a very thin, open cap and are known for their intense fragrance. They are best used in mushroom stock, or cooked with rice to infuse it with their fragrance.

Morels

Morels are one of the most iconic and distinctive mushrooms out there - they have a distinctive, pointed cap with a wrinkly, waffle-like texture. For many mushroom hunters, morels are the Moby Dick of mushrooms. Not necessarily because of their rarity (there are many much rarer mushrooms out there) but because of their unpredictability. There isn’t even currently any consensus on how many different species of morels exist, and they have proved incredibly difficult to cultivate commercially.

The three most widely accepted morel categories among foragers in the UK are common morels, black morels and yellow morels. Some foragers say that grey morels are their own species, and others say that they are just young yellow morels. A less well-known fourth category, half-free or semifree morels, are generally considered inferior to black and yellow morels and so you are unlikely to find them in shops.

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane mushrooms, also known as hedgehog mushrooms or bearded tooth mushrooms, look a little bit like a bulbous, all-white, tree-climbing Cousin Itt. These mushrooms grow long, dramatic white fronds (technically called ‘spines’ despite their softness) that hang down from the mushroom’s body. It is illegal to pick lion’s mane mushrooms in the UK however, so if you do spot one in the wild let it be! All lion’s mane mushrooms sold in the UK have instead been commercially cultivated.

Black Wood Ear Fungus and Black Cloud Ear Fungus

This pair of ear funguses are widely used in East and Southeast Asian cooking. At first glance, both look more like a piece of wrinkled seaweed than a mushroom but they are in fact a fungus. Black cloud ear fungus and black wood ear fungus are both often sold labelled as ‘black fungus’, and so it can be hard to know which one you’re buying.

Black wood ear fungus is the more common of the two, and is slightly thicker than cloud ear fungus. It has a less slippery texture and firmer bite. When labelled with its Japanese name, kikurage, black wood ear fungus is often sold as thin strips rather than whole ‘ears’, as that is how it is typically used in Japan.

Silver Ear Fungus

Also known as white fungus, snow fungus, snow ear fungus and white wood ear fungus, this pale yellow, frilly mushroom is usually found dried. When rehydrated it becomes silky and slippery, and can be almost translucent. It has a similar slightly rubbery, slightly crunchy texture to black wood ear fungus and is often served in sweet Cantonese dessert soups, alongside red dates and goji berries.