It’s All the Same Mushroom… Sort Of

I'm starting to make a concerted effort to make sure the pictures I use on this blog don't violate copyright laws. Consequently, they're getting a lot more dull so far...

The other day  I tried to look up Portobello mushrooms on wikipedia, and I was redirected to the page for the mushroom species  Agaricus bisporus. There, I was presented with a list of all the different names they can go by: White, button, crimini, baby bella, portobello, swiss mushrooms, champignons…everything I could think of  except Oyster, Shiitake, and Porcini. They were, apparently, all the same.

I was a bit taken a back, vaguely annoyed about all the times I’d paid extra for a fancier sounding mushroom, and extremely curious. I did a cursory investigation and found plenty of pages superficially confirming what I’d just read. I filed it away in the brain-folder I use for “did-you-know factoids to impress people with at dinner parties.”

But that’s also where things got a little more complicated. After I typed the title of the post, I realized I had basically given the way the twist ending and would need some more information to serve as filler. As I dug further into the topic, however, I discovered that my initial investigation had led me astray. True, all the aforementioned mushrooms are of the same species. But then, dogs are all the same species. And telling someone “did you know a chihuahua is the same as a pitbull?” at a party would make you look like an idiot, not a guy with a brain-folder full of interesting trivia. They’re not the same in any sense that anyone cares about. Indeed, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts are all the same species, Brassica oleracea. But each veggie is of course distinct, because they’re different “cultivars,” which basically means a different “breed” of plant.

The same is true for mushrooms. Within the Agaricus Bisporus species there is plenty of room for different breeds, as well as different ways of raising them. “Button” mushrooms are an immature version of the “white,” common mushroooms you see most frequently. But the two are genetically distinct from the darker brown crimini mushrooms, which are in turn an immature version of the big, imposing portobello. The other terms are just regional alternative names.

The differences are significant in practice. The darker, portobello cultivar tastes much heartier and “meatier” (they’re more “umami” flavored, a show-off might say). They also release their water more readily when cooked, which affects the way they’re used in sauces. And their nutritional content is quite different as well;  portabellos, for example,  are a much better source of vitamin D even compared crimini which are ostensibly the same cultivar.* White mushrooms in general contain less vitamins and minerals, although they do have about 50% more protein. All become more nutritious (and slightly safer!) when cooked.

So there you have it. As often turns out to be the case with these catchy, interesting bits of trivia, the truth is more complicated and harder to work into the casual conversation of a dinner party. My advice? Offer to bring an entree and make some mushroom risotto. That should set you up nicely.

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* Portobello mushrooms also contain a chemical which produces huge amounts of vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light (this is done artificially, because the mushrooms grow in relative darkness). Other mushrooms in this species (even the crimini which are simply young portobellos) don’t seem to show this property.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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