S1E5: We are the Champignons!
For my senior seminar, I presented about fungi in a prezi format. You can check the website for the link to the presentation. Looking at my work...let's just say, I wasn't a person who was called upon to do graphic design work. The presentation was just a visual. As such, I'm going to present to you about mushrooms.
In a mycophobic America, mushrooms are misunderstood. I am going to change that.
When you hear of the word, "mushroom", what comes to mind? Well, you may think of... mushroom pizza, truffles, white button, psychedelics, mycotoxins, cremini or shiitake. That's okay. I'm here to break the misconceptions; you are here to be familiar with at least 3 impacts of mushrooms, appreciate mushrooms, but most importantly, have you associate the idea of fungi with my name, Brian Chau. What I mean by impact is these topics will have a strong effect on you; you're mind will be blown.
What are the three familiar impacts?
- Ecological in the context of anatomy and taxonomy.
- Industrial within the realms of products and processing.
- Culinary with regards to chemistry and composition.
We don't have all the time in the world, so, I chose to dive into these particular topics. This is not comprehensive; rather, this is an overview.
Starting with ecology. We see the day in the life of a mushroom. One day, the beloved mushroom releases its spores. These spores travel far and wide for a place to call home. When they find a home, the level up into eggs. Fun fact, you can imagine spore germination as akin to popcorn kernels popping. Okay, the popcorn kernel is the volva. I will go into more detail later. Their fruits of their labor lie within their bodies. The mushroom pops out of the volva much like a popcorn pops, but you see a fruiting body, the iconic mushrooms, instead of popcorn. They grow mold together.
For those of you following along with the presentation, you can see the picture. For those of you who can't, let me best describe to you the classic geometric composition of a mushroom. Imagine a semisphere on top of a cylinder. For those of you who desire more descriptions, let's imagine a dome structure which is called a cap or pileus. On top of the dome structure, are pieces the mushroom called the veil. It's like rooftop shingles on this dome. This dome structure is attached to a base also known as a stalk or a stipe. Never call it stem as mushrooms are not plants. Underneath the dome are the gills. The gills contain the spores. Typically, exposed gills that are open and spread apart from each other means the mushroom is old because the spores are released and the function of the mushroom has served its purpose. To recap, we have the cap or pileus which is the dome structure and a veil which are like rooftop shingles that are on top of the cap. Beneath the cap are gills, lines of mushroom flesh kind of like gills of a fish, but there's a lot and it's not for breathing underwater. What connects the cap to the ground would be the stalk or the stipe which is like a pillar. Near the middle of this stalk, you find a ring or an annulus. This ring is made of remnants of the volva. The volva can be found on the base of the stalk. Now, remember when I said I would cover more about the volva? Well, you're going to learn about it now. As I have mentioned before, the volva is like a popcorn kernel. The volva is like an egg, an exterior layer that protects the mushroom within before the mushroom blossoms to the beautiful creature that it is. Anything underneath the stalk and the volva would be part of the mycelium, the network or roots, if you will. Never call them roots. If you have any questions, you can always send me a tweet @ChauTimes or send a message through the connect page. Hashtag it. #champignoning.
We have covered the anatomy of an iconic mushroom. Let's move on to the taxonomy. See how the rule of 3 is nice and succinct? We have three types of mushrooms: saprobes which are decomposers. Okay, these mushrooms are natures recycling machines and we eat of these mushrooms. Next, we have parasites. We eat some of these like cordyceps or lobster mushroom. Fungi can parasitize where they kill their host like the cordyceps killing ants which can be a great biopesticide. Cordyceps have naturally killed ants. Lastly, we have mutualists which are mycorhizzal meaning these fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. These fungi are the peace keepers and exchange nutrients with plant roots.
Now, that we have covered the ecological aspects, we can dive into industrial applications. Again, this is not an all comprehensive list. When we discuss processing, we evaluate the cultivation of mushrooms. I'm going to focus on the saprobes. For parasites and mutualists, it's more difficult to mass produce as the co-dependence requires more resources that are hard to scale. So, with decomposers, we can amass waste products from hay and straw to ground coffee beans. In some cases, you can use denim which has a lot of complex cellulose structures that are great food for mushrooms. In some cases, you can use fecal matter. Fecal matter is leftover insoluble fibers that mushrooms love to break down and consume. Now, there are two types of cultivation methods: primary and secondary. Primary decomposers are ones that break down cellulose which are plant components. You can grow these type of mushrooms at home like the oyster mushroom. There has been a pasteurization step that kills off the competing microorganisms and allows for new mushroom spawn to flourish. Believe it or not, mushrooms can grown in sunlight. They don't need to be in the dark. Secondary decomposers feast off of other fungi and bacteria as a substrate. These mushrooms would use agricultural waste products, feces, with nitrogen added to the mix. These typically grow in darkness. An example would be pilobolus which grows from cow manure and is not edible.
So, we have established the growth medium, the substrate. That's the first step. Then, we pasteurize to make sure we give the mushroom the opportunity to grow without any hindrance. Then, we inoculate. Under the right growth conditions of humidity, temperature, light, and starvation of resources, we would get a harvest. It's counter-intuitive to starve the mushrooms. Hear me out. You give the mushrooms enough food and water to live and grow, but you starve them so their internal body would signal to mature faster and release the spores. All that time in growing is spent for a future in releasing its spores, the next generation of kin. Cutting resources will accelerate the process a little faster. When you see the gills, those lines under the cap, exposed, you harvest. Once the spores are released, the mushroom doesn't need to expend resources in growing. The decay process begins. These mushrooms will continue to grow, albeit, not on a scheduled basis. What matters is the mycelium, the network underneath, is healthy. Unlike roots of a tree, the mycelium can continue to grow fruiting bodies. If a tree trunk is cut down, then the roots don't respond a new tree. The tree is dead. The cambium is all stripped away. The mycelium is the living component that grows the mushrooms for us to eat.
Speaking of eating, we are now at the third impact, culinary usages. We are going to apply the rule of 3 again: storage, handling, and cooking. And again, I warn you that this is a short overview. Store in the fridge in a paper bag. You see the mushrooms wrapped in plastic in a foam container? Unless there was a modified atmospheric packaging, that mushroom won't last. Modified atmospheric packaging is when you flush the bag or the package with nitrogen or carbon dioxide or gasses other than oxygen. You want to prevent oxidation by removing the oxygen and replacing with other components. With mushrooms, they decay fast. You want to prevent that from happening. Mushrooms, are 80 - 90% water. That's a high water activity. When decomposing, where is the water going? Out of the mushroom. If the package is surrounded by plastic, the water is trapped and condensing back onto the mushroom thereby accelerating the decomposition process! It's no bueno. Use a paper bag because the paper is porous and allows for the mushroom to breath. When you put the mushrooms in the fridge, you slow down the enzymatic browning processes that would decompose the mushrooms. When you are ready to prep, you better wash the mushrooms. I don't care what you hear about wiping or scrubbing the mushrooms because the mushrooms absorb water. You cook off the water anyway. Mushrooms. I repeat. Mushrooms are 80 to 90% water. Why spend time and money on a scrub or a towel in brushing all that dirt when you can wash it off? Come on. Mushrooms are no different in preparation than an apple. You wash apples, don't you? You are free to dry them off, if you want. When it comes to cooking, keep in mind the chitin, or the exterior layer of the cell walls. The chitin is similarly found in that of shellfish. Another fun fact is trehalose is a sugar found in mushrooms, but it's not as sweet as sucrose. In fact, trehalose has no sweetness detection for the human tongue. Then cook by heating them. Dry method or lack of water is best if you want the full flavor of mushrooms. Sure, you can make stock, but you are better off with a dried mushroom that will absorb the water. Fresh mushrooms will release that water to create a basis of a sauce. Mushroom juice!
If your mind is not blown, I'm going to geek out some more on mushrooms. Glutamates are found in mushrooms which means the glutamates are contributing to the savoriness, the umami goodness in the dish. The earthy aroma you get? That's coming from octenol, an alcoholic compound. Nutritionally, mushrooms offer up B1, B2, and B12 Vitamins. They're water soluble and are used in vegetarian or vegan diets because they offer the B12 vitamins that are commonly found in animals. Sure, your body produces some B12, but it might not be enough. Eat more mushrooms and a variety of mushrooms as not all mushrooms contain high enough levels of B12. For those of you who want some more Vitamin D in your diet, the mushrooms exposed to sunlight convert the sunlight into Vitamin D.
What happens when we consume mycotoxins, in the off chance that you are force fed a poisonous mushroom? Well...typical symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting can occur. If your body hasn't purged out the toxins, your liver gets melted. Your kidneys get melted. Your body stops protein synthesis for cell growth and your enzymes don't work properly. The mycotoxins can inhibit RNA polymerase which is important for DNA. In the most severe cases, you die. In most cases, you would not encounter a poisonous mushroom. You still need to take measures to prepare mushrooms properly unless you run into the risk of cross contamination and other food safety issues. It's best to cook mushrooms so you can unlock those umami tastes and kill off potential microbial contaminants. The flavor of raw mushrooms in salad is not worthwhile.
So, you're scared of mushroom poisoning? You shouldn't be. There are ways to treat mushroom poisoning. One is to not go foraging for mushrooms without prior knowledge, a trained guide, and or a book. If you're not sure of the mushroom you are picking, don't eat it. If you see mushrooms growing in your backyard and you can't identify it as edible, don't eat it. If you see a familiar mushroom, but are in unfamiliar territory where mushrooms might be dangerous, don't eat it! Otherwise, you're at the hospital with several options. Emesis which is to flush out the stomach fluids. This is typically done within 20 minutes of consumption. The hope is the the body hasn't had the time to absorb the mycotoxins. Likewise, charcoal infused water can bind to toxins, but again, the hope is your body hasn't absorbed the toxins. Charcoal infused water does not work if you have ingested toxins long ago. So, those charcoal infused water cleanses is not working, unfortunately. Your body has long processed those "toxins". More specifically, your liver has treated the toxins. You can increase water intake to try and decrease the concentration and flush out the toxins. Good luck with that too. Your better options are liver transplant and heavy drug treatment. Don't worry, the statistical likelihood of you eating a poisonous mushroom on a day to day basis is rare and only highlighted by press. Otherwise, wash and cook your mushrooms.
We don't have time to cover more than the basics. So, I'm going to list out other broad topics where fungal applications can be integrated: mycofuel, holistic health, coloring dyes, mycopesticide, allergen research, toxic removal like nuclear waste, medicinal purposes, reforestation/soil rejuvenation, alcohol, artwork, beverages like kombucha, food applications for gelling, adding umami taste, and bitterblockers, increasing sustainability of closed loop systems, increased social activities such as forrays, cultivation, and fairs, and so on and so forth.
My hope is there is a newfound appreciation for mushrooms or fungi as the pedantic would point out. Your perception on fungi, hopefully, changes along with any misconceptions. All in all, they are the fungi to hang out with! Ha. Ha. Ha.
P.S. Chau Time is produced and edited by Brian Chau. Logo design was done by Charis Poon. Music was produced by Jadey Gonzalez. If you liked bits and pieces of this podcast and would like to support Chau Time, please visit my Patreon page. You may follow me on Instragram @this_is_chau_time. Feel free to tweet @ChauTimesfor your thoughts and inputs. Check out the rest of my website http://chau-time.com/ for more information. You may listen to Chau Time every week wherever you get your podcasts.