Not Just Mushrooms! The Many Uses of Fungi in Making Some of Our Best Food Products

Mushrooms have been gaining popularity recently, and why wouldn't they? Low in calories and packed with B vitamins, protein, and essential minerals, recognizable fungi like portobellos and shiitakes have a lot to recommend them. However, most people don't realize that fungi include more than just mushrooms. In fact, they appear in many of our favorite foods, which would not be possible without them. Here is a quick selection from among the many uses of fungi in food production.

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Some of the Best Cheeses

Regarding microbes, bacteria are the most important little helpers in cheese production. However, several of the most popular cheeses, like Roquefort and Camembert, rely on fungi to give them their distinct flavors and nutrient profiles.

The blue veins in Roquefort and similar cheeses are actually penicillium fungi. The producers of Roquefort add penicillium spores to the cheese and let it age in the caverns of Roquefort. According to legend, a shepherd boy discovered the technique accidentally, but we are sure happy he did!   

Makers of Camembert cheese use a different species of Penicillium. In addition, they use it as a ripening agent, spraying spores on the cheese's exterior for a minimum of three weeks. As a result, the signature white rind is edible but not part of the cheese – it's the mycelium of the penicillium fungi!

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Dry-Cured Salami

Despite warnings about the health risks associated with processed meats, traditional hard salami is tough to pass up for many people. Old-fashioned dry-cured salami usually has a powdery white mold on the exterior. This is intentional. Salami makers use their own type of penicillium fungi to protect the meat from other kinds of bacteria and fungi that could damage the flavor or rot the meat.  

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Cuitlacoche

Cuitlacoche may be unknown to most American foodies, but it's a delicacy in many areas south of the border, particularly in Mexico. In the wet season, when rainwater sometimes gets inside a corn husk, the fungus Ustilago maydis often accompanies it. As it feeds on nutrients in the kernels, they swell and turn gray. In the US, we usually call it corn smut" and throw it away. However, the best Mexican restauranteurs will bake it in quesadillas, include it with chicken, or eat it as the main entrée of a sumptuous meal.

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Soy Sauce

The sharp tang of soy sauce is popular worldwide, not just in Asia, where it originated. Most people don't think far beyond the fact that soy and salt are involved in its production, but traditional soy sauce begins with three ingredients. Although the ratios differ from producer to producer, soy sauce starts with soybeans, wheat, and Aspergillus oryzae fungus

The fungus is given a minimum of three days to work its magic on the grain components, then the whole mixture ferments in brine. Each brand allows the fermentation for a different length, but they eventually strain the mixture, bottling the liquid and sending it out to liven up stir-frys worldwide. On the topic of Asian cuisine, miso and sake require the same Aspergillus oryzae.

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Tempeh

Tempeh is another intersection of soybeans with fungi. As a complete protein source, soy products are attractive to vegetarians and vegans, but tempeh is about more than just protein. It's packed with B12, iron, calcium, fiber, and many other essential micronutrients. The texture, firmness, and ability to absorb flavor make tempeh a favorite meat replacement.

The secret to tempeh's nutritional profile is the Rhizopus fungus. Tempeh makers partially cook soybeans, then introduce the Rhizopus. The fungus decomposes many of the compounds in soy that humans cannot digest, making the latent nutrition of soybeans more bioavailable (usable) for us. If you look closely, the white substance binging the soybeans to one another in tempeh is actually the mycelium of the Rhizopus fungus.

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Fungi
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Key Takeaways
  • Enjoy Fermented – Products like soy sauce and tempeh get some of their excellent taste from the fermentation process, but they also gain some nutritional value from it. Consider adding other fermented foods to your diet, like kimchi and sauerkraut – they're great for the gut!
  • It's Not Always Healthy – There are many wonderful things that fungi can do for health and the environment, but they don't automatically make food healthy. So go easy on processed foods, whether they have fungi on them or not.  
  • Broaden Your Horizons – People have been using fungi in cooking for thousands of years. But, as this roundup showed with Cuitlacoche (an Aztec word), many healthy fungal dishes are out there waiting to be tried – not just mushrooms!