In the taxonomic world of living things, there are 5 kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists (called eukaryotes when I was in school), and prokaryotes. Mushrooms are fungi – an entire KINGDOM of foods to discover and eat! We are very familiar with yeasts and their culinary properties – yeasts are single-celled organisms that eat sugar, belch gasses, and make bread and beer. Molds are another type of fungi – think blue cheese, penicillin and shower curtains. Mushrooms are only one part of the remaining kingdom of fungi.
The thing we thing of as the “mushroom” is often the “fruiting body” of a vast structure that makes up the entire fungus. The mushroom part comes together, raises up out of the ground and releases spores – part of the way the mushroom can reproduce. We are not going to discuss how this type of reproduction relates to human reproduction, or else I’ll get the giggles…
So the mushroom often has “gills” where the spores are kept. The gills provide lots of surface area to distribute the spores. In my opinion, gills get in the way of culinary goodnesss, so I often scrape them out, especially in big portobello mushroom caps.
The big difference between fungi and other organisms is that fungi break down other organisms for their own nutrition. Animals eat plants and other animals. Plants get energy from soil, water and sunlight. Fungi eat everything, breaking down dead material into it’s basic components, then rebuilding it to feed themselves. It’s kind of like Minecraft… Except with fewer Creepers.