Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
They’re cropping up everywhere—from coffee to chocolate—with claims about their mystical properties. But there’s nothing magic about medicinal mushrooms. They’re backed by dozens of studies that support their ability to improve immune function, reduce inflammation, protect against cancer, and more.
While all medicinal mushrooms share similar compounds, each variety has its own subtle differences and unique benefits. New to ’shrooms? Here’s a starter guide to the six most popular—and best-researched—options.
These savory ’shrooms have been used for thousands of years in Asian culture in both culinary and medicinal applications. And since they’re familiar, versatile, and delicious, shiitakes are a great way to start your mushroom journey.
What they do. Lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, protect against atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), and improve cardiovascular health. Shiitakes also reduce inflammation, improve immune response, inhibit bacterial and viral infections, and may protect against cancer.
What to look for. You’ll find fresh shiitakes in most health food stores, or look for dried shiitakes in larger grocery stores or Asian markets. Shiitakes are also available in powdered form, or as supplements or tinctures.
How to use them. Shiitakes have a mild, meaty taste that’s perfect for mushroom recipes. To use fresh shiitakes, remove the woody stems, chop the caps, and add to sautéed greens, lentil soup, or roasted root vegetables. Soak dried shiitakes in warm water until softened, then drain and use as you would fresh shiitakes.
These thick, beefy mushrooms are characterized by their kidney-shaped cap and glossy reddish-orange color. Also known as Ganoderma lucidum, lingzhi, or the “mushroom of immortality,” they’ve been used in traditional Asian medicine and cuisine for more than 2,000 years to treat liver disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, and more.
What they do. Improve immune function, protect against viral infections, inhibit cancer cell growth and tumor progression, and protect against a variety of cancers, including breast, prostate, and colorectal. Reishi mushrooms may also ease anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve sleep, and promote cognitive health.
What to look for. Whole reishi mushrooms are hard to find, and their tough, woody texture make them difficult to cook with. Look for them in Asian markets, or buy them in powdered form or in capsules or tinctures.
How to use them. Reishi mushrooms are bitter, so they’re best used with strong, pungent herbs and spices that mask their flavor. Simmer dried reishi mushroom slices with garlic, ginger, and onions, then strain for a healing broth or soup base. Or stir a spoonful of powdered reishi into a garlicky mushroom-tomato sauce.
Not tech-nically a mushroom, chaga comes from a fungus that grows in cold climates, primarily on birch trees. It looks like a chunk of charred wood, but has a soft, brilliant orange interior. It’s a staple in Russian, Asian, and Scandinavian folk medicine, usually consumed as a tea to improve immunity and boost resistance.
What it does. High in antioxidants, it protects against inflammation by inhibiting inflammatory compounds. Chaga also fights viral and bacterial infections, improves immune response, and may protect against cancer.
What to look for. You’ll find chaga in powdered form, or in capsules or tinctures. It’s also sold in dried chunks or powdered as an ingredient in mushroom-based coffee substitutes.
How to use it. Chaga has an earthy, slightly bitter flavor that’s perfect as a coffee alternative—just simmer dried chunks of chaga in water, then strain. Or heat coconut milk, then whisk in chaga powder, cocoa powder, and honey or agave to make a healing mocha.
Like chaga, it’s not technically a mushroom. Instead, cordyceps is a fungus that grows on caterpillars in the mountainous regions of China. Modern versions are grown on grains, usually rice, so they’re vegan. Cordyceps has been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years to treat fatigue, improve sex drive, and boost energy.
What it does. Improves physical performance, and speeds up muscle recovery after workouts. It appears to work by enhancing cellular energy, increasing insulin sensitivity, and improving blood flow. Cordyceps also has immune-boosting and cancer-preventive properties.
What to look for. Whole, dried cordyceps is very hard to find, but some specialty shops and Asian markets carry it. In general, you’ll find it in powders, capsules, or tinctures, or as an ingredient in mushroom-based coffee alternatives.
How to use it. Cordyceps has a mild, earthy flavor that incorporates easily into many recipes. Use cordyceps powder in DIY energy bars: Combine dates, almonds, pumpkin seeds, cacao nibs, and cordyceps powder in a food processor; grind into a paste and form into bars or balls.
5. Lion’s Mane
This large, white fungus has long, shaggy spines that resemble a lion’s mane—hence the name. Also known as Hericium erinaceus or hedgehog mushroom, lion’s mane grows on hardwood trees in North America, Asia, and Europe, and has been traditionally used to support brain health.
What it does. Supports cognitive health and memory and protects against cognitive decline by promoting production of nerve growth factor, critical in the development and survival of neurons, and regulating cells in the nervous system. Lion’s mane may also ease anxiety, reduce depression, and improve sleep.
What to look for. You can find whole, fresh lion’s mane mushrooms at specialty stores, farmers’ markets, and some large grocery stores. Or look for it in powders, capsules, tinctures, or mushroom-based coffee substitutes.
How to use it. Lion’s mane mushrooms have a firm texture and mild flavor that’s reminiscent of lobster. Cut them into steaks and sauté in butter or olive oil with garlic and black pepper.
6. Turkey Tail
This fan-shaped fungus with alternating concentric circles in red, orange, and brown hues, resembles a turkey’s tail—hence the name. Also known as Coriolus versicolor or Trametes versicolor, turkey tail is traditionally used in China and Japan to support immune function and promote overall health.
What it does. Protects against cancer by stimulating the immune system, inhibiting proliferation of cancer cells, and reducing tumor activity. It may also reduce the harmful side effects of chemotherapy. Turkey tail also has antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral activity, and can protect against HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection.
What to look for. You can buy whole, dried turkey tail online or in some Asian markets or specialty stores. Or look for it in capsules, tinctures, or powders.
How to use it. Turkey tail mushrooms have a savory flavor with a very chewy texture that’s best in soups or broths. Soak dried turkey tail in warm water until softened, then drain and simmer with shiitakes, portobellos, and other mushrooms for a flavorful broth. Or add a spoonful of powder to a smoothie with bananas, almond butter, coconut milk, and vanilla extract.
Looking for recipes that feature mushrooms? Try one of these: