The fun guys of fall 2021: cauliflower mushroom

My dad was visiting recently, and — as one does when the only thing you have in common is a love of nature– we went for a walk in the woods.

There, we found this big boi:

Cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis americana (?)

I realize you have no sense of scale or terrain here, so imagine this growing at the food of an Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). It was about 12-18 square inches in size — large enough that it barely fit in a standard grocery bag.

How do I know that last bit? Because I harvested it. My dad was very insistent that if it was edible, he wanted to harvest it and eat it “before anybody else could get it.” (My dad, gentlethems. If food is in danger of disappearing, he’s there).

I was almost dismayed when iNaturalist IDed it as being an edible in the Sparassis genus — cauliflower mushroom, in the vernacular. Oh no, I said, as my dad started up again.

But not only is cauliflower mushroom edible, it’s a choice edible and often hard to find. There’s also very little it can be mistaken for. So after doing lots of research, I too determined: I was gonna eat that big boi.

How did that go, Lise?

Slowly, but deliciously!

This was my first time harvesting Sparassis — really, any wild mushroom — so I took it slow. I ate a tiny piece (cooked, of course), and waited 24 hours. Then I ate a bigger piece and waited 24 more. Only then did I move on to using it in recipes.

Most recently I made a quiche with 4 cups dry weight of mushrooms in it, and hey, it was pretty great! And I’m not dead!

How did cauliflower mushroom taste? It was your pretty standard mushroom umami. I wouldn’t say it was particularly “choice”, or unique, but maybe it was past its prime? I read that when it begins to yellow like that, it begins to decline in quality.

You want to use mushrooms quickly once you harvest them — within a week — so I gave half of the bounty to my dad to take home. I attempted to dry some in the oven, but my oven only goes down to 170 degrees F, which was still too high and cooked the mushrooms into, well, mush. My dad had better luck with a food dehydrator.

Also worth noting: this sample was pretty clean and free from critters, but it was still a pain in the butt to clean. I ended up breaking it into pieces and rinsing it in cold water. Unlike many mushrooms, Sparassis doesn’t soak up much water, so this was an acceptable treatment.

What did you learn?

SO MUCH. I’ve spent the last ten days endlessly researching mushrooms in general and Sparassis in particular. I read and watched videos about foraging mushrooms, cooking mushrooms, and identifying mushrooms. I’ve devoured the entire oeuvre of Learn Your Land.

So let me drop some cool mushroom knowledge on you:

  • If you’re wondering why no full binomial name for this sample, it’s because the Sparassis genus is kind of a muddle. Some folks refer to all cauliflower mushrooms are S. crispa, but in fact S. crispa is only accurately applied to the European species. In North America we have S. americana in the east and S. radicata in the west. (And then further confusing it, there’s S. spathulata…). I’m pretty confident saying this specimen was S. americana, but it really doesn’t matter, because they’re all delicious.
  • Very few of the million+ mushroom species are poisonous — that is, have substances that are toxic to humans in them (eg. amatoxins in amanitas). Furthermore, some toxic substances are denatured by cooking, eg. the toxins in the delicious morel mushroom. (Hence why you want to cook most mushrooms).
  • More accurately, not everybody can tolerate every mushroom. I was surprised to learn that certain species of mushrooms, like Armillaria spp (honey mushrooms) and Hydnum spp (hedgehog mushrooms) are famously ones that some people can’t tolerate.
  • Certain mushrooms shouldn’t be eaten with alcohol! In specific, mushrooms in the genus Coprinopsis contain a substance called coprine that combines in the human body to form something similar to disulfiram. You know, that drug they use to treat alcoholism — by making you really sick when you consume alcohol.
  • Mushrooms contain chitin. Yep, that thing that crab shells are made up of. So almost certainly some cases of non-deadly mushroom “poisoning” are actually gastric upset caused by trying to eat significant quantities of something indigestible. (Cooking breaks down the chitin, however, which is yet another reason why you want to cook almost all mushrooms).
  • Sparassis is a saprobe and/or parasite (depending on who you ask), mainly on conifer trees and their debris. In the eastern U.S., Pinus strobus (eastern white pine) is a preferred host. Just where I found it!
  • Like most mushrooms, the mycelium of Sparassis are are unharmed by harvesting, and thus we are likely to see it again next year in the same location.
  • Apparently Sparassis has a deep “taproot” of mycelium? I didn’t pull my sample up in order to see, but this Paul Stamets video mentions it can be up to six feet deep!

Resources

Just some of the many resources I consulted recently:

  • Learn Your Land, a YouTube channel by Adam Haritan. Love this guy’s videos, and not just about mushrooms! This is what my YT watch history looks like right now, lol.

That’s it! I’ve taken soooo many mushroom pics this season, so maybe more posts like this anon?

Author: Lise

Hi, I'm Lise Fracalossi, a web developer and writer. I live in Central Massachusetts with my husband, three Maine coon cats, and a collection of ridiculous hats.