Thursday, April 2, 2009

Growing Mushrooms, Part 2 - What

The second question to answer when considering growing mushrooms is "What to grow?" First of all, let me start with a disclaimer: Unless you are a trained mycologist, I don't recommend going out in the wild, finding mushrooms, and attempting to cultivate them for food. People often assume my passion for mushrooms extends to forays to collect wild specimens. It does not. Mushrooms change drastically over their brief life cycle. In just a few days they change dramatically in size, shape and often color. Some turn from blue to brown or red to tan. I don't trust my abilities to correctly identify the good from the deadly.

Let me also throw in a little public service announcement here: If you have come from Southeast Asia to the United States, DO NOT EAT THE WILD PADDY STRAW MUSHROOMS!!!!! We don't have any. We do, however have a mushroom here that looks just like paddy straw mushrooms. They are called death caps, and for good reason. The single biggest group of people who die from mushroom poisoning in the US are Asian natives who come here and think that death caps are paddy straw mushrooms.

Now that I've scared you, let me just say that cultivated mushrooms are actually pretty safe. I say "pretty" because some people can screw anything up. So you can go to a number of online purveyors, my favorite of which is, and get what you need to grow mushrooms. Of course, you are limited to what they have, which is generally limited to what is in common cultivation. Most mushrooms are in cultivation because they can be sold for food. It just so happens that many mushrooms that provide a lovely food crop can also provide significant benefit for bioneering.

The majority of the gourmet mushrooms you can grow yourself actually grow on wood. Raw, unprocessed, un-composted wood. The process is a little different depending on the type, from the incredibly easy oyster mushroom to the incredibly difficult maitake mushroom. Some mushrooms grow on soil or compost and those are much more complicated to grow. However, many of those can be grown outside with success, depending on your climate.

There are probably more mushroom species in cultivation than you are aware of, and each is more delicious than the next. Nearly all are more tasty than button mushrooms. To my unrefined palate, there are basically two flavor signatures (at least of the ones I have tried): mild and strong. Mild-tasting mushrooms don't have a strong flavor, but often have great depth of flavor. Many are so mild that if you put them in recipes the depth of flavor will be lost among the other flavors. I often prefer to eat these by themselves, sauteed in butter. Of the mushrooms that are commonly available at the grocery store, all but one, enoki, are mild flavored. Strong-flavored mushrooms have a very prominent, in-your-face sort of flavor. I am not sure of the right word, but bitter doesn't really describe it. If you want to know what the flavor signature is, go buy some enoki mushrooms (they are long and white and have tiny caps and usually come in shrink-wrap in the grocery store) and saute them in a little butter. I don't really like the flavor, but I am sure others would. I did, however, enjoy one particular strong-flavored mushroom in cream of mushroom soup.

I'll cover different mushrooms that are available and some basic details about growing them in the next blog entry.

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