Sparassis (commonly called “cauliflower mushrooms” due to their appearance) are easy-to-identify mushrooms that can be found around the world. They’re also a choice edible mushroom that fruits in the same spot each year. In this article, you’ll learn how to find, identify, and eat cauliflower mushrooms.
Love nature? Love mushrooms.
We love mushrooms. Not just for the delicious flavors and health benefits they provide, but for the ecological education you get as you develop a more intimate understanding of various fungal species.
One thing you quickly learn if you read books like Mycorrhizal Planet is that all the terrestrial life we take for granted is made possible by fungi. Fungi build soil; help to feed, water, and protect the majority of plant species on earth; and decompose and recycle dead plants to make their constituent parts bioavailable for other plants.
There are countless species of edible mushroom we forage that grow in symbiosis with trees — morels, chanterelles, bicolor boletes, and milk caps, to name a few. But there are others that fill different ecological niches… There are decomposers like King stropharia, reishi, and shiitake which munch away on dead wood and other plant debris.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are the parasitic (and sometimes also saprobic) mushrooms that infect sick, injured, or dying trees. Edibles we forage in this category include chicken of the woods, maitake, lion’s mane, and umbrella polypore. Another favorite in this category is Sparassis, aka cauliflower mushrooms.
Introduction to Sparassis: cauliflower mushrooms
Sparassis is a genus comprising multiple species of mushrooms, all of which have the common name cauliflower mushroom. Cauliflower mushrooms are so named due to their physical appearance, which is similar to the vegetable, cauliflower.
Depending on where you are in the world, you may find a species unique to your bioregion. Here in the southeastern United States, we typically find Sparassis crispa.
Where and when to find cauliflower mushrooms
In our area, cauliflower mushrooms fruit from late summer – early fall. The earliest we’ve ever seen them is July and we’ve found them as late as early October in warm years.
Although we’ve read reports of cauliflower mushrooms growing on hardwoods, we’ve only ever seen them growing at the base of living pine trees. They’re both parasitic (infecting live tree roots) and saprobic (consuming tree roots that have died).
We always see cauliflower mushrooms fruiting right next to the base of pine trees, seemingly emerging from the root crown. When we’re out foraging during cauliflower mushroom season, we’re sure to look at the base of every pine tree we pass.
Cauliflowers are somewhat rare mushrooms — you’ll likely pass hundreds of pine trees before you happen upon one.
Key physical characteristics of cauliflower mushrooms:
- appearance: cauliflower or sponge-like;
- color: light color, varying from whitish to tan depending on age, weather conditions during fruiting (more sun = more tanning, more rain/clouds = lighter color), and specific Sparassis species;
- size: fruiting bodies of Sparassis crispa vary from baseball size to basketball size (some species reportedly grow much larger);
- spore print: white to cream colored.
Warning: While there are no poisonous lookalikes to cauliflower mushrooms in our area, you should never eat a mushroom that you haven’t 100% positively identified, know to be edible, and tried in small amounts to ensure you don’t have an allergic reaction.
Perennial cauliflower mushrooms
Another wonderful feature of cauliflower mushrooms is you can typically come back to the same tree at the same time the following year and find them fruiting. Set a calendar reminder! Some variability is to be expected depending on temperature and other weather conditions.
What do cauliflower mushrooms taste like?
Cauliflower mushrooms have a unique earthy, umami taste with notes of almonds and morel mushrooms, although morel mushrooms are more savory. They also have a unique texture; when cooked, they maintain a chewiness similar to an al dente pasta noodle.
Do cauliflower mushrooms have medicinal benefits?
Many of the mushrooms we’ve written about have well-documented medicinal benefits. What about cauliflower mushrooms?
Very little research has been conducted on Sparassis species. However, a couple of interesting findings which point to the medicinal potential of Sparassis mushrooms:
- they contain compounds which have antitumor effects;
- oral ingestion in diabetic mice significantly improved/accelerated wound healing, which could be great news for diabetic humans.
The hard part: how to clean cauliflower mushrooms
The only negative thing we have to say about cauliflower mushrooms is that their sponge-like structure combined with growing out of the earth makes them a very messy mushroom.
As cauliflower mushrooms grow up and through the soil surface and pick up soil splatter from rain, the mushrooms can become quite dirty — especially at their base. Also, their internal caverns and openings make a great habitat for ants, millipedes, and other creepy crawlies, so be prepared to encounter such creatures during harvesting and cleaning.
You can save yourself some cleaning time in the kitchen by being mindful about the way you harvest your cauliflower mushrooms. Using a harvest knife, cut the base of the mushroom (which emerges from a central stem-like structure.
Then, do a quick visual inspection to determine if there are parts of the mushroom that are too dirty to clean — cut those parts off and leave them.
Once home, if we’re not going to use them immediately, we put our cauliflower mushrooms in ziplock bags in the fridge. They’ll store for about a week.
When we’re ready to use them, we do additional trimming and clean them under a kitchen sink sprayer. Then we submerge them in a bowl of cold, salty water for about 30 minutes (you can weight them down with a plate).
This process helps remove any remaining grit/dirt and extract any remaining insects. Saltwater soaking does not diminish the flavor or texture of the mushrooms, but it does salt them up a bit so you can use less salt when cooking.
After the saltwater soak, we slice cross sections of the cauliflower mushroom to clean out any remaining gunk under the kitchen sink sprayer. Then, they’re ready to cook!
Recipe: Cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche
The taste and texture of cauliflower mushrooms lend themselves well to soups, casseroles, and savory pies.
Our cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche recipe is a new recipe we just made up — and absolutely loved. It’s both sweet and savory while combining two great summer flavors: garden-fresh sweet corn and cauliflower mushrooms. And of course it uses duck eggs, but you can substitute chicken eggs if you must.
Here are some process photos and extra tips to help you make your own:
You’re basically making four things in this recipe, then combining them together:
1. Organic whole wheat pie crust.
First, make a whole wheat pie crust. (Here’s a good basic recipe from Bob’s Red Mill, if you don’t already have one.)
You’ll want to do this first because you put the dough in the fridge to cool, then you pre-bake the final pie crust for 20 minutes before adding the filling.
2. Second, start your caramelized onions which are made by dicing an onion then cooking it on very low heat (2 on our stove) for about an hour, stirring occasionally. No, caramelized onions are not the same thing as sauteed onions.
3. Creamed corn. We used fresh semi-sweet corn from our garden (variety: Zanadoo) and cut it off the cob raw. Then we sauteed the corn in butter until slightly browned with some salt, pepper, and a pinch of homemade smoked red pepper flakes.
Then we added whole milk + fresh herbs and let the cream corn cook for another 30 minutes until the liquid was reduced by about 90%. The cream corn was so delicious as-is, it was hard not to eat it.
4. Sautéed cauliflower mushrooms, but with a caveat… The way we sauté mushrooms is based on recommendations from fungi expert Paul Stamets and some professional chefs we know. We start by putting them in a cast iron pan with butter, salt, and just enough water to cover them.
Then we let the water cook out and sauté the mushrooms. This fully cooks the mushrooms, breaking down the chitin in their cell walls and maximizing their nutritional availability.
Finally, combine the cooled caramelized onions, mushrooms, cream corn, and beaten duck eggs in a bowl, then pour them into the partially pre-cooked pie crust. Top with fresh-grated parmesan cheese, bake for about 35 minutes until golden brown and you’ve got a delicious cauliflower mushroom quiche!
Cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche
A delicious sweet and savory forest and garden to table quiche made with cauliflower mushrooms, sweet corn, duck eggs, and fresh herbs.
- 1 onion, diced and caramelized (caramelized onions take about an hour to make, and are not the same thing as sauteed onions - but you can saute if pressed for time)
- 2 cups fresh sweet corn
- 2 cups whole organic grass milk
- 4 cups chopped cauliflower mushroom (12 ounces)
- 5 duck eggs, lightly beaten or use 7 chicken eggs if you don't have duck eggs (duck eggs are larger)
- 1 whole wheat pie crust, partially pre-cooked for 20 minutes (see pie crust recipe link above if needed)
- 3/4 cup fresh-grated parmesan cheese (for quiche topping)
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped (Only use 1/3 quantity if you're using dried herbs.)
- 1.5 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped (Only use 1/3 quantity if you're using dried herbs.)
- 4 tbsp butter (2 for creamed corn, 1 for mushrooms, 1 for onions)
- 2 tsp sea salt (1 for corn, 1 for mushrooms)
- 1/2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- 1/4 tsp smoked hot red pepper flakes
Make pie crust dough and let chill in advance. Punch holes in crust with fork to prevent bubbling, then pre-bake pie crust for 20 minutes. (See images above.)
Caramelize onions by placing them in cast iron pan on low heat (2 on our stove) with 1 tbsp butter. Stir onions every ~15 minutes. True caramelized onions take about 45-60 minutes to make. Let cool when done.
Put corn in pan on medium heat with 2 tablespoons of butter, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes. Saute until corn starts to turn golden brown, then add milk and fresh herbs. Deglaze pan and let cook for ~30 minutes or until liquid about 90% reduced. Remove from heat and let cool. *Corn should cook down to about 2 finished cups.
At the same time you start corn, also place chopped cauliflower mushrooms in separate pan with butter and salt. Add just enough water to cover mushrooms and cook on medium heat until water completely evaporated. Then saute mushrooms about 10 minutes, stirring to make sure they don't burn. Add additional butter if needed. *Mushrooms should cook down to about 1 finished cup.
Preheat oven to 350F bake.
Beat duck eggs and combine all ingredients in a bowl. Then pour into pie crust. Cover with fresh-grated parmesan and bake for ~30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
We hope you enjoy cauliflower mushrooms and our cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche recipe as much as we do!
More fungal fun from Tyrant Farms:
- Reishi mushrooms: how to find, ID, and use
- Lactifluus corrugis and L. volemus: delicious wild mushrooms
- 6 gourmet and medicinal mushrooms you can easily grow in your garden
- Complete guide: how to forage and use chanterelle mushrooms
- DIY: How to grow shiitake mushrooms
- How to find, identify, grow, and cook chicken of the woods mushrooms
- Bicolor bolete: how to find, ID, and eat this wild gourmet mushroom
- Blue mushrooms? A delicious indigo milkcap mushroom recipe
- The hunt for the elusive morel mushroom
- How to find, ID, and eat umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus)
- Lions mane mushrooms: a brain booster that tastes like crab meat (with “crab” cake recipe!)
- How to find and prepare maitake mushrooms
- How to grow and eat King stropharia mushrooms
- Recipe: bicolor bolete mushroom pâté
- How to find, ID, and eat beefsteak mushrooms