Foraged

Cauliflower mushrooms: how to find, ID, and eat (with quiche recipe!)

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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

A cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis crispa) growing in mid-August in South Carolina.

A cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis crispa) growing in mid-August in South Carolina.

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. 

A closer look at some beautiful cauliflower mushrooms, which look similar to actual cauliflowers.

A closer look at some beautiful cauliflower mushrooms, which look similar to actual cauliflowers.

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). 

Two cauliflower mushrooms fruiting at the base of a large pine tree.

Two cauliflower mushrooms fruiting at the base of a large pine tree. We’ve only seen them growing on pines, never hardwoods.

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. 
Cauliflower mushrooms we found while hiking. These specimens are fairly small, ranging from about golfball size to grapefruit size.

Cauliflower mushrooms we found while hiking. These specimens are fairly small, ranging from about golfball size to grapefruit size.

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.  

We've harvested cauliflower mushrooms from the base of this pine tree every year in August for the past five years.

We’ve harvested cauliflower mushrooms from the base of this pine tree every year in August for the past five years.

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:

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.   

A closer look at a cross sectional cut of a cauliflower mushroom.

A closer look at a cross sectional cut of a cauliflower mushroom. Here you can also see the grit and grime still present at the base of the mushroom prior to 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. 

A closer look at the stem structure on a small cauliflower mushroom.

A closer look at the stem structure on a small cauliflower mushroom.

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. 

Saltwater soak

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).

Cauliflower mushrooms in a saltwater soak to help remove any remaining insects and grime.

Cauliflower mushrooms in a saltwater soak to help remove any remaining insects and grime.

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 

Recipe photo for cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche.

Cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche – this recipe tastes amazing even if you haven’t just finished doing a strenuous 6 mile hike with a baby strapped to your chest!

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.  

Little tip to save you some heartache: punch holes in the crust prior to pre-baking it. This will let steam escape thus preventing your crust from bubbling and deforming.

Little tip to save you some heartache: punch holes in the crust prior to pre-baking it. This will let steam escape thus preventing your crust from bubbling and deforming.

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.    

Fresh rosemary and thyme make a huge difference in flavor.

Small touches, big taste. Use fresh rosemary and thyme if at all possible since these make a significant difference in flavor.

Here's the final look and consistency of the cream corn we made as part of the quiche filling.

Here’s the final look and consistency of the cream corn we made as part of the quiche filling.

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. 

cooking cauliflower mushrooms

Just starting off – here you can see the chopped cauliflower mushrooms covered with water in a cast iron pan.

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!  

recipe: cauliflower mushroom quiche
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Cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche

Course: brunch, Dinner
Keyword: cauliflower mushroom, mushroom quiche
Prep Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Servings: 8

A delicious sweet and savory forest and garden to table quiche made with cauliflower mushrooms, sweet corn, duck eggs, and fresh herbs.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Preheat oven to 350F bake.

  6. 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.

Mmm. Forest and garden to table eating. Cauliflower mushroom quiche recipe.

Mmm. Forest and garden to table!

We hope you enjoy cauliflower mushrooms and our cauliflower mushroom sweet corn quiche recipe as much as we do!

KIGI,

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Emry
    October 29, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    How much water/sun does this mushroom need to grow?

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      November 4, 2020 at 7:29 am

      Cauliflower mushrooms are parasitic (and also saprobic), relying on their host trees for both water and nutrients. The less sun, the better for growth. Also, increased rainfall does lead to larger mushroom fruiting bodies since that water is taken up by the tree which then allows for more water to be taken up by the mushroom during development. So, general rule: more water + less sun = better for mushroom size and development.

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