Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) are gorgeous gourmet mushrooms found in temperate climate regions around the world, including North America. They taste like crab meat, have scientifically proven brain-boosting medicinal properties, and can be easily grown or foraged. In this article, you’ll learn all about lion’s mane mushrooms — including getting our favorite lion’s mane recipe: lion’s mane mushroom crab cakes!
This is a comprehensive article about lion’s mane mushrooms. We’d love for you to read the whole thing, but if you just want to skip to the specific information you’re looking for, use the links in the table of contents below:
I: Introduction to lion’s mane mushrooms: gourmet food and medicine
II: Foraging: how to find and identify a lion’s mane mushroom
III: How to grow lion’s mane mushrooms
IV: How to make lion’s mane mushroom crab cakes
I: Introduction to lion’s mane mushrooms: gourmet food and medicine
One of the absolute best mushrooms in the world both for food and medicinal benefits is lion’s mane mushrooms. They’re easy to identify, easy to grow, taste similar to crab or lobster meat, and have piles of literature proving their medicinal benefits.
Research on the medicinal benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms:
Lion’s mane is primarily known for its brain-boosting and brain-protective properties (neuronal health). Here are a few of the specific medicinal benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms as detailed in recent research (sources linked):
- Neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects that improve brain function and/or help prevent or treat neurodegenerative diseases;
- Improved recognition memory;
- Ability to aid in gastrointestinal health by mediating pathogenic bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori;
- Peripheral nerve regeneration after damage (your peripheral nervous system is what connects your brain and spine together and to the rest of your body – rather important!)
Sure, you can buy high-quality lion’s mane supplements online (we recommend buying from Host Defense, Paul Stamet’s company), but you can also learn to forage and grow your own lion’s mane mushrooms as well. It’s nice to be able to eat gourmet medicine for dinner.
II: Foraging: how to find and identify lion’s mane mushrooms
Video: Lion’s mane mushroom fruiting on fallen tree:
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Many people don’t realize that mushrooms — like edible plants — are seasonal. In our area of the world (Greenville, South Carolina), there are different edible mushrooms fruiting in every season of the year. Our top-two favorite fall and winter mushrooms are maitakes and lion’s manes.
Nothing against blewits, oysters, and other cold weather fungi which we also love, but it’s hard to beat a lion’s mane. Aside from their medicinal benefits, they can grow to huge sizes. The largest lion’s mane we’ve found weighed a little over 10 pounds.
What do lion’s manes mushrooms taste like?
Another reason to love lion’s mane mushrooms is they’re delicious: they have a flavor and texture reminiscent of crab or lobster meat when cooked.
Note: You should not eat lion’s manes mushrooms raw, only cooked. (More on cooking lion’s manes below.)
How, where, and when to find lion’s mane mushrooms
It’s important to know a bit about the ecology of lion’s mane mushrooms. They’re saprobic and parasitic mushrooms that eat the cellular lignin of sick, dying, or dead hardwood trees (they’re especially fond of oaks).
This is an essential role in a forest ecosystem: the first part in a multi-year decomposition and recycling process that ultimately provides nutrients for other trees to grow.
The mushroom you see is like an apple on an apple tree: the small reproductive part of a very large organism. The purpose of the mushroom is to produce billions of spores that are carried on the wind in search of new hospitable spots. And the process repeats.
Lion’s mane mushrooms fruit in the cool and cold months. In our moderate climate region (Zone 7b) we find lion’s manes primarily from October – December with an odd specimen even occasionally fruiting in early spring. In colder climate regions, lion’s manes may start fruiting in late summer and stop fruiting by the time deep freezes become regular.
In short: look for lion’s mane mushrooms in the cold months of fall and early winter on sick or injured hardwood trees.
Lion’s manes lookalikes?
If you’re a beginning forager, one nice thing about lion’s manes is that there are no poisonous lookalikes. This means lion’s mane mushrooms are one of the safest mushrooms to forage and eat.
The only other mushrooms that look similar to lion’s manes are other closely related Hericium fungi such as coral tooth fungi aka bear’s head tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides).
How do you tell the difference between lion’s mane mushrooms and coral tooth/bear’s head tooth fungus?
- Hericium erinaceus – Mature mushrooms are non-branching; spines form from compact mass.
- Hericium americanum – Mature mushrooms have branched structure with long spines hanging from individual branches.
H. americanum mushrooms are also edible, delicious, and medicinal, although they seem to be slightly rarer than lion’s manes in the wild – at least in our area.
How to identify lion’s mane mushrooms:
Here’s how to identify a lion’s mane mushroom:
- fruiting in cool months;
- fruiting on hardwood, often fallen or injured trees (not fruiting from the ground or on softwoods like pine);
- white colored surface and interior (the exterior tips can brown as the mushroom ages or gets nipped by direct sunlight or freezing temps);
- icicle-like exterior structures (aka teeth) which produce spores – these can vary in size from very small to 1+ inch depending on the subspecies, age of the mushroom, and growing conditions;
- white spore print.
So, if you find a puffy white mushroom that looks like a pom-pom or a piece of ocean coral and it’s growing on the side of a hardwood tree in the cool months, you’ve got your hands on a fungi in the Hericiaceae family!
In fact, the mushrooms are so visually pronounced that we often spot them while driving and have to pull over on the side of the road to harvest.
III: How to grow lion’s mane mushrooms
While it’s hard to beat the thrill of finding lion’s manes and other mushrooms in the wild on a foraging adventure, lion’s manes (and their relatives) are also a mushroom you can cultivate relatively easily at home.
That way, whether you simply want more lion’s manes or you don’t have time or inclination to go foraging, you don’t have to go without.
How to cultivate lion’s mane mushrooms
Commercial growers typically grow lion’s manes in sanitized bags of sawdust or similar substrate in a sterilized climate-controlled environment (see Paul Stamets video above for visual reference). While this method is great for commercial growers, this is more difficult for home growers and it will only yield mushrooms for one flush.
Instead, we recommend growing lion’s mane mushrooms outdoors on freshly cut hardwood logs. Here’s a good way for beginning mushroom growers to get started:
Materials you’ll need to grow lion’s mane mushrooms:
- 100 inoculated lion’s mane mushroom plugs,
- Two (2) recently cut hardwood tree logs with bark still on. Logs should be 4-8 inches in diameter x 3-4 feet long so that they’re relatively easy to move. Oak is ideal but other hardwoods work also. If you want to make more than two lion’s mane logs, get more plugs at the same ratio (roughly 50 plugs per 6″ diameter x 4′ long log).
- High speed/power drill with a multi-purpose 5/16″ drill bit. If you want to get more serious and do a lot of logs, you’ll probably want to upgrade to an angle grinder with specialized high speed adapter which makes drilling holes way faster.
- Rubber mallet (or hammer but mallet is better) for tapping the mushroom plugs into the holes.
- Food grade wax (such as cheese wax) for sealing your mushroom plugs in the log. Note: canning wax isn’t ideal because it becomes really brittle and can fall off leaving your logs open & exposed to being colonized by other mushrooms.
- Old junk can or small pot for melting your wax.
- Camping stove or other heat source for melting wax in can. We just use our stove top and reheat the wax as necessary.
- Small paint brush for applying wax.
Instructions for growing lion’s mane mushrooms on logs:
Step 1: Order your lion’s mane mushroom plugs.
You’ll want to inoculate your lion’s mane logs in the cool months, either fall or late winter-early spring (not too hot, not too cold).
Once you’ve got your logs identified or cut, order your lion’s mane mushroom plugs. 100 plugs is enough to do two, 6″ diameter logs that are 3-4′ long. If you have more logs, order more plugs.
If you can’t use your lion’s mane plugs within a week of arrival, stick them in the fridge for up to 6 months. Don’t store them at room temperature.
Step 2: Cut hardwood tree sections or source just-cut hardwood logs.
Select two suitable *living hardwood tree sections or tree branches that are 4-8 inches in diameter x 3-4 feet long. Or find recently cut hardwood logs. Oak is ideal, but other hardwoods are fine too.
100 mushroom plugs will adequately inoculate two logs with the above dimensions.
*Note: Newly or recently cut hardwood logs are essential to mushroom growing success. This means the logs were either just cut or are no more than ~2 weeks old. This helps ensure that other mushrooms have not started colonizing the wood before your lion’s mane gets there. To mushroom spores which are constantly floating through the air, dead wood is like a hotel with a vacancy light on.
While living trees have anti-fungal compounds in their sap that keeps mushrooms from colonizing them, this doesn’t mean freshly cut wood will kill your mushroom spawn/plugs. We’ve talked to a commercial grower and mycophile about this issue and he says the mushrooms will “just hang out” until the tree’s anti-fungal compounds degrade, then the mushroom mycelia will start inoculating the wood as soon as they’re able to.
Step 3: Drill holes in your lion’s mane mushroom logs.
Using a power drill with a 5/16″ drill bit attachment, drill offsetting, parallel rows of holes in each log. This should look like a diamond pattern.
Each hole should be about 1 1/4″ deep and no more than 3-4″ apart.
Ideally on a 3ft log, you should have 50 holes per log. On a 6ft. log, you should have 100 holes. We prefer the shorter 3ft logs because they’re much easier to carry and move.
Step 4: Insert your lion’s mane mushroom plugs into your logs.
First, wash your hands to make sure you’re not infecting your lion’s mane plugs with any competing fungi or pathogens, like a surgeon before an operation.
In a shaded area (like a garage), separate your plugs into two piles of 50 plugs (assuming you’re using 3ft logs). Put the plugs on a clean surface, like a washed plate or a ziplock bag.
Put your logs on newspaper or plastic if you don’t want melted wax on the floor/ground. Insert your lion’s mane plugs into each hole. Immediately tap them all the way into the hole with your rubber mallet or hammer.
Make sure each mushroom plug is well set into the hole so that the surface of the plug is at or below the surface level of the log.
Don’t leave any drilled holes empty! If you have more holes than mushroom plugs, fill them with hot wax or you risk another species of mushroom coming aboard.
Step 5: Melt and apply wax to cover each hole and log end.
On a stove top, grill, or camp stove, heat your wax until fully melted.
Using a cheap paint brush, seal each cut end of the log completely with melted wax. Next, seal each hole thoroughly with wax so that each lion’s mane plug has its own tight little “house,” safe from other competing fungi that might come knocking.
Step 6: Incubate your lion’s mane mushroom logs for 6-12 months.
Place your finished mushroom logs in a shady, moist location off of the ground but within reach of a garden hose. You don’t want too much sunlight to hit the logs, and you don’t want the logs touching the ground, which encourages other competing fungi to come aboard.
An old palette, bricks, or concrete blocks are good for this purpose. Ideally, you can also cover your logs with a breathable cloth (such as a shade cloth or weed blocker) to help keep out sun while allowing moisture to come through, Don’t use plastic since this will make your logs mold!
Once you have your logs stored, it’s time to think about their water needs…
- Wet climate – If you live in a moist climate like we do, you can water your mushroom logs once per week for about 10 minutes during a dry week in which it doesn’t rain. If you get a good soaking rain, don’t worry about watering them). In the winter when it’s damp and cold, you don’t have to water them at all.
- Dry climate – If you live in a dry/arid climate, you should plan to water your logs twice per week for 10+ minutes each time. Don’t water your logs if the outside temps are below freezing as this can cause your logs to split or loose their bark when freezing and thawing.
To help remember to water your mushroom logs, we recommend setting up a recurring calendar event with an alert.
Step 7: Harvest your lion’s mane mushrooms.
If you inoculate mushroom logs in the fall, they should produce their first flush of lion’s manes the following fall. Depending on the size of your logs, you can continue to get lion’s manes each fall/winter for 3-5 years.
Once the wood has been decomposed by the mushroom to the point that there’s little lignin left to eat, you won’t get any more mushrooms, but you can continue to inoculate new logs each year for continual yearly harvests.
When harvesting lion’s manes from a log, simply take a sharp knife and run it between the log surface and the mushroom. Lion’s manes don’t form distinct stems like maitakes, oysters and other common mushrooms, so you’ll likely lose a small amount of the mushroom when you harvest.
Store your lion’s mane mushrooms in a ziploc bag in the veggie drawer of your fridge until you’re ready to use them. They can store for up to a month this way.
IV: How to make lion’s mane mushroom “crab cake” recipe
Check out our Google Web Story lion’s mane mushroom crab cake recipe preview video!
What can you do with lots of lion’s mane mushrooms?
You can never have too much lion’s mane. When we have more than we can possibly eat or fit in our freezer, we simply dehydrate it in our Excalibur, turn it into powder in a blender, then store it in powder form in jars.
Since mushrooms are about 92% water, you’ll be shocked at how 20 pounds of lion’s mane mushrooms become a relatively small jar of mushroom powder.
Add your lion’s mane mushroom powder into soups (like our lion’s mane mushroom broccoli potato soup), sauces, and stews to enjoy the brain-boosting benefits and great lion’s mane flavor throughout the year!
Lion’s mane mushroom “crab cakes”?
Perhaps our favorite recipe to make with fresh lion’s manes is lion’s mane “crab cakes.” Nope, there’s no meat in them.
Since lion’s mane mushrooms have a very similar taste and texture to crab or lobster meat, this recipe puts those features to work. Years back when we first made this recipe for friends, we didn’t tell them what was in it.
After they’d eaten them and found out there was no crab or lobster meat, they didn’t believe us. We had to show them the actual lion’s mane mushroom in our fridge before they realized we weren’t kidding them!
Step-by-step photos showing you how to make lion’s mane mushroom crab cakes
There’s certain techniques and tricks required to getting this recipe just right, so we’ve included process photos and extra details to help you along the way:
Lion’s mane mushroom crab cake recipe
Lion's mane mushroom crab cakes (meat-free)
A meatless "crab cake" recipe made with Lion's mane mushrooms, which have a nearly identical taste and texture to crab or lobster meat. You won't believe you're not eating seafood!
- 1 pound finely chopped or shredded lions mane our lion's mane was 1.2 pounds but was very wet from rain
- 1 cup large yellow or white onion, finely diced
- 6 cloves diced garlic
- 1/4 cup diced red sweet peppers
- 3/4 cup whole wheat bread crumbs or panko crumbs make your own by baking in oven on 200F for 20 minutes, then blending
- 2 duck eggs or large chicken eggs, beaten
- 3 Tbsp diced parsley
- 3/4 Tbsp sea salt or to taste
- 2 Tbsp butter, softened to room temperature This is mixed into the patties prior to cooking. Butter your pan separately as-needed.
- butter (or oil of your choice) for pan when pre-cooking mushrooms and when cooking crab cakes
- dash cayenne pepper (to add a hint of heat)
Place diced lion's mane, onions, and sweet peppers into lightly oiled/buttered skillet and sweat for about 15 minutes on medium-low heat (3 on our stove), stirring regularly. The aim is to remove almost all the water from the ingredients, otherwise your crab cakes won't hold together. After 15 minutes, add garlic and sweat for another 5 minutes until no water remains in pan and ingredients are lightly browned. *Our lion's mane was very wet due to recent rains, so if your lion's mane is dry, sweating will be faster (or you may even have to add a little water to your pan when starting so they don't burn). Remove from stove and let cool in bowl for 15-20 minutes. This should yield about 2 cups of cooked ingredients.
Add all other ingredients into bowl and stir together. Then mush ingredients together by hand for a few minutes until thoroughly consolidated.
Form and cook a single test cake before making an entire batch. You want to make sure the moisture levels are just right and that the cakes will hold together. Tip 1: Make smaller ~3" diameter cakes to help them stick together and flip easier (larger cakes are more difficult). Tip 2: Let cakes gel together for ~5 minutes before cooking. Cook test cake in buttered skillet on low heat (setting ~3). If the test cake comes apart in the pan, you'll want to add more beaten egg and bread crumbs then try again. Then cook the whole batch!
Serve with Meyer lemon slices and our homemade garlic aioli sauce on top to make them even better! This recipe makes enough cakes for ~6 appetizer-sized servings or 3 large dinner servings.
Now you know how to forage, grow, and eat lion’s mane mushrooms! We hope you love these brain-boosting, delicious gourmet mushrooms as much as we do!
Other mushroom articles & recipes you’ll love:
- Recipe: Lion’s mane broccoli potato soup
- Recipe: Lion’s mane chowder
- Recipe: Lion’s mane mac & cheese
- Complete guide: how to forage and use chanterelles
- 6 gourmet and medicinal mushrooms you can easily grow in your garden
- DIY: How to grow shiitake mushrooms
- How to find morel mushrooms in the southeast US
- How to find and prepare maitake mushrooms
- How to grow and eat king stropharia mushrooms
- How to find and eat umbrella polypore (polyporus umbellatus) + recipe
- How to find, ID, grow, and cook chicken of the woods mushrooms
- A delicious indigo milkcap mushroom recipe