Cauliflower Mushrooms, Sparassis, are beautiful, unique and easily identified wild mushrooms. From a distance they look a bit like cauliflower, hence the name. But, they could also be likened to brains, coral or clumps of ruffled egg noodles . The later of which is by far the more delicious sounding comparison. So, let’s choose to think of them as delicious balls of noodles.
The unique appearance of these saprobic fruiting bodies makes the Cauliflower Mushroom one of the easiest wild foods to positively identify. They are white or cream colored with frilly lobes that seem to flow together in an intricate formation. There are no poisonous look-a-likes that come close to comparing to these beauties, making them a great prize for novice mushroom hunters to seek. However, they are treasures that aren’t very common to find. Knowing the right time to search for them, understanding their growth habits, and walking plenty of miles in the woods will definitely increase your odds.
Sparassis grow in many regions of the US and in many European countries. The season for them varies regionally. In the Pacific Northwest and in the Southeastern US, they are usually found in the Fall. In Alabama they are found most often in September or October (great months for fall foraging of many species). Sparassis commonly fruit around the same time as Hen of the Woods. So, if you will be searching for one, learn how to identify the other as well. You might get lucky and find them both on the same hike.
Sparassis are large fungus weighing 1-10 pounds making them fairly easy to spot. They are usually found near the bases of diseased or decaying mature trees. In the Southeastern US they are most often found next to pine trees, but can sometimes feed on decaying oak roots as well.
Unlike most saprobic fungus, Sparassis is only a midly invasive parasitic organism. It causes very little damage to trees, where other fungus can kill mature trees in just a few years. Since they don’t kill their hosts, cauliflowers will fruit annually in the same location sometimes for decades. So, when they are found the location should be noted, and annual foraging expeditions planned accordingly. We keep a foraging journal so we can know the dates and locations of our finds. If it weren’t for our journal, we would never be able to remember them all. Not because we are foraging massive amounts of fungus all over the place, but because we are sleep deprived and memory challenged parents. So, we fill in the journal when we remember (blogging paused and this recent find logged in journal before continuing.).
The culinary value of Cauliflower Mushrooms makes finding them incredibly exciting. They have a delightful light and springy texture unlike most other fungus. Imagine perfectly cooked fresh pasta with a bit more springiness and a mild earthy aroma. These faux noodles are not a strongly flavored ingredient. They are lightly textured and mild, making them great additions to soups or stews. Recently we enjoyed Venison Meatball Soup with Foraged Cauliflower Mushrooms. It was one of my favorite soups I’ve ever had. Even our 4-year old loved it. He had no idea that the noodles in the soup were in fact the “monkey brains” we brought home from a recent hike.
I have imagined so many ways in which I would love to cook Sparassis. Unfortunately, we don’t have piles of this delicious mushroom sitting around in our kitchen. The next time we find one I might try Sparassis Carbonara with the body of the mushroom used in place of traditional noodles. I love pasta and I love wild mushrooms, so this fungus makes me incredibly happy. If any of my readers would like to bring me 5-7 lbs of this fabulous ingredient, I’d be happy to cook a feast of fungus for them.