Gardening Articles: Health :: Garden Crafts

Grow Your Own Gourmet Mushrooms

by Charlie Nardozzi

An oak log proves a suitable host for shiitake mushrooms.

There was a time when eating specialty mushrooms was reserved for those looking for a mind-expanding experience or with sufficient income to frequent five-star restaurants. How times have changed. Over the past 10 years, specialty mushrooms (not the hallucinogenic types) have become the rage, with more kinds popping up in grocery stores and natural food markets. The ubiquitous white button mushroom is still tops in popularity, but interest in other kinds such as oyster, portabello, and shiitake is increasing. Not only do these specialty mushrooms have full-bodied and unique flavors, but some, such as shiitake, are being touted for their health benefits.

The only downside is the price. Some fresh mushrooms can cost $10 or more per pound at the market, making them no more than an occasional dinnertime indulgence. But if you get hooked on the flavor of these gourmet treats, you have a few options. You can win the lottery and buy all the mushrooms your heart desires -- a nice thought, but not too likely. You can learn how to forage in the wild for some of these naturally occurring fruits, but, of course, risk a potentially deadly misidentification.

A better option is to grow your own. Commercial growers have responded to consumers' love of fresh gourmet mushrooms by introducing kits that produce gourmet mushrooms in no time. Although you won't get an unlimited supply, in a few weeks you'll be eating fresh homegrown mushrooms.

Experimenting with these kits ($20 to $30) is a good way to find out if you want to dive deeper into mushroom growing. If you do get hooked on gourmet mushrooms, you can move on to the next stage: inoculating logs with mushroom spores to gain years of continuous supply growing in your basement or backyard.

Mushrooms 101

Although mushrooms are fungi, the edible part is considered a fruiting body. Mushrooms reproduce by spores, which germinate into white masses called mycelia. To grow, mushrooms need a clean food source such as compost, sawdust, straw, or wood that is free from competing microorganisms. Commercial growers inoculate their medium with pure mycelia grown on spawn (mushroom growers' equivalent of a mushroom seed). The mycelia require temperatures of 70oF to 80oF, a moist medium, and high humidity. Once the mycelia have spread throughout the medium, fruiting will begin as small protrusions called pins. Within a few days, the pins mature into the species of mushroom you're growing. Mushrooms need to be checked daily at this point, since the best flavor and texture are found when the mushroom caps are open, but not fully unfurled and flat.

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