The Weird & Wonderful Cauliflower Mushroom

The Weird & Wonderful Cauliflower MushroomBelieve it or not, this bizarre specimen – the wood cauliflower (sparassis crispa) – was the first I ever found. I was on a one-day introduction to mushroom-hunting course at the Iris Griffith Field Studies & Interpretive Centre in British Columbia, Canada. For an extremely reasonable price, two enthusiastic amateur mycologists led us through a couple of hours of education in safe fungi collection. They provided us with the tools, as beginners, to continue the hobby by ourselves, rather than stressing how complex the world of mycology can be. This scientific field can indeed be extremely complicated, but it does not always need to be. It is accessible.

They introduced us to the key identifiers you should become familiar with to feel confident collecting mushrooms, such as colour, shape, smell, texture and growing environment, to name but a few. They told us about their favourite books, why they found them useful and how to get the most out of them. They displayed examples of the beautiful, magical spore-prints all mushrooms produce and showed us how to make our own. And then the really exciting part, taking this basic knowledge out into the forest to find our own. That day I found lobster mushrooms (sadly unavailable in the UK), chanterelles and – most excitingly – one of these delightful cauliflower mushrooms. It was all profoundly inspirational.

I will never forget the feeling of joy I felt at rounding a tree and seeing it there, in all its strange glory. I had been introduced to this species earlier in the day, so even after only a short education, I knew what I was looking at.

The only other time I have found this enchanting mushroom since then is this autumn, on a truly epic forage in which I discovered a staggering array of colourful fungi (read about this here). It was absolutely thrilling to find another one and I cradled it like a baby for the rest of the hunt, sniffing it, stroking it, loving it!

As you may have gathered, it is quite a rare mushroom, but as it’s so easy to identify and so exciting to find, I wanted to highlight it for you here. I mean, what else that grows on this earth (maybe in the sea?) that looks like this?! It is also, as I continue to reiterate with all my favourite mushrooms, MAGGOT-FREE!!

Cauliflower MushroomThat being said, it has lots of folds and crevices that can hide other kinds of forest life, so be sure to clean it thoroughly. Unlike other mushrooms, which I try to keep as dry as possible by just brushing off the dirt as best I can, I dunk and swill this one several times in a basin of water to make sure all the dirt and insects are freed (of course saving their little lives where I can!).

I have only cooked this mushroom twice, for obvious reasons, and both times I sautéed it. This was delicious, but the mushroom did not cook down to very much and took on a texture somewhat akin to rice noodles. It was lovely sprinkled on a homemade pizza and sandwiched between layers of potato in a creamy gratin, but I can’t help but think there might be a better way.

I have heard that they benefit from a quick blanch in boiling water, but I hate subjecting anything to the diluting properties of a huge pan of hot water, so I avoided this. Can anyone advise? Does it firm up the mushroom and enable you to utilise its remarkable shape better? What happens? They come into my life so rarely that I am reluctant to seriously experiment. I have also heard they are lovely broken into chunks, dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried. This may have to be the next way I cook them – want to keep that shape!

I have included below the key characteristics of cauliflower mushrooms to get you started. These are not the only characteristics of these mushrooms, but they are the ones I have found most useful. When foraging for mushrooms, you should always take great care to be sure of what you are eating. This could involve going out with an expert guide or could be achieved by consulting several reference books – always more than one book – and examining the mushrooms meticulously yourself. I never eat a mushroom that I am not absolutely sure about. I have discarded many mushrooms because one minor characteristic did not match or because I didn’t feel completely able to visualise the description in the book for accurate comparison. It is always better to be safe than sorry. There will be other mushrooms.

Key Identifiers

  • the most distinctive feature of this mushroom is its fantastic shape – a cross between a cauliflower and coral
  • it has numerous curly, flattened waves growing from a short, thick stem – the waves are brittle (so be careful)
  • the whole thing is between 20-50cm wide
  • the mushroom is dirty cream coloured, darkening with age
  • it has a strong, distinctive smell – sweetish, slightly strange, not appealing to everyone
  • it is found at the base of conifers or nearby, during autumn
  • maggot- (but not insect-) free!

NOTE: These identifying characteristics are specific to the UK only. Most likely, the characteristics of cauliflower mushrooms found in other countries will be similar (I have found these both in Canada and the UK), but there could also be differences I am not aware of, or other potentially look-a-like mushrooms that are not found in the UK.

Recommended Mushroom Books & Websites

To see or buy my favourite beginner’s mushroom book, River Cottage Handbook No. 1 by John Wright, click here. To see a detailed post describing my favourite mushroom identification books, websites and apps, click here.

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  1. says

    Love this. And this year, it started to grow at our weekend house – yay!

    It is gread for soups. Especialy with smal pinch of paprika, garlic, caraway seeds, alspiced and majoran. Or for brothy soups.

    Or as a spread for crostini – just sate braise it with lot of butter or some nice oil, add a salt, pepper and little bit of thyme and parmigiano

    Or for chinese duppling fillings.

  2. shawn clark says

    This is a great mushroom found a five poind one today. Other ways to use this mushroom is canned and dehydrated works great

    • Ramsons and Bramble says

      Five pounds! Jealous! Would you dehydrate it in chunks and rehydrate it for cooking? Or do something like grind it to a powder after drying to use as a flavouring?

      • shawn clark says

        I am doing both with it. I breaded and fried some last night. That was so good lol. The bottom of it I canned. Can not wait there is another one close by to small still.

        • Ramsons and Bramble says

          Mmmmmm… Breaded and fried… Two words that go very well together. Do you just use an egg wash and breadcrumbs or do they do well with some kind of batter? Perhaps like tempura?

          • shawn clark says

            I use flour and cornmeal 50 50 mix what ever spices you want in the mix. Dip mushroom in milk and then roll in dry mix then repeat till coated. This works awsome becauce this mushroom has all the nice gills for the mix to go into. And also there is another one growing in the same area o ya lol

          • Ramsons and Bramble says

            Cool! Will give that a go – I love cornmeal. Felt a bit cheated the last time I cooked cauliflower mushroom, that it just cooked down and I didn’t get to enjoy the beautiful shape as I ate. Loving the image of you standing next to the smaller one thinking “Grow my pretty, grow!”