Chopped lobster mushrooms have become increasingly popular as a seafood substitute and an exotic and expensive kitchen treat. If you live in an area where they grow, you may even be able to pick lobster mushrooms yourself.
Lobster mushrooms are grown primarily in old-growth forests in New England and the Pacific Northwest. They start off as a mushroom know as the stubby brittlegill, which gets infected by a fungus, and results in the delicious, orange-red lobster mushroom.
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Where Do Lobster Mushrooms Grow?
Lobster mushrooms grow primarily in New England and the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests. They also grow in forested areas throughout the northern United States and southern Canada.
Lobster mushrooms grow in mixed-soil, mossy, coniferous forests, where you also find chanterelles. In some locations, like Quebec, lobster mushrooms frequently turn up along old logging roads where hooves and boots spread their spores generations ago.
You can also find lobster mushrooms in many undisturbed wooded areas, but you have to know what you are looking for when seeking them out.
What Do Lobster Mushrooms Look Like?
Lobster mushrooms have a hard dimpled orange-red shell that gives them their name. Their large caps are gnarled and twisted, frequently into a warped upside-down pyramid shape. Under the red exterior, the lobster mushroom’s interior flesh is firm, dense, and white to pale salmon-orange.
Lobster mushrooms start their lives as Russula brevipes, also known as the stubby brittlegill.
While the stubby brittlegill is edible, it’s not particularly tasty. It has a faintly bitter and unpleasant taste, and its flesh crumbles into an unappealing mush when cooked or chopped.
When the fungus Hypomyces lactifluorum infects a stubby brittlegill, its taste and appearance change dramatically. H. lactifluorum doesn’t just feed off its host; it swaps DNA. As their genes merge, the brittlegill’s crumbly flesh grows dense and pliable, and a nutty seafood flavor profile replaces its acrid taste.
Mushroom gills produce the spores which become next season’s mushrooms. A rough orange-red shell covers the lobster mushroom entirely. Upon that pimply red surface are tiny containers filled with H. lactifluorum spores that make the host’s gills unnecessary and ensure that many of next season’s stubby bittergills will become lobster mushrooms.
Where Can You Find Lobster Mushrooms?
Lobster mushrooms are often found beneath conifers like firs, hemlocks, and pines. The best time to find lobster mushrooms is on a sunny day after heavy rain in late summer or autumn. Lobster mushrooms are especially common in old-growth forests.
When you are walking through a New England or Pacific Northwest forest in the late summer or early autumn, keep an eye out for flashes of orange near the roots. The lobster mushrooms are hard to miss with their orange-red shell-like exterior.
Though they are brightly colored, lobster mushrooms can be difficult to spot on the forest floor. Check beneath ferns, fallen logs, moss, and ground cover. Additionally, make sure to keep an eye out for stubby bittergills. If you see bittergills, there’s a good chance you will find lobster mushrooms nearby.
Lobster mushrooms often grow in small clusters of two or three mushrooms, with other mushroom groups within 16 feet (5 m). When you find a patch of lobster mushrooms, make sure to make a note of the location. They tend to sprout up in or near the same area each season, so you can continue to return to the site for years to come.
How to Clean Lobster Mushrooms
- Use a dry brush to wipe away all the dirt.
- If necessary, break the lobster mushrooms apart to expose dirty crevices.
- Cut off any surface brown spots and throw out any lobster mushrooms that have an ammonia smell, feel mushy or slimy, or look moldy or discolored.
Try to avoid washing them with a damp cloth or paper towel, as this can remove the lobster mushroom’s red shell. However, if your lobster mushrooms are especially dirty, a quick rinse in cold water will not damage them and may help you get rid of excess grime.
You can also set aside the older mushrooms and smaller pieces to dry out in the food dehydrator when cleaning your lobster mushrooms. You can use these to make a lobster mushroom powder that will give a lovely orange color and a sweet lobster mushroom taste to risotto or other dishes.
Are Lobster Mushrooms Healthy for You?
Lobster mushrooms are high in dietary fiber and contain vital minerals like potassium, zinc, selenium, and vitamins B, D, and K.
Dietary fiber keeps you regular, aids in digestion, and can help you control blood sugar levels. A cup of mushrooms contains around 3 grams (0.10 oz) of healthy fiber. And because fiber makes you feel full, adding more fiber to your diet can help you control your food cravings.
The selenium in lobster mushrooms encourages the production of thyroid hormones and liver enzymes. Lobster mushrooms also contain zinc which is excellent for cell growth and healing, and potassium which helps to regulate blood pressure and muscle contractions.
Lobster mushrooms also contain riboflavin, thiamin, and other essential B vitamins that assist in immune system function. Additionally, they are sources of vitamin D, which regulates cell growth and promotes calcium absorption for better bone health.
What Do Lobster Mushrooms Taste Like?
Lobster mushrooms have a sweet, delicate seafood flavor reminiscent of lobster, with a robust, savory umami note. Combine this with a texture that resembles a firm-fleshed fish, and it’s easy to see why many vegans consider lobster mushrooms a superb cruelty-free seafood substitute.
Like lobster, the flavor of lobster mushrooms can easily be overwhelmed by other strong-flavored ingredients. A little garlic is fine, but too much, and you might lose the lobster mushroom altogether. Lobster mushrooms can also become bland and mushy if overcooked. Additionally, like other mushrooms, lobster mushrooms absorb flavor from the other ingredients when cooked.
Ingredients that complement lobster and other seafood dishes will generally blend well with lobster mushrooms. Gently sautéeing it in butter will bring out the lobster mushroom’s flavor, while the mushroom colors the rest of the dish a bright yellow-orange. Deglaze the pot with a splash of white wine, and you’ll have a meal fit for a foraging gourmet.
Dried lobster mushrooms have a more intense seafood aroma than fresh lobster mushrooms. Lobster mushroom powder is an excellent base for a colorful and flavorful vegan seafood broth or many other recipes.
How to Cook Lobster Mushrooms?
Simple preparations are best when cooking lobster mushrooms. A quick sauté will bring out the ocean aroma and sweet, briny flavor. Lobster mushrooms work well as an accompaniment to seafood dishes or tempura fried as a side dish. However, make sure not to overcook them, as the flavors are delicate, and the textures can become mushy.
When cooking large lobster mushroom caps, you may want to add a little moisture to the pan. A bit of clam juice or fish broth will accentuate their seafood flavor. Vegans can add some kombu or nori broth instead.
If you live in an area where you can pick your lobster mushrooms or purchase them fresh, you are in luck. The fresher your lobster mushrooms, the better they taste. If you are not so fortunate, dried lobster mushrooms are available at many gourmet stores and online.
To rehydrate dried lobster mushrooms, cover them with warm water for 30 minutes, then lift them out with a strainer. The bright orange-red water that remains is helpful in other dishes for flavor and color: lobster mushroom water can even dye wool, fabric, or paper.
If you can’t source lobster mushrooms naturally around you, I recommend Mycological 1 oz Dried Lobster Mushrooms (available on Amazon.com). These are wild mushrooms grown in the Pacific Northwest and harvested by experienced foragers and will be a fantastic introduction to cooking with lobster mushrooms.
Can Lobster Mushrooms Be Farmed?
Large-scale farm cultivation of lobster mushrooms is not possible. The specialized nutritional needs of the mushroom make it challenging to grow. Additionally, the logistics of infecting warehouses full of mushrooms with the fungal parasite needed to create lobster mushrooms would be challenging to handle.
The stubby bittergill forms a symbiotic relationship with the trees beneath which it grows. The bittergill breaks nitrogen and phosphorus down into forms the tree can digest. In return, it takes some of the sugar that the tree has photosynthesized.
Reproducing that relationship in an agricultural setting is enormously complex. Those who have tried culturing Russula mushrooms have found they took months to grow, if they grew at all. Many popular and tasty mushrooms can be raised and harvested in a matter of weeks, but the stubby bittergill isn’t one of them.
If a mushroom farming operation could grow a commercial crop of stubby bittergills, they would face the challenge of exposing their mushrooms to the fungus. Exposure would involve smearing gills and caps with H. lactifluorum spores and seeing how many became lobster mushrooms. Those bittergills that did not become infected would have no commercial value.
At our present level of mycological technology, farming lobster mushrooms is beyond the capabilities of an industrial or even a personal-sized operation. For the foreseeable future, lobster mushrooms will remain an expensive wild-foraged seasonal delicacy.
How Long Do Lobster Mushrooms Last and How to Store Them
While you should eat freshly picked lobster mushrooms within three days for the best flavor and texture, you can store fresh lobster mushrooms for as long as seven days in your refrigerator. Properly dried lobster mushrooms have a shelf life of several years.
To store lobster mushrooms, brush off as much dirt as possible using a clean pastry brush or paintbrush. After you have cleaned the mushrooms, place them in your refrigerator in a closed paper bag.
The best way to dry lobster mushrooms is with a dehydrator like the COSORI Food Dehydrator (available on Amazon.com). The dehydrator makes drying mushrooms simple. All you need to do is put your lobster mushrooms in the COSORI, plug the dehydrator in put it on the right setting, and wait six to eight hours.
More prolonged drying at a lower temperature will give you the best results. A temperature of 130-135 degrees Fahrenheit (54-57 degrees Celsius) will help ensure your lobster mushrooms dehydrate without burning.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can put your lobster mushrooms in the oven on the lowest heat setting. Be careful if you do this, as it is easy to burn them if you are not careful. You can also use the time-honored technique of putting your mushrooms out in the sun to dry, though you should cover them with a thin cloth to keep insects away.
When dried, your lobster mushrooms can be stored for at least two years, possibly longer, if you vacuum seal them and keep them in a dry place away from light and dampness. You can grind your dried mushrooms to an easily stored powder or leave them intact and chop them up after they rehydrate.