Sparassis, the Elusive Cauliflower Mushroom


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Holding a cauliflower mushroom
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Sparassis. Cauliflower mushroom. Queen of the forest. A one-mushroom party. Big, easy to identify, delicious. What’s not to love?

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. The cauliflower mushroom, as S. crispa is commonly called out here, is devilishly hard to find. I’ve walked whole seasons here in California without finding one. But walk you must, because this mushroom is a loner.

The silver lining is that cauliflower mushrooms come up in the same spot year after year, so mark your GPS or mental map. Also mark your calendar because you won’t want to miss your chance.

The sparassis I am holding in the picture above is half of one my friend Eric and I found on California’s North Coast. I’ve returned to this spot several times this season, but our drought had been so severe I thought I might never see it again. Thankfully we’re now getting some serious rain, so I can only hope to see it sprout soon.

Typically cauliflower mushrooms pop between December and early March here in California. It’s a bit earlier in the Pacific Northwest; my friend Langdon Cook tends to find them in October and November up in Washington. There is an Eastern variety of sparassis, too: S. spathulata, that you can find as early as July and as late as October. You can find a variety of sparassis in Europe, too.

That’s the when. The “where” is at the base of a tree. Sparassis is a saprobe, a parasite that leeches off particular kinds of trees. In the West it will be pines — mine’s under a Bishop pine — and in the East look at the base of hardwoods. The mushroom seems to prefer older trees that are a little beat down; my sparassis is under a pine with a trunk about two feet wide with a bunch of storm-broken limbs.

What you’re looking for is a large, ivory-to-yellow clump. How large? A gigantic one can weigh a full 100 pounds, but most are between a pound and 10 pounds. They burst up from under the pine duff and really shine in a dark wood.

Identification is super easy. Langdon has the best analogy: Imagine a big batch of egg noodles that you left in a colander overnight. That is exactly what a sparassis looks like. There are no poisonous look-similars.

Cut the mushroom at the ground level and shake it upside down to dislodge random pine needles, woodland creatures and whatnot. Take it home and refrigerate it for up to a week, covered in a paper towel or cloth in a plastic container. The edges will yellow as the cauliflower mushroom ages, but it will still be OK.

closeup of sparassis structure
photo by Holly A. Heyser

Once you are ready to cook your sparassis, you will need to grab your favorite adult beverage and get to cleaning. All those folds trap ungodly amounts of debris — and gird your loins for millipedes and earwigs leaping out at you. How do I do it? I cut the mushroom into chunks and dunk them into a big bowl of cold water. Cauliflower mushrooms don’t absorb a lot of moisture easily, so fear not. Slice off any gnarly looking bits and lay the good pieces on a cloth to dry.

How to cook them? Cauliflower mushroom is the ultimate soup mushroom. It’s essentially a cross between an al dente egg noodle and a mushroom. It has a mild flavor a lot like a morel mushroom that happens to go very well with red meats.

 My favorite way to eat a cauliflower mushroom is to simmer it in some venison or duck broth, then serve it in some more broth as a sort of consommé. It is divine, and a great way to linger over this very special shroom.
Sparassis, cauliflower mushroom soup in a bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Lang likes it with beef pot roast, but he also pickles them. A lot of people will sauté them like any other mushroom, but I think they need some time to cook properly. (If you get more than you can eat in a few days, my advice is to cook them first, then freeze.)

Looking for more info about finding and cooking wild mushrooms? I have a huge selection of mushroom recipes here.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Our neighbors were walking in our woods and gifted us with several! I had never heard of them before. Am going to have to freeze them as I have so many. Oh what a problem!?
    Your article was very helpful! Thank you!

  2. Found a couple of these last year: first ever! Called up a couple friends who are chefs, and we prepared it (along with some several other mushroom dishes) in puff pastry with an aromatic black trumpet cream sauce. Oh My!

  3. Found some while chasing the dog through the woods. I simmered them for 45 minutes in some chicken broth, drained them and then sautéed in butter. Some got brown and crispy. Delicious- very mushroomy.

  4. Thanks Hank, these are amazing. Found some at the Ferry Building in SF this morning, would never have thought to simmer in broth but you were so right. Pulled out some frozen duck broth, simmered half an hour low with a little white shiso and togaroshi, grated in a little cured egg yolk and topped with a poached egg and spring pea shoots. Sparassis perfect in the role of an umami-punched egg noodle.

    I had half a pound of the thick bottom part leftover, curious to try pickling it. Put it in a standard 50/50 vinegar brine with sansho peppercorns – have you tried Landon’s approach, do you think if shrooms are pretty clean and brine pretty heavy that the vodka is necessary?

  5. Very helpful article. I found a nice specimen on my hike today, north of Davenport CA. Wish I took it home, but i did not know it was an edible.

  6. My best friend found a cauliflower mushroom growing under an oak tree on their farm in Enola, Arkansas. Lucky me! She is bringing me some of it today so I can try it. I can hardly wait as I am originally from a northern state where we could find morels. I havne’t had one in years.

  7. I just found my first yesterday( 3.4 lbs), my house smells divine, as I have some on the dehydrator and some simmering with real cauliflower, ham and wine 😉 to answer your questions the article above says yes cook first then freeze.

  8. Hello all I just found a forty lbs calliflpwer in the woods there are 4 more but they are about 5 lbs my guestion is it is going to be real dry the next five days should I harvest them. Just to let everyone know I picked these as a young man and shared with my dad grandad and brother I actually hunt musshrooms and think of them being in the woods can be spiritual forme it becomes a time for reflection. Who would have thought that hunting mushrooms could help console grief. My proplemisidi cook them I have knowone to share with. Do they freez well after cooking in not I will only pick what I can eat.

  9. i found something in my yard that I have no clue what it is. I’ve posted it online and one person said it was an “old” cauliflower mushroom. I don’t think it looks much like it but I’m no expert! It looks like black moldy broccoli. It smells a bit like a morel. . Is there some way I can send a photo?

  10. I found a monster last Thursday while harvesting chanterelles. Yup, discovered the dipping clumos of it in a large bowlof water helped when cleaning. All sorts of residual forest duff floated tobthr surface. Ive found thatat crispy frying them like bacon bits makes for a fine crispy garnish for my chanterelle reduction sauce penne dish. I’ve successfully converted my picky partner to a fan. She has a texture issue with chewy and slimy. Crispy works.

  11. Wow , I just found my first near punxsy pa as well! I’m leaving these ones to grow and will be bringing my daughter back to harvest in the near future. Rod.. hopefully these aren’t the same ones… did you harvest the ones you found?

  12. Just came across my first one in Black Mountain, NC. I’ve cleaned it and am really excited to try this baby!!!

  13. I just found one in the back yard in Treasure Lake, PA!! I must admit I am a little nervous about eating it…