Umami is one of the food world’s most sought-after flavors. Its rich compounds give way to a flavor that brings an almost warm, broth-like earthiness that radiates throughout the palate. The word umami is Japanese meaning “pleasant savory taste.” Umami’s complexity can be built through fermentation such as soy sauce, fermented fish, and even some cheeses like Parmesan. But umami can also be naturally occurring, especially in the mushroom kingdom.
Mushrooms are an excellent way to add umami flavors to a meal and they don’t need much treatment either. Sautéed with a little bit of salt and butter and you can have a delicious plate of mushrooms in minutes. The most commonly consumed mushroom is the cremini mushroom, the “baby bella” mushrooms that you find in salad bars, canned, on pizzas, and in most grocery stores. According to the USDA, in 2017 over 97% of mushroom produced in the United States fell under the Agaricus genus (the fancy scientific name for cremini mushrooms as well as Portobello), and Americans were eating around 3 pounds of Agaricus mushrooms each year.
Cremini mushrooms are a great addition to any dish, but the world of mushrooms is diverse, and their culinary uses are just as vast. Shiitake mushrooms have a deep, earthy flavor and their meaty texture gives a certain heartiness to soups. Oyster mushrooms are chewy and have a kind of briny taste and are a perfect side. Lion’s mane mushrooms have the taste and texture of lump crab meat, making them an excellent vegan substitution for crab cakes. Maitake are somewhat firm, have a rich, woodsy flavor, and are feathery in appearance. Chicken of the woods is one of the most desired specialty mushrooms because it tastes like chicken. Mushrooms can be used as vegan substitutes, served as a side, mixed into a dish, or even served as the main course.
Where do mushrooms grow?
Mushrooms in the wild seem to grow up out of anything decaying like old trees, piles of leaves, or sometimes sprouting right out of the grass. Though it might seem random where and how mushrooms begin to grow, they do require specific conditions to flourish; a delicate balance of air, light, the right temperature, and humidity. Producing consistent yields of mushrooms is an artform of precise chemistry.
When it comes to farming mushrooms, most operations are in rural areas. One of the largest mushroom producing areas in the United States is Kennett Township, a small town a few miles west of Philadelphia that has been growing mushrooms since 1885. The town is known as the Mushroom Capital of the World because they produce about half a billion pounds of mushrooms each year, a quantity that makes up about 50% of the U.S. mushroom crop.
But fully operational mushroom farms don’t have to be in rural areas. As long as the conditions are right, mushrooms can grow. Mycopolitan, an urban mushroom farm in Philadelphia, has created the optimal environment for a wide variety of mushrooms to thrive. “When we were looking for a home, we were thinking we’d purchase some farmland, so we could build a structure,” says Tyler Case, Co-Founder and Farmer at Mycopolitan, “but then we got connected with Common Market, a nonprofit food hub that works with regional farms, and they were looking for someone to use their basement.”
The best way to think of it is to think of it not as a single farming environment, but a bunch of different environments. “We oriented our farm so that the higher CO2 environment is at the tail end of where the air flows through our basement,” says Case. The process begins with a substrate, usually a mixture of sawdust, soy hulls, and gypsum, which are put into plastic bags that are later inoculated with mushroom spawn. Putting the substrate into bags tends to kick up a lot of dust, so it needs to be at the opposite end of the farm from their lab, the sterile environment where the inoculation takes place.
The bags move through an incubation room, a darker area with less air flow which helps mycelium to grow or “colonize” on the substrate. Then there’s a short period where they “shock” the bags, which isn’t an electrical jolt, but rather a change in temperature, light or humidity that triggers the mushrooms to grow. After that, it’s off to the grow room.
“Mushroom growing is perfect for an urban environment,” says Case. Being a mushroom farmer in Philadelphia gives Case and his team the opportunity to develop close relationships with chefs and the growing number of home cooks who are learning more about bringing rare and specialty mushrooms. This close connection to the market allows him to better anticipate the mushroom needs of his customers, growing what they need when they need it. “It’s a high value crop when you’re growing specialty mushrooms,” says Case, “and it doesn’t take up a lot of space.”
Mushrooms don’t require a lot of room to grow. In fact, you can grow a couple pounds of mushrooms at home right on your kitchen countertop. Mushroom kits come already prepared, taking the tedious process of creating the substrate, inoculating the growing medium with mushroom spawn, and shocking the bag, out of the equation. You can find them at mushroom farms, specialty grocery stores, or online. For the most part, these kits are fool proof as long as they’re kept at room temperature, they don’t get excessive amounts of light, and they’re misted with water regularly.
For home gardeners who have just ended their gardening season, growing mushrooms at home can be a satisfying activity. Once mushrooms start to grow, they grow very quickly. Within a week or so, you can have a full flush of tasty mushrooms!