The mystery is what drew Jan Chamberlin to the mushroom.
Her garden includes zucchini, lettuces, raspberries and tomatoes, so she's no stranger to growing food. But mushrooms are in a different kingdom than plants. They have no roots, stems or leaves. While the mushroom cap is visible, all the work of absorbing nutrients is happening unseen, in the soil or wood or compost.
"It's different and it's something I've never tried before," the 54-year-old said. "I wanted to see if I could actually do it."
Interest in growing mushrooms is, well, mushrooming. And there are several resources in Utah to feed the growth.
Layton-based Biocentric Bros., a company that started growing mushrooms to sell at farmers markets last year, is now selling a ready-made starter kit for growing shiitake, king oyster, reishi and Lions Mane mushrooms. Each bag is $20 and it comes with a first-time guarantee.
Dan's and Home Depot also sell Back to the Roots mushrooms kits oysters grown in coffee grounds for about $20.
And a recent mushroom growing class offered through Wasatch Community Gardens, in which participants built their own mushroom logs for shiitakes and oysters, quickly sold out.
It's part of the DIY, food-growing trend in general, said Kirsten Brinkerhoff, who taught the Wasatch garden class and started growing mushrooms as part of her job to clean up contaminated soil at Tear a Part Auto Recycling. Their medicinal antioxidant powers are also attracting fans, she said.
And then, there's the mystery.
"Mushrooms are kind of weird and wonderful," she said.
Paul Stamets considered the definitive author on mushroom cultivation sees mushrooms as the "magicians of the natural world," said Brinkerhoff, who had a Stamets book handy at her office. "They take things that are dead and dying and break them down and disassemble them and make that material available for new life.
"It's an overlooked part of the ecosystem that I think we're just beginning to understand."
Health is one reason many people want to grow their own fungi. The texture and savory taste of mushrooms make them an ideal substitute for meat in many dishes. In fact, mushrooms have more protein than vegetables though less than meat.
"They have the look of something very earthy, something meaty, something dense," said Ian Brandt, who uses mushrooms for taste and texture at all three of his vegetarian restaurants in Salt Lake City. Portabellas are in the Zen Bowl at Vertical Diner and the mushroom stroganoff and vegetarian tacos at Sage's Cafe. Shiitake mushrooms are the stars of the miso soup at Cafe SuperNatural.
Foraging for mushrooms is one way to get gourmet mushrooms, as nearly two-dozen different edible varieties of mushrooms grow wild in Utah. But it's not recommended for beginners as the untrained eye can mistake a poisonous toad stool for a gourmet goodie.
And buying top-quality mushrooms can be pricey. A pound of portabellas in one local store costs $6.99.
Growing mushrooms is easy, though it requires patience. Harvesting mushrooms from a log can take six months to 2 years enough time for the mycelium to colonize the wood. Plugs colonized with spawn are inserted into holes drilled into a log, sealed with wax and kept moist until the log shows mottling. Then the log is planted in the ground, where the small mushrooms will pop from the cracks in the wood.
Brandi Chase has placed her shiitake mushroom log from Brinkerhoff's class on top of her dryer to keep warm and plans to put them in her shade garden in mid-May.
She may eat them. Or not.
"I'm more curious about the process," she said. "It's just an opportunity to play with creation … this constant cycle of birth and growth and reaching that beautiful climax and fruiting and decaying. It keeps me connected to the cycles of life."
The 39-year-old Salt Lake City resident isn't impatient, but for those who are, growing mushrooms using the store-bought kits can take as little as 10 days.
Biocentric says its mushroom blocks, made of colonized wood chips, will produce up to 1 1/2 pounds of mushrooms from up to three growth cycles in anywhere from two weeks to three months.
"We would like to see people grow more of their own food," said Chase England, one of Biocentric's three owners. "It's quite astounding how many people are interested in mushrooms who don't know anything about them."
In general, the bags are placed in indirect sunlight with temperatures between 50 to 70 degrees. Once fruiting begins microscopic mushroom heads with king oysters the top of the bag is cut off, and it is misted with a water bottle and covered with a humidity tent (a plastic bag with holes).
Chamberlin says her bags of oyster and shiitake look like angel food cake.
"It's really fun when these heads start pushing up and growing out," she said. "I love food. This is another aspect of exploration."
Learn to grow mushrooms
Biocentric Bros. will be teach three classes through the University of Utah's Lifelong Learning program. All classes on Wednesdays, from 6:30-8:30 p.m.
June 5 • Introduction to gourmet and medicinal mushrooms
June 19 • Growing gourmet mushrooms in straw buckets
July 10 • Growing mushrooms in outdoor logs.
Details • 801-587-5433; www.lifelong.utah.edu
Sage's Café Shiitake Escargot
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup burgundy wine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon rosemary, ground
2 teaspoon mustard, ground
1 tablespoon sea salt
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms
Toasted baguette slices or crackers, for serving
Carrot butter pate, for serving (Sage's brand sold at Cali's Natural Foods)
blackberry preserves or fig compte, for serving
Place everything except the mushrooms in a blender, process until smooth. Stir in mushrooms and marinate 4-8 hours.
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place marinated mushrooms and left over marinade in a roasting pan and bake 10 to 15 minutes until marinade has reduced back into the mushrooms.
Remove from oven and serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers, carrot butter pate, blackberry preservers or fig compote.
Servings • 8
Source: Chef Ian Brandt