Mushroom Grow Kits Are The Chia Pet of the Pandemic Era
Featuring tips from Smallhold’s Andrew Carter, my recipe for crispy mushroom chips (!), and other fungi fascinations.
I’ve fantasized about mushroom foraging for as long as I can remember. But due to geography (I grew up in LA, went to college in Chicago, and now live in Brooklyn) and lack of connections to experienced foragers who can teach me how to not kill myself (if this is you, please hit me up!), it’s always remained a fantasy. So when the pandemic hit last spring and I saw an Instagram post from Smallhold, a futuristic NY-and-Texas-based mushroom farm, advertising that they’d be selling “fruiting blocks” on the socially-distanced sidewalk, it was a no brainer. The city was shutting down, grocery store aisles were bare, and we were going to grow mushrooms. At least one thing in my life would work out.
My partner Michael grabbed a Revel scooter up our block, I hopped on the back, and we zipped through the empty streets to Greenpoint. The fruiting block was a hulking rectangle of sawdust laced with blue oyster mushroom substrate. It barely fit in the e-scooter’s undersized trunk. Each red light on the ride home, I craned my neck back to make sure the hatch was still shut.
Let the record show: Michael deserves basically all of the credit for our mushroom abundance. Michael lives to nurture our apartment’s impressive houseplant ecosystem, so they quickly slashed holes in the block, misted it twice daily, and woke me each morning with an enthusiastic update on the night’s significant growth. The tiny, noodle-like mushroom “pins” ballooned into trumpets with textured gills in a matter of days. It’s probably not an experience for the trypophobic, but we couldn’t look away, and each stage of the mushroom’s lifecycle brought a new element of fixation. Here’s how our obsession unfolded.
Stage 1: Growth, Glorious Growth
The pandemic has been fertile ground for a new wave of home mushroom growers. You can get pre-made kits from spots like Far West Fungi, QH Mushroom Farm on Etsy, North Spore, and Smallhold (the only one I’ve tried), or even spawn plugs to inoculate your own log (this scares me, but power to you). Kit prices tend to range from $15–$30, which seems like a good deal for the yield quantity, based on the price of wild mushrooms at my local farmers market and grocery store.
Recreational mushroom husbandry is relatively low maintenance, but it can definitely be daunting for the uninitiated. So in the name of #servicejournalism, I asked Smallhold co-founder Andrew Carter for guidance. These are his tips:
“Spraying the outside of the block is a way to try and create humidity [to promote mushroom growth]. We have to suggest a number, so we say mist 3–5 times a day. But really, I say to put the block somewhere where you’re going to see it all the time, like your kitchen. Put a spray bottle next to it, and spray it anytime you remember.
We get a lot of questions about what to cook. You should harvest the whole flush (a.k.a. cluster) at the same time—it won’t slow down or stay fresher if you leave it on the block—so if you get a really big cluster, make a game plan. (Ed note: I have you covered! More on this below.)
Eating a mushroom that was recently harvested is the best experience. They’re moist and fresh, and that’s everything you’ll ever want from a mushroom. But if it’s looking kinda weird in your fridge, you can rehydrate dried out mushrooms with stock, wine, or butter.
The majority of our customers buy a block, get one or two flushes, and then get rid of the block. But the mycelium still has a lot of life and you can rehydrate it by dunking the block in a cold bucket of water or shower to get a third or fourth flush. Drain it out, and it’s ready to go again.
There are some mushrooms that are way easier to grow than others. Smallhold focuses on blue oyster and lion’s mane for our home kits— not because we don't want to sell king oysters, but because you have way more of a chance of being successful with these. I know you can buy grow kits with all kinds of mushrooms, but I usually suggest people start with an easy mushroom like blue oyster or lion’s mane, even if you think you have a green thumb. Pink and yellow oyster are a little more particular and then king oyster, royal trumpet, and pioppino.”
Stage 2: Cooking With Wild Abandon
Before we started growing mushrooms, I’d never had a problem with needing to “use them up.” Frilly and flavorful, wild mushrooms aren’t cheap, and they shrink down when cooking. Most of the time I was rationing them. But just one flush from our harvest was larger than my head—the stuff of farmers’ market splurges and $28 slow-fermented artisanal pizzas.
I started with mushroom toast, melting ghee in a cast iron skillet and tossing in mushrooms until golden, crisp, and very buttery indeed. I mixed them into brothy soba bowls and creamy pasta. I even gave some away, because I am a VERY GOOD FRIEND. But most of all, I got busy roasting sprigs of oyster mushrooms on sheet trays into wispy chips to cook with later. This is basically how it goes:
Preheat your oven to 350°F with a rack on the bottom third.
Tear oyster mushrooms into long thin pieces, or slice other, plumper mushrooms thinly. Drizzle with olive oil then use your hands to toss on a rimmed baking sheet with a few big shakes of smoked paprika & garlic powder & red pepper flakes, plus lots of salt and fresh black pepper. (Diaspora Co’s fruity Aranya pepper has my whole heart.) Spread out the mushrooms so they have room to roast, not steam.
Bake for ~50 minutes, tossing halfway through, until mushrooms are dark but not burnt and crisp. They’ll firm up even more as they cool. Keep an eye on them if you’re getting nervous, because every oven is different (and temp displays can be extremely off, as I’ve found out to my own peril).
Mix mushroom chips into salads, sprinkle over soup/rice/ pasta, layer into sandwiches, or eat by the handful while standing over the stove. This isn’t a full dehydration so the mushrooms won’t keep forever, but mine easily disappeared in a few days.
Stage 3: Mushroom Culture, Man!
Growing mushrooms is a gateway into a whole thriving world of interests and subcultures. And no, I’m not just talking about the Grateful Dead….although yes, I could be. These recent cultural moments come to mind:
The year is 2021, and mushroom lamps still have their foot on vintage furniture Instagram’s neck (at least one portion). Murano’s cartoonish, milky glass silhouettes remains the protagonist of a certain kind of nightstand’s tableau—and they’re huge income/audience drivers for accounts like Abigail Bell Vintage and Millefiori Interior. On another decor note, my friend Marianna Fierro (who designed this very newsletter’s logo!) sells extremely cute, storybook-style magnetic toadstools.
I know Cottagecore TikTok has been a thing for a while, but I still love its mossy embrace. All I want to do is watch footage of foraged mushroom hauls in rooms where dust motes and cat hair float through the warm haze of golden hour.
I love everything about this: MycoLoco is a captivating YouTuber who creates ambient tonal music by hooking mushrooms up to Eurorack modular synths. There’s even a debut album, Initial Research, on Bandcamp.
And there is that documentary Fantastic Fungi, which pairs truly captivating, extremely sped-up footage of mushrooms growing with frankly bizarre narration from Brie Larson (?!) as a personified mushroom.
Also, it has to be said: The pandemic is fertile ground for psychedelic use too. If not now, honestly, when? Congratulations to Oregon for legalizing psilocybin for therapeutic purposes last November.
4. Finding Community Through Fungi
In forests, mushrooms are connectors. Tenuous, underground mycelium networks allow plants to exchange precious chemical currency—carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus—through what is essentially an earthbound internet. Scientists believe that roughly 90% of land plants are in these “mutually-beneficial relationships” with fungi. My relationship with the grow kit’s mycelium doesn’t seem particularly beneficial to the mushrooms, which are stuck in my apartment and exist only to be eaten. There is no opportunity to break down the dead or pass along tree gossip, only to appear from nothing and briefly grow.
But online, mushrooms have connected me to other humans. Early quarantine in New York—global epicenter of the pandemic New York—felt so dark and murky. We didn’t know what was happening, how long we’d be away from restaurants and venues and each other. I’m cautiously hopeful about vaccinations and Daylight Savings, but that feeling is still present today.
Somehow, scrolling through Instagram and seeing another proud mushroom parent feels like participating in a shared experience, which is probably the thing I miss most right now. I’ll admit that I let out a small shriek when I saw one of these posts from Umfang, a DJ and a co-founder of Discwoman, last April. Just a month or so before, she soundtracked my weekends, sweeping techno tracks across packed dance floors as my friends shared sips of water from a single crumpled cup. Then we both were growing mushrooms, and that was something.
A full year later, my feed features even more mushrooms. I love following Sophia Roe’s cultivation and cooking, Yasmine Mei’s occasional fungi bouquets, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner Zoe Gong’s recipes and knowledge sharing, and Permaculture Papi’s wide-ranging explorations. If you’re a mushroom fan, I’d love to hear about your your pursuits too. Send me pics!!!
Before you go, here are a few things I’ve been working on:
I Hope We All Survive This Year and I'm Still Farming by the End of It. I interviewed Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm about navigating the endless effects of COVID-19 and climate change for a six-part series. I’ll share next month’s installment here too.
This New Chat Line Lets You Text Your Favorite Chefs For Cooking Advice. DEMI is a new subscription-based chat platform offering a social media alternative for food lovers and the food world fixtures they love to follow on Instagram. I hung out in the group chat and got a little philosophical about the algorithm (and lots more).