Despite the name and appearance, the lobster mushroom isn't a true mushroom species. It's the result of a parasitic mold invading and taking over a wild mushroom, turning it red and improving the flavor and texture of that fungi. To that end, the lobster mushroom is prized for its crustacean-like flavor, meaty consistency, and heartiness when cooking. Because the lobster mushroom only grows in the wild, sourcing it can be difficult, making them a rare, sought-after ingredient.
What Are Lobster Mushrooms?
A lobster mushroom is made when the parasite Hypomyces lactifluorum invades wild fungi, namely the lactarius and russula mushrooms. These mushrooms are found in the fall, mainly in New England and in the northern areas of the West Coast. The parasite coats the wild mushrooms and turns them red, firming the flesh and giving the fungi a hearty meatiness that otherwise wasn't there. The lumpy-shaped mushrooms also take on notes of shellfish, namely lobster, especially when cooked.
It's because of the taste of the mushroom, the texture, and the bright orange-red color that lend the lobster mushroom its name. There are white lobster mushrooms as well, though these aren't as common as the warm-hued variety. The white lobster mushrooms taste similar to the red ones, but don't look like chunks of lobster meat and tend to have a lighter texture.
How To Cook With Lobster Mushrooms
The first step in cooking with lobster mushrooms is to clean them, which can be difficult thanks to the intricate folds and concave cap that make up the mushroom. The best way to clean them is by using a dry brush or vegetable brush to knock off any dirt. They can also be gently cleaned with a damp paper towel; just be careful when doing this so the color isn't rubbed away. Depending on how dirty the mushrooms are, it may be necessary to break them apart in order to really remove the debris.
Once clean, lobster mushrooms can be cooked much like any other mushroom. Cut the mushrooms into chunks or use whole, depending on the size of the lobster mushroom and what it's being used for. Mushrooms are best cooked on high heat quickly with olive oil or butter, either by sautéing, roasting, or pan frying. It takes about five to ten minutes to pan fry a mushroom, depending on size. Often the orange hue dulls while cooking, especially when cooked for longer periods of time. The liquid leftover from cooking lobster mushrooms does retain some of the red color, and can be used in the dish to add flavor and color to the final meal.
While lobster mushrooms can be eaten raw, they taste better when cooked. The heating process releases those unique seafood nuances. Dried lobster mushrooms can also be used in cooking, and many find this version of the food to pack even more umami-filled, crustacean-like flavors. When dealing with dried mushrooms, soak in water before cooking. Dried mushrooms are best when chopped up in put into sautés, fillings and soups. Use lobster mushrooms anywhere a subtle taste of the sea is needed, without actually putting shellfish in the dish.
What Does It Taste Like?
A lobster mushroom has a faint taste of its namesake and an overall crustacean-like flavor. It's a thick, hearty mushroom with a good bite to it, also like its seafood counterpart. There's the umami-rich earthy notes to the flavor as well, but overall the lobster mushroom offers eaters a mild, meaty bite that goes great with cream sauces, pasta, buttery bread and over whole grains.
Lobster Mushroom Recipes
Substitute lobster mushrooms for any other mushroom in these recipes. This mushroom will change the overall flavor a little bit by giving it a shellfish-like nuance, but will still maintain that rich, earthiness found when using other fungi.
Where To Buy Lobster Mushrooms
The best spots to buy fresh lobster mushrooms are from local farmers' markets, mushroom forgers and small mushroom farmers and/or purveyors. Dried lobster mushrooms are easier to find and can be bought in specialty grocery shops, mushroom specialty realtors and online.
Lobster mushrooms are mainly sourced in the wild. They are in season from mid-July to the end of October and grow mainly on hemlock trees in temperate forests in New England and along the northern part of the West Coast. Since it's easy to confuse them with poisonous mushrooms it's best to leave the foraging to professional and/or practiced foragers.
Storing lobster mushrooms is much like storing any other mushroom: keep them in a paper bag or breathable mesh bag in a temperate spot, preferably the refrigerator. Lobster mushrooms should be eaten as soon as possible, within a few days of harvesting if possible. Overall the lobster mushroom can keep up to a week if cleaned and stored in a cool spot. Once cleaned they can also be frozen.
Dried lobster mushrooms should be put in a cool place in the pantry, away from direct light or moisture. Keeping dried mushrooms air tight is important since water exposure before they are ready to be used can ruin the whole bunch.
It's easy to tell if the lobster mushrooms have gone bad and they aren't good to eat if the mushroom is slimy, dark in color or mushy. There also is a foul smell associated with bad lobster mushrooms, and any that show these signs should be thrown away or composted.
There are at least two types of lobster mushroom, red and white. The red one develops after the parasite Hypomyces lactifluorum completely takes over the host fungi and gives it that bright hue. The white one hasn't been as inoculated by the parasite, hence it does not have the same color. Both mushrooms have been altered in flavor and texture, the white one being lighter and the red having a thicker, heartier meat. While neither lobster mushroom is common, the white ones are even harder to find, partially because they don't stand out like the red type does. Either can be eaten and have a similar flavor.