Whether foraged, homegrown, or purchased from a farmers market, fungi are fantastic—both in flavor and for your health. We chatted with mushroom expert Alisa Javits of New Paltz’s Sugarshack Mushrooms and learned why she loves them—and why you should, too.
Where did your mushroom mania come from?
I grew up in Boston, so I really wasn’t exposed to farming at all until I studied sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Around then, I started spending a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard and was exposed to the year-round fishing and farming community. I began spending my summers working on farms on the island, and fell in love with growing. Farming is such a beautiful and generous intersection of nature, production, art, and problem solving. Senior year, I started farming and living on the island full time, which continued after graduation. When I started farming myself, I grew salad greens and flowers. But eventually, I wanted to grow more nutrient dense food and had an interest in alternative sources of protein. As a child, I didn’t like eating mushrooms, but I loved going out and hunting for them (I grew up in a Russian immigrant family, and in our culture, people forage for mushrooms). I’ve spent a lot of time just being mystified by mushrooms since then, so when my husband and I started Sugarshack about four years ago, it was an opportunity to try out all the mushroom growing practices I had been researching.
Tell us about Sugarshack.
Our crew is very small: my husband Adam and I run the farm in New Paltz full time with one part-time employee and the occasional help of a few volunteers. We grow in an indoor setting with mushroom blocks made of pasteurized sawdust that has been inoculated with spawn (little bits of mycelium akin to seed for mushrooms). This method replicates nature but in a bit of a “fast-forwarded” way; you normally see fungi growing on a log, but with the sawdust, it won’t take as long for the mycelium to produce fruit. This process also allows us to grow year-round, and we sell mushroom blocks in starter kits for those who want to take a shot growing their own. Home-growers just need to keep it moist and in a dark place, and the block should give you around three or four harvests. For gourmet block varieties, we have shiitake, oyster, lion’s mane, chestnut, and king oysters. We also forage around the New Paltz area for other medicinal mushrooms, too, like chaga, reishi, turkey tail, and cordyceps.
What are the health benefits?
All mushrooms have a high nutritional value, but some also have medicinal properties. Lion’s mane is becoming popular as a brain-booster. Researchers have been studying it to help regrow nerve endings—it’s great for supporting your memory, attention, and focus. Reishi, sometimes called the “queen of mushrooms,” is an anti-inflammatory with all sorts of benefits including immune and cardiovascular support, allergy suppression, and relaxation; cordyceps aids anti-aging, oxygen intake, and brain function; turkey tail has been used to strengthen immune function and is widely studied for its beneficial effects on cancer patients; and chaga supports the immune system by combatting viral infections and parasites. There’s a study from Penn State that found people who eat 18 grams of mushrooms daily—about a quarter cup chopped—have a 45 percent lower risk of cancer diagnoses.
You’re an experienced forager. What advice would you give to beginners?
I’d read up on foraging—there are tons of great books and information online to look at before going out. Also, there are professional foragers who are certified and do it for a living, and you may want to forage for the first time with an expert. The best places to look for mushrooms are shady spots. They need a lot of moisture, so they’re not often out in full sun. In a wet year, the Hudson Valley is loaded with tons of maitakes, chicken of the woods, chanterelles, black trumpets, morels, and different types of boletes. Wild mushrooms have very short seasons depending on the variety. If possible while picking, keep your bounty in a basket or breathable bag, so the plucked mushrooms can drop spores on the ground while you’re walking.
So now that we have the mushrooms, how should we store them?
The amount of time mushrooms keep can vary, but typically if you throw them in a paper bag in the fridge, you’ll get at least a week. It’s important to keep them in a paper bag versus plastic because it allows them to breathe. You can also freeze them once they’re cooked or dehydrate them in the oven on low heat and store them in a sealed plastic bag in a dry, dark, cool spot. Use a moist cloth to brush the dirt off fresh mushrooms—don’t run them under water to clean or they’ll get slimy.
Related: Go Mad for Hudson Valley Mushrooms