With meat costs and health concerns on the rise, mushroom growers aim to have their produce achieve entrée status. In the last decade, exotic mushrooms–shiitake, portobello, baby bellas, enoki, maitake, beech and oyster–have become part of our culinary repertoire, and they’re widely available.
“Crimini (baby bella) sales have grown 8% to 15% annually,” says Fletcher Street, sales director for Ostrom’s, a family-owned farm located in Olympia, Wash. “Chefs love their meaty texture. Surprisingly, portobello sales are a bit flat, but I think there’s a perception that mushrooms are expensive, which, when it comes to center-of-the-plate items, [is] not true; especially since mushrooms tend to upsell menu items.” Although many growers offer exotics, traditional white button mushrooms are still popular and account for a large part of production.
“Mushrooms aren’t really a staple yet,” says Jim Angelucci, general manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, Pa. Angelucci believes that mushrooms have great potential in the marketplace, if growers can stay ahead of increasing labor costs, distribution and supporting new healthcare laws.
“What many people don’t understand about mushrooms is the biofuel we consume,” Angelucci says. “Mushrooms are grown in substrate [a substance on which mycelium will grow], and we can’t source a sufficient amount of hay and straw locally, so now we buy from North Carolina. Our oyster mushrooms are grown on cottonseed hulls, but, because of the drought in Texas, the cotton mill didn’t open this year. As a result, we had to switch from buying cottonseed hulls at around $135 a ton, to cottonseed meal or pellets at $450 a ton. Mushroom growers [also] use a lot of millet grain, and millet has gone up 80%. And, unfortunately for growers, the sales prices for mushrooms have stayed about the same.”
The farmers’ loss represents gain for those incorporating mushrooms into their menus. “Stuffed mushrooms are one of our best-selling appetizers,” says Mark A. DuBois, owner of Café Catering, a midsize company whose biggest client for the past 12 years is California State University at San Marcos. “Mushrooms are a good value for [the] money and they add an earthy flavor to a lot of dishes. Our mini beef Wellingtons are another client favorite. Even people who think they don’t like mushrooms love them. And clients also love our full-sized vegetarian Wellingtons, [which is] a pastry surrounding a portobello.”
“The Mushroom Council has worked diligently for the last four years to increase the value and consumption of mushrooms,” says Roberto Ramirez, a co-owner of Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in Escondido, Calif., which supplies Café Catering locally.
“Our new buzz word is ‘swapability,’ which means swapping meats with mushrooms or combining mushrooms with ground beef, turkey and pork to stretch the meal.”
Mushrooms can often blend seamlessly with meat or vegetables, adding flavor and texture at a lower cost, while reducing calories, sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol. Just one cup of crimini provides 18 different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
“Mushrooms are a powerhouse in the kitchen. They upsell a steak, burger, sandwich or omelet, work as a meat substitute in vegetarian or vegan dishes, for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ostrom’s Street says. “And there’s no waste because of their cross-menu potential.”