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Chaga mushrooms are medium to large in size, averaging 25-40 centimeters in diameter, and are an irregularly shaped, dense woody growth resembling the appearance of burnt coal. The conk is composed of a gnarled, sooty black exterior called the sclerotium and a softer golden brown, cork-like interior. Chaga mushrooms have little aroma when raw, but when cooked they release notes of slightly sweet, dark cocoa, tobacco, and vanilla and have a mild, earthy flavor.
Chaga mushrooms are available year-round, with a peak season in the spring and autumn when the tree is circulating optimal nutrients.
Chaga mushrooms, botanically classified as Inonotus obliquus, are a non-toxic parasitic mushroom that grows on live birch trees and belongs to the Hymenochaetaceae family. Also known as the Cinder Conk, Birch Conk, and Clinker Polypore, Chaga mushrooms slowly pull nutrients from its host birch tree and are usually ready for harvest within 3-5 years of growth. If a portion of the mushroom body is left to regrow, other crops will mature year after year for as long as the birch tree is living. Chaga mushrooms can live up to twenty years until the host tree dies and even after death, it can produce fruiting bodies for an additional six years. Chaga mushrooms are highly valued for their medicinal qualities and are commonly dried and ground into a nutritional supplement or ground and steeped in boiling water to be consumed as a tea.
Chaga mushrooms contain many nutrients including calcium, iron, zinc, B-complex vitamins, vitamin D, copper, manganese, potassium, amino acids, fiber, and magnesium. These vitamins and minerals contain anti-aging properties and can help reduce symptoms of cholesterol and blood pressure, improve immune system health, and reduce inflammation.
Chaga mushrooms are rarely if ever, consumed raw due to their rock-hard consistency and are best suited in ground form. The mushroom should be dried quickly to avoid mold, and large chunks should be broken down into pieces no larger than ten grams and pulverized in a spice grinder. The powder can then be steeped hot water to make Chaga tea which is complemented by maple syrup, or it can be prepared with alcohol as a stronger tincture for a flavor extract, much like vanilla, and used in baking recipes. The raw powder can also be added to soups, stews, smoothies, and sauces in the same manner that chocolate is used in savory molés. When in ground form, Chaga mushrooms will keep for about a year when stored in an airtight container.
Chaga mushrooms have only recently become a mainstream superfood in the west, but they have been unofficially referred to as the “king of medicinal mushrooms” and are a historic staple across Siberia, Russia, and other parts of Asia. Mainly found in very cold climates where birch trees are prevalent, and a hard frost allows a long dormant season for the mushrooms to thrive, Chaga mushrooms are found all over Russia and have been used in Siberian folk medicine to help fight inflammation, increase mental sharpness, reduce symptoms of gastric problems, and help reduce liver and heart issues. There have also been some efforts to grow cultivated Chaga, but tests show that when compared to wild Chaga it provides only a fraction of the nutritional benefits.
Chaga mushrooms are native to cold climate forests in the northern hemisphere and have been growing wild since ancient times in Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, Northern areas of the United States, and in Canada. Today Chaga mushrooms can be found at local markets and specialty grocers in select regions in North America, Europe, and Asia and can also be found online in powder form, supplements, and in tea through qualified retailers.
Recipes that include Chaga Mushrooms. One is easiest, three is harder.