Inside a nondescript industrial building on the outskirts of Buda is a forest’s worth of mycelium, the root system that produces mushrooms. Smallhold, a Brooklyn-based mushroom producer, opened the facility in 2021. Founded in 2017 by Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino, Smallhold first built farms in New York and Los Angeles. The varieties of mushrooms they’re growing don’t travel very well, so they chose the Austin area, between the coasts, to expand their empire of fungi.

“Reducing that [distance between the] point of fruiting and harvest to the grocery store means we can get a much more pristine and beautiful and respected mushroom to that grocery store,” Travis Breihan, the farm’s manager, explained during my tour of the Buda farm. We stood inside a grow chamber that looks like a walk-in cooler and admired the glossy caps of blue oyster mushrooms stacked tightly on top of one another. They burst forth from the plastic-wrapped white substrate blocks of sawdust and millet that cradle their root system. Hundreds of these blocks lined the shelves filling the room. In another chamber, the equally shipping-averse lion’s mane mushrooms looked like a cross between a cloud and a shar-pei puppy.

Breihan turned the lights off. He held a flashlight up as he tapped a bunch of yellow oyster mushrooms to cause their spores to float and flicker in the light. Spores like that are used to seed each of the white blocks with a specific variety of mushroom, and the mycelium root system is left to reproduce while the blocks are kept tightly wrapped in plastic. Once the root system is developed, a slice is cut into the plastic. “You’re signaling to the mycelium biomass: I have an opportunity to reproduce here,” Breihan said. “I have oxygen and humidity and the right temperature.” That’s when they fruit and produce the mushrooms we consume.

Smallhold’s Buda facility regularly produces blue and yellow oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane, and king oyster mushrooms. It sometimes grows other varieties like maitake and shiitake, but I wondered why it didn’t focus on more valuable mushrooms like morels and chanterelles. That’s when Breihan schooled me. Morels are mycorrhizal fungi, which live in biosymbiosis with root systems of grass and trees. The plant and fungi rely on one another for nutrients, and their bond is difficult to replicate in an agricultural setting, so they’re primarily foraged. Saprophytic fungi, like the ones being grown by Smallhold, grow on dead tree branches on the forest floor. “We are imitating a fallen tree branch with this block,” Breihan explained, pointing to the white substrate used to grow the mushrooms.

smallhold mushrooms
Blue oyster mushrooms. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
smallhold mushrooms
Yellow oyster mushrooms. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

The more common white button mushrooms, which Smallhold doesn’t grow, are also saprophytic, and have the advantage of being able to withstand prolonged journeys during shipping. (More on mushroom varieties here.) That’s why these mushrooms have been easily accessible for decades. Kitchen Pride in Gonzales is a major producer, and you’ve probably seen their white buttons, creminis (a.k.a. baby bellas), and portobellos in stores. You may have also noticed more varieties like lion’s mane and king oyster at grocery stores in Texas. Smallhold’s presence here is a big reason why.

Central Market began carrying Smallhold mushrooms two years ago. Today, all ten Central Markets in Texas have mushroom-growing cabinets near their mushroom display, and they source the substrate from Smallhold. Whole Foods Market also carries the mushrooms, along with nearly a hundred other stores in Texas. Prices can vary drastically for different varieties, but the cardboard clamshells with the Smallhold label hold eight ounces of mushrooms and are all under $10. The prices depend on whether mushrooms must be foraged (which is expensive) or if they can be grown. For those that can be grown, the price is almost entirely determined by how efficiently they can mature. “You’re paying for real estate,” Breihan explained. The blue oyster mushrooms that can reach maturity in nine days are less expensive than the king oysters that can take a month.

After my tour at Smallhold, Breihan gave me the unique gift of a block of nearly mature blue oyster mushrooms and another of lion’s mane. It was remarkable to see how quickly they expanded sitting on my kitchen counter over the course of a day. After two days, it was time to cook, and Breihan suggested I try to experiment with them in the smoker and on the grill. Smallhold partnered with Millscale and chef Philip Speer for a smoked mushroom dish at an event last year, and Breihan praised the grilled lion’s mane from Este in Austin. You can also find their mushrooms served at Austin restaurants like Comedor, Oseyo, Suerte, and Uchi.

I didn’t exactly have a chef’s touch the first time around. I screwed up so many beautiful mushrooms. The smoker dries out the mushrooms before they capture any smoke flavor, and the high heat of a charcoal grill burns the caps. The other problem was I was treating the raw mushrooms like pieces of meat, using oil to help the spices stick, and, in one memorable mishap, spritzing a lion’s mane mushroom with Worcestershire sauce during the cook. That resulted in the worst single bite of mushroom I’ve ever tasted.

I went back to Breihan, the mushroom expert who also knows how to cook (he previously worked in the kitchens of Oseyo and Loro in Austin), for advice. “Trying to copy and paste barbecue recipes isn’t going to work perfectly,” he said. “When you get a fresh mushroom, it’s kinda brittle,” he explained. The chitin, which gives mushrooms their rigid structure, needs to be broken down before eating. Raw mushrooms won’t hurt you, but until the chitin is broken down, mushrooms are a mass of insoluble fiber. To make that fiber useful, it needs to be broken down. “When you steam [a mushroom] and cook it, it becomes this squid-like, malleable, meat-like organism,” Breihan said, so he suggested cooking my mushrooms before I cook them.

I tried several iterations of established recipes like this lion’s mane steak and king oyster mushroom scallops from chef Derek Sarno, and Smallhold’s own recipe for BBQ pulled lion’s mane tacos. I learned how much easier it is to work with mushrooms that have already been steamed. The chitin is broken down, so the mushrooms are floppy and easy to separate. I don’t need to worry about the steamed mushrooms soaking up oil or burning, and you can’t really overcook a mushroom. For larger mushrooms like the king trumpet or thick clusters of oyster mushrooms, I don’t have to worry about burning the exterior or the caps before the interior is fully cooked and tender. Yes, steaming introduces additional water to drive off on the way to browning, but raw mushrooms also have plenty of water. Once the mushrooms are steamed, I can think about them like raw meat ready to go over the fire.

Smallhold’s mission is to make mushroom varieties we consider unusual more mainstream. “Mushrooms can play a critical role in improving the climate and restoring ecosystems, while improving the health of our food system,” their website reads. I’d be happy to trade a pulled pork sandwich for a pulled mushroom version at a barbecue joint on occasion. The demand for their mushrooms has certainly grown as well. When I toured last month, Smallhold had 14 grow chambers in Buda, and were planning to double that. Those new grow chambers are now operational for a total of 29 which means the facility can produce twenty thousand pounds of raw mushrooms per week. I guess that means I need to get out there and buy yet another head of lion’s mane for my next mushroom barbecue experience.