Packed with health benefits, this unique mushroom has become a sought-after winter gem
By Chanda Gebhardt
As a family of the outdoors, we are always looking for things to do on the way out to the woods! That’s where winter mushroom hunting comes into play for us Minnesotans. Mushrooms and winter? Yes. This is one of the benefits to living in the northern tundra, the availability of chaga.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a mushroom that typically grows on birch trees in colder climates across the Northern Hemisphere. It should only be harvested after 60 days of freezing temperatures when the tree is fully dormant. This is because late winter is when chaga is at its peak for stored nutrients. Once sap starts flowing again in the spring, nutrients get flushed out of the chaga.
Chaga is a highly concentrated black mass of mycelium that protrudes from birch trees infected with this non-toxic–fungi. It has a dark, hard and cracked exterior, which often appears like burnt charcoal, with a rusty, yellow-brown colored interior.
Chaga is one of the weirdest mushrooms you may ever see – actually, it doesn’t even look like a mushroom at all and it doesn’t look very appealing! However, appearances can be deceiving, as chaga is known as the “King of Medicinal Mushrooms” and one of the most powerful superfoods on the planet.
Chaga has been used for many different purposes for centuries, and most typically consumed as tea. Many of the health benefits can be attributed to its immune-boosting ingredients and antioxidants.
Chaga has an abundance of Beta-D-Glucans, which help balance the response of the body’s immune system. This means chaga helps boost the immune system when necessary, but slows it down when it’s overactive.
Research has also shown chaga activates immune cells responsible for combating cancer initiation. Research is still ongoing as more studies are needed to determine chaga’s full role in cancer, but chaga has proven effective in supporting standard cancer approaches, such as chemotherapy, by compensating for the program’s negative side effects.
Chaga may also help nutritional support, reduce inflammation, anti-aging and skin, ulcers and gastritis, as well as support normal cholesterol levels and blood pressure. I have personally found it to help alleviate some of my arthritic symptoms since having children in my 30s.
When it comes to harvesting chaga, you need to be very selective. It’s best to take pieces five pounds or larger, and they must be on a living tree. So this means you need to look for mature, birch trees to find them. And you need to be a steward of the land and try not to over harvest.
Use a very sharp, small ax to cut, and leave at least one to two inches of the mushroom behind protruding from the tree. It is a renewable resource, but will take a very long time to grow back. By leaving some behind, you will be allowing for the natural regeneration and not cutting into the tree’s natural boundaries. By being mindful of this, we have seen great growth of our chaga.
It has become popular to look for natural ways to live off the land. Plus, as a mother of two little boys, I am always looking for anything to help us not get sick in the winter months. I find that about 20 pounds of chaga will get our family of four through the year. There is tons of information out there, so if interested, you can just search around on the Internet – including finding chaga to buy if you don’t live near it naturally.
I hope this inspires you to learn more about the great things nature supplies us! Foraging for natural treasure is truly rewarding!
Drying chaga is key, and chaga will mold if not properly dried and stored after its collection. Place chunks on a rack, pan, sheet, tarp or other surface near a dry, mild heat source (do not place in the oven) and allow to air dry. I wait about two weeks to allow adequate drying time on bigger chunks.
I then break up the chaga into two-inch pieces before I steep it in a large kettle. Some people think to remove the dark exterior, but you want to process both this exterior and the rust-colored interior as both contain nutrients. Chaga is so hard that it is difficult to break up. I usually use a big hammer with the chaga wrapped in a pillowcase. This allows all chunks to fall inside.
Teas can be made in different ways. I opt for an easy way of adding the chunks to a non-stainless steel pot, steeping it on the stove for two days. As it steeps, I will skim off the top and fill sterilized mason jars. I will repeat this process until the tea starts to look lighter. Do not let your tea steep over 160 degrees, as that will harm the medicinal properties.
I usually can steep about four cups of chunks to make 15 to 20 quarts (in one steeping) in two days. At first, it only takes an hour to fill three 1-quart jars. By the end of the second day, I may let it steep four to six hours, depending on how clear it looks. As you steep, you can always break up the larger chunks and open them up. This will also allow the chaga to release more from inside the chunks.
Another option is grinding the chaga chunks in a coffee grinder. This will turn it into a fine powder you can use in tea mesh balls or bags. You can portion out 1 Tbsp. for individual use. Chaga can be enjoyed like any other tea or coffee. It can be served hot or iced and black or with sweet or cream additives.
Another way to prepare chaga is by making a tincture. A tincture is an alcoholic derivative of a plant, mushroom or herb. Tinctures are more effective in extracting the medicinal components and preserving them for longer periods of time. Tinctures are also useful because they’re simple to use, quickly absorbed and easily added to recipes, drinks, etc.
Chanda Gebhardt is owner of Fairview Gardens and North County Outdoors in Minnesota. Many of her recipes can be found on Facebook at Field to Fork Minnesota Style.