If someone says the word “jerky,” the only word that bounces off most people’s brain is “beef.” Salty, intensely flavor, and dense with nutritional kick, jerky’s a way to enhance the flavor and preserve the protein of meat while making it easy to transport and store. But that same method of drying, curing, and flavoring works for other things, too—such as mushrooms.
Enter Jessica Olson of ProCured Mushroom Jerky. Since last year, this experienced chef (at Cafe Lurcat and other spots) been taking oyster and portobello mushrooms from Forest Mushrooms and turning them into three varieties of vegan jerky: Original Spicy, Sesame Ginger, and Teriyaki. With support from Lakewinds Food Co-op’s Maker to Market program, Olson’s jerky can be bought at all three Lakewinds locations and online.
None of that would matter if the product didn’t hold up, but it does: all three varieties are bold and punchy, with real depth of flavor. The Original Spicy Recipe mushroom jerky is kind of a culinary wonder—nine out of 10 people, if blindfolded and fed this stuff, would identify it as “beef jerky” with no qualifications. It’s intensely salty, aggressively smoky, garlicky, and quite spicy to boot. In short: all of the charm of jerky, only built atop a retiring-to-the-point-of-invisible oyster mushroom base. “I bet if you tried it next to beef jerky, you’d like it better than some beef jerky,” says Olson. “Beef jerky tends to have a bit of a weird aftertaste, whereas with the mushrooms you just get really good mushroom-y umami flavor all the way through.”
The Sesame Ginger variety, by contrast, all but shouts “mushrooms!”, albeit in a pleasant and cheerful manner. The underlying flavor of portobellos is dominant, and while the sesame and ginger top notes are strong and harmonious, there’s no escaping the essential mushroom-ness of this jerky. That’s a real boon for mushroom lovers and a mixed bag (or a strike) for everyone else.
The sweetness, salty depth, and garlic of the Teriyaki flavor portobello mushroom jerky brings it to a middle ground—it’s identifiable as mushrooms, but the garlic and sweetness really take the forefront and the overall experience is a happy compromise between the ideals of dried mushrooms and jerky-cured beef.
The Growler: Why mushroom jerky?
Jessica Olson: It’s something most people haven’t heard of. I like to forage for mushrooms, so you always end up with a lot of mushrooms at one time. And in foraging circles everyone has a dehydrator—it’s a way to preserve mushrooms for later, especially in Minnesota where the season is short. I’d read of someone making mushroom jerky and I thought that was a really good idea. I tried it and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t something you buy already. There are so many people looking for vegan alternatives—to everything! And it’s so much better than other not-beef jerkies that I’ve tried.
What’s the local connection with this product—how do mushrooms and Minnesota overlap for you?
There are a lot of mushrooms that grow here—chanterelles, porcini, lobster mushrooms, black trumpets grow here. I worked as a chef for 15 years, and we—when I worked at Cafe Lurcat we would buy all these wild mushrooms from the West Coast, a place in Oregon. And at that time I had no idea that all the same mushrooms we were buying from Washington and Oregon were growing wild here in Minnesota.
I think mushrooms are the most interesting thing that we have growing here. Did you know that they’re not technically a plant or an animal, either? They’re in their own category. No one can really figure out exactly what makes them fruit. That’s why a lot of mushrooms can’t be cultivated.
When and how did you decide to take the hobby of making mushroom jerky and turn it into a business?
I had a cottage foods business where I was making pickles. Doing that I was realizing, I make great pickles, but to bring that product to market I’d end up with a $15‒20 jar of pickles, which isn’t necessarily something someone can afford to buy.
During this time, I made this jerky and I thought: this would be a product that would be good to get out there to people—it doesn’t exist already, and there’s a lot of interest in it, and everyone who tried it really liked it. Everybody I talked to who tried it said: ‘This is so good!’
How many mushrooms does it take to make a bag of mushroom jerky?
It takes a lot of mushrooms. The portobello ones, for example, take about a pound of mushrooms to make one [2 oz.] bag [of jerky]. I just processed 200 pounds of mushrooms this last week. I buy them from Forest Mushrooms, a place in St. Joseph, Minnesota. He grows the oyster mushrooms and distributes the portobellos.
What’s your process for getting so much flavor into your mushrooms?
The secret is that I cook the mushrooms ahead of time. They’re cooked and marinated and then dehydrated. That’s an important step—raw mushrooms, you can’t really absorb the nutrients from them. It’s one of the only foods you’re supposed to cook to get more nutrition from them.