A freshly harvested chaga sclerotium

My chaga eyes are on, and I am having trouble turning them off. Despite the disconcertingly warm winter, Northern Vermont still has powder stashes if you know where to look (if there’s one thing mushroom foragers and skiers have in common, it’s that we don’t disclose the locations of our coveted patches). 

I used to think of backcountry skiing as a way to get myself through the winter foraging dry spell, but now it is becoming a way to keep my foraging fever alive in the winter! Incidentally, sailing through the winter woods on skis is a great way to access remote terrain and find enough chaga (Inonutus obliquus) to cure a classroom of sniffly kindergarteners.

Now that my pantry is stocked with several mason jars of dried chaga, I am doing my best to resist the urge to harvest more. I intentionally left my chaga harvesting tool at home this morning when I set out for a ski, to ensure that I don’t wind up with a life time’s supply of chaga. Sure enough, I spotted several beautiful chaga sclerotia on yellow and paper birch throughout the ski, which I proudly pointed out to Jenna before skiing on.

Without a hatchet to harvest my finds or a camera to document them, I found a certain satisfaction in having a partner to share in the revelry each time my gaze fell upon another snow-capped sclerotium. Somehow, the thrill of discovery just never gets old.

Ari harvests chaga during a recent ski

I even found one sizable chaga sclerotium cohabitating a beech tree with another medicinal mushroom – the tinder conk. While I had read that chaga occasionally grows on alder, elm, hornbeam, and beech, this was the first specimen I had ever seen not growing on a birch tree. Further research is needed to determine whether chaga found on these other hosts has equal medicinal value to chaga on birch. Chaga growing on other hardwoods would likely have a different medicinal makeup, since some of chaga’s medicinal properties are derived from concentrating betulin and betulinic acid naturally occurring in the birch host.

Thank you to all the readers who commented on my recent post, “Chaga: A Remedy for Winter.” Your stories of chaga’s healing power are inspiring – who knew that our beloved feline and canine companions could also enjoy the flavor and medicinal properties of chaga?

Grated chaga ready to be simmered

Some of you asked for a recipe, and I don’t blame you – it’s not as if you can just take a chomp out of a raw, charred looking sclerotium. My favorite way to enjoy chaga is as a tea, since the heady flavor seems to contain the very essence of the forest. I find a cheese grater is very effective at breaking dried chaga into a coarse powder (just watch your fingers!). Let three tablespoons of ground chaga lightly simmer in two quarts of water for at least 20 minutes. You can reuse the strained grounds by adding more water and simmering for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.  Sometimes I’ll simmer as many as eight tablespoons of ground chaga in two quarts of water, creating a strong concentrate that I refrigerate and dilute before heating up to enjoy as tea throughout the week. 

While a decoction (tea) has powerful immune system boosting and antitumor properties, a double extraction tincture is the best way to extract the full range of water-soluble and alcohol-soluble components. Start by steeping ground chaga in 80 proof or stronger alcohol for three weeks. Then, use a cheesecloth to strain the infused alcohol out of the chaga pieces before simmering them in a small volume of water for 25 minutes.

Mix this decoction with the infused alcohol, and voila – you have a double extraction tincture. It should keep for a few years, provided the final tincture is at least 25% alcohol by volume. If you are mathematically inclined, this should be easy enough to calculate. If not, just start with at least 100 proof (50%) alcohol and mix in a very small volume of boiled down decoction to err on the side of caution. Check out Greg Marley’s Mushrooms for Health for a thorough description of the double extraction tincture process – this technique is also optimal for many other medicinal mushrooms.

Enjoy your home-brewed myco-medicine. Cheers!