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Wild Mushroom Hunting: A Beginner’s Primer

Wild Mushroom Hunting

Mushrooms are delicious, and gourmet stores are stocked with many varieties of store-bought wild mushrooms. Unfortunately, store-bought wild mushrooms are often very expensive.   But did you know that wild mushroom hunting is easy? You can hunt for many delicious varieties of edible mushrooms in the woods and fields near where you live?

This primer will give you some hints and tips to get help you better understand foraging for edible mushrooms.

Caution: foraging for mushrooms has a dangerous reputation and rightly so, as there are many poisonous species of mushrooms. This primer aims to give you a basic overview of foraging for mushrooms.  If you choose to hunt for wild mushrooms, we strongly recommend that you purchase a good field guide, and search with an experienced mushroom forager during your first few mushroom foraging trips.  You should NEVER eat a mushroom until you are absolutely certain that it is not a poisonous variety.

A good source for information on mushroom hunting is the North American Mycological Association (NAMA).  They have chapters across North America that schedule group mushroom hunts and other events.  They are a great place to find experienced mushroom hunters.  Visit their website to find a club near you.

What Makes a Good Mushroom Hunter?

First of all, you should enjoy the outdoors and have some curiosity about the natural world that is around you.  Secondly, you should have an abundance of caution. And thirdly, the ability to observe and remember is very important.  For example, hunters of the elusive and delicious morel mushroom know from experience that they will find these mushrooms in forests around dead trees during the Spring.  But if you are hunting for Morels, you need to know what a poisonous False Morel looks like so that you don’t eat one by mistake.

Thus, a good mushroom hunter can identify both the ones they are looking for as well as their poisonous counterparts while wild mushroom hunting.

Poisonous Mushrooms

A common misconception is that poisonous mushrooms have a bad odor or flavor. In most cases, this is true.  But unfortunately, the most dangerous mushrooms of all, Death Caps and Destroying Angels are said to taste delicious.

Just half of a Death Cap or Destroying Angel mushroom has enough toxin to kill you, so it is especially important to familiarize yourself with these two species so that you don’t eat one by mistake.

Read our post about poisonous mushrooms for more information.

Edible Mushrooms

Fortunately, there are many edible types of mushrooms in the wild. Morels, portabellas, and the elusive truffles can all be found in the woods. Here are a few common wild edible mushrooms that grow in North America.

Morels

A staple of French cuisine, morel mushrooms are probably the most popular edible mushroom among mushroom hunters. They are easy to cook, and taste delicious.  Cultivating morels is difficult so they can be hard to find in stores, and quite expensive.  Many mushroom enthusiasts go hunting for morels each Spring to build their own supply.

How to Cook Morels

If you decide to look for morels on your own, be sure to keep a healthy distance between yourself and other foragers: competition is fierce, and conflicts have happened in the forest during morel season.

Chanterelles

Wild Chanterelles tend to grow in clusters.  You can find them in pine forests and they like to grow in mossy areas.  They are a Summertime mushroom, but you may still spot some in September and October.

Chanterelle Mushrooms in a Basket

Lion’s Maine

Lion’s mane has a unique look, like a big white pompom or lion’s mane.  They generally grow on hardwood trees in the late Summer and Fall.  Lion’s mane mushrooms have a delicious flavor similar to seafood, and they are even said to support brain health.

Lion's Mane Mushroom on a Tree

 

Hen of the Woods

Hen of the Woods are also known as Maitake and Rams Head.  Italians call them Signorina mushrooms.  Hen of the Woods is another late Summer mushroom.  They usually grow at the base of trees, especially oaks and elms.

Maitake Mushrooms

Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Turkey tail mushrooms are saprotrophic mushrooms that generally grow on trees or fallen logs.  They are quite common in North American temperate forests, and they grow in a distinctive fan pattern, usually in shades of brown and tan, that look like the tail of a turkey.  These are not cooking mushrooms, but they are used to make a tea which is considered to have many health benefits.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms on a Log

Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms

Chicken of the woods mushrooms are considered to be one of the better cooking mushrooms.  They have a distinctive and vibrant orange-yellow color, which make them stand out in even the most dimly lit forest conditions. They generally grow in temperate forests, especially in areas with hemlock trees.

Laetiporus Sulphureus

Wood Ear Mushrooms

Wood ear mushrooms were initially native to Asia and some islands in the Pacific Ocean. Today, however, they are found in humid temperate regions all over the world and typically grow in the wild on old decaying wood.

They have a woody and earthy fragrance with a mild, musty flavor when cooked. When added to other foods, they take on the taste of whatever ingredients they’re cooked in.  So cooks utilize them mostly for their crisp, snappy texture and their health benefits. They are a great addition to soups, salad, and stir-fries.

wood ear on log

Lobster Mushrooms

What we think of as a lobster mushroom is really a type of mold called Hypomyces Lactifluorum, which usually attacks two specific types of mushrooms – Milk Cap (Lactarius) and Russula (Russula).

This mold completely engulfs the host mushrooms, altering the way they look. As a result, the altered mushrooms take on a reddish appearance, which makes them resemble cooked lobster.

The parasitic mold also makes the host mushroom taste remarkably better.  In fact, many gourmet chefs prize this mushroom as highly as the delicious morel mushroom.

 

lobster mushroom

Portabellas

Portabellas are a staple in most supermarkets, but you can also find them in the wild.  Just be cautious, as there are poisonous varieties such as the Smith’s Aminita that resemble the portabella.

portabella mushrooms

Note that Portabellas, White Button mushrooms, and Creminis are the same species, just at different stages of development and marketed under different names. White button mushrooms are the children, creminis are the adolescents, and Portobellas are the fully-fledged adults.

Truffles

The elusive truffle is among the most prized of all wild mushrooms.  Although they’re produced agriculturally on a limited basis, chefs and home cooks find that truffles sourced from the wild have a richer, deeper flavor.

Truffles on a cutting board

Wild Mushroom Hunting — Conclusion

Learning to forage for wild mushrooms is deeply rewarding. Spending time in nature is always satisfying, so even if you don’t’ find a mushroom every time you go wild mushroom hunting, you’ll feel better after an afternoon outdoors.

Dress for the elements, have fun learning, invest in a good field guide, and err on the side of caution when it comes to identifying mushrooms. Above all, learn your foraging and identification skills from a trusted expert.

A couple great mushroom field guides that we recommend are:

Falcon Guide’s North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide To Edible And Inedible Fungi — This inexpensive yet thorough guide covers just about all the mushrooms you can find in North America.  Plenty of photos and tips make this a great little guide to bring with you on your walks in nature.

Mushrooms of the Northeast: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms — I live in New England and this is the guidebook that I use.  Great pictures, and pocket-sized so that I can take it with me on walks.

The Complete Mushroom Hunter: Illustrated Guide to Foraging, Harvesting and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms — This book is too heavy to bring out onto the field, so on its own is not a good mushroom guide.  But what is great about this book (aside from the awesome photos) is that it gives instructions on preparing and serving the wild mushrooms that you find.  It’s full of interesting facts, and even has instructions on how to grow wild mushrooms.

If you have any other book suggestions, I’d love to hear about them.  Please leave a comment!

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jay

jay

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