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Mushroom Foraging – The Ultimate Guide

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Mushrooms are incredible. There are thousands of mushroom species, endless shapes, sizes, colors, names, tastes, and purposes – you name it. To eat, to study, to entertain, to learn and grow, mushroom foraging has gained popularity fast. Whether you’ve enjoyed eating mushrooms all your life, or if you’ve recently discovered these diverse fungi, mushroom foraging might be your next natural step in expanding your mushroom experience!

Growing in nature all around us, mushroom foraging is a lot closer and easier than you may have initially thought. Wild mushrooms can be found on the forest floor or on trees; you’ve maybe seen them while on a hike, or even growing on your own lawn or backyard.

Mushroom foraging opens up a world that you would never expect. For those who have taken up the habit of mushroom foraging, they will tell you it becomes part of your life quite quickly, and you find yourself immersed in hunting and eating these delicious fungi regularly.

Why Forage for Mushrooms?

Some people take up mushroom foraging as a hobby, seeing it as an opportunity to connect with nature while at the same time collecting some tasty favorites to add into their own kitchen recipes. Other people go mushroom foraging out of necessity for their profession; restaurants and chefs will use mushroom foraging as a way to help increase their locally sourced ingredients, as well as to expand on their own culinary skills and experience.

Edible mushrooms also boast many health and medical benefits, containing beneficial antioxidants, as well as antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic, anticancer, antiallergic, antitumor, analgesic, cardioprotective, and cholesterol-lowering properties.

Mushrooms have been used in a medicinal capacity in many cultures for thousands of years, making mushrooms foraging one of the oldest pastimes, enjoyed generation after generation.

Being Prepared is Key

Most of the time, when you are mushroom foraging, you will be in damp, forest conditions. So, wearing the appropriate clothing and footwear will help keep you comfortable for at least a few hours. Being ready for a shift in the weather is important as well, so taking a raincoat and other protective gear for rain and cold is a good idea. And of course, mushrooms aren’t the only ones who enjoy damp, moist conditions, so don’t forget your bug spray!

Waterproof hiking shoes or boots, long sleeve shirts, and long pants will be helpful, especially if you are mushroom foraging shortly after a rainfall – a great time to forage, by the way. Bright clothing will help you stay visible to not only your own group if you are making it a team effort with a few other mushroom enthusiasts, but to other people in the forest as well, particularly hunters.

Making sure you are prepared with a backpack of food and water is important too, especially when you are out for a full day of mushroom foraging. Eating your mushrooms while you are out there foraging is never recommended – unless you are 100% sure that it is not poisonous. There are so many mushrooms with poisonous look-alikes, cross-referencing your mushrooms with your trusty field guide, and close inspection when you get home with your harvest is the safest way. Nuts and seeds, granola bars, and compact fruit give a great boost of energy.  Best of all, these snacks are small and easy not only to pack but carry as well.

Get your Gear

Ensuring that you have the proper equipment for mushroom foraging is the easiest way to set yourself up for success. You will want to bring along a couple of baskets or breathable bags (like a mesh produce or laundry bag). You can use these to separate the mushrooms you harvest as you go along; one basket for the mushrooms you know for sure their species, and the other basket for the mushrooms you are unsure of, and that will need to be further inspected after your haul is complete.

A pocketknife will be your best friend for harvesting your mushrooms. Using a pocketknife instead of just pulling the mushrooms from the ground helps ensure there is still a piece of the mushroom left in the ground (or tree – wherever it was growing from) so that it can continue to regenerate for the following seasons. Mushrooms will continue to grow in the same spot year after year.

Cleaning Your Mushrooms

You can also use the pocketknife to clean the mushroom stems after you have cut the mushrooms free, as you may want to cut the stems and check for worms. A small bristle brush, like a paintbrush, or a toothbrush with soft bristles helps clean off the tops, along with any of the ridges, pores, or gills of the mushroom.

Bring a small towel or cloth to wipe clean your mushrooms, so you don’t bring home more earth than fungi. This will also help with identifying the mushroom while getting an up-close, detailed look of your find. Using a mushroom field guide or app is extremely useful for identifying your mushrooms; bringing this with you can help identify your fungi on the spot.

A topographic map can help make sure you are mushroom foraging at the right elevations that host the best conditions for mushrooms, such as temperature and humidity. A trail map of your area and a compass are helpful as well to keep you on track, especially if you struggle with direction.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Much like hunting any other animal or food, mushroom foraging can yield varying results. Some days you will have baskets filled to the top. Other days you may only stumble upon toxic look-alikes, and possibly few and far between, at that, if anything at all. Pack your patience and lay out a strategy before you go.

Mushrooms need particular environments and conditions to grow and flourish; typically, areas that are damp, moist, and humid. Mushrooms like temperatures that are between 15°C and 23°C, making spring and fall the two best seasons for mushroom foraging.

Some Quick Tips on Favorable Locales

Forests and heavily wooded areas are great spots, especially for beginners, to go mushroom foraging; the ground of pine forests and the fallen trees within hold a lot of moisture, and mushrooms love to grow in the damp soil and on decaying elements around them, like rotting out stumps and logs.

That being said, there are other places where mushrooms can be found growing, not just dying trees. Mushrooms will grow on trees that are still living as well. Some trees can be found with mushrooms growing from top to bottom. Rivers, streams, marshy and swampy areas are often looked at as a goldmine for mushroom foraging. The environments there are heavily saturated, and the deep, damp soil is a perfect breeding ground for mushrooms.

Mushroom foraging a few days after some heavy rain will most often lead to a very successful harvest. Keeping this in mind, recognizing that some seasons are better for mushroom foraging than others.

Summer is typically a dryer season, and mushroom foragers tend to take a break during this season. Perhaps take that time to do some research on possible areas around you to go mushroom foraging; that way, when the foraging season does begin, you will be ready with a plan to get the most out of your mushroom foraging adventures!

For tips and info on getting started on your first mushroom foraging experience, check out Dos and Don’ts of Food Foraging – and Living to Tell the Tale.

I.D. Please

All kinds of mushrooms can be found worldwide – thousands of mushroom species just in North America alone. Coming in endless shapes and sizes, these fungi sometimes look anything but what they are, taking on shapes that resemble sponges, shells, feathers, and other strange and unusual shapes.

Not only do mushrooms grow in an endless variety of shapes, but their colors also differ quite a lot from the plain white and brown ones we often find in the grocery stores. Vibrant reds and yellows, dull and muted shades of orange are common.  Some mushrooms even glow in the dark! Their names come in just as wild and whimsical as their appearances do, such as Hen of the Woods, Chanterelle, Lobster, and King Oyster mushrooms.

Identifying mushrooms while you are mushroom foraging can sometimes prove to be even more difficult than finding the mushrooms in the first place. Carrying a book/mushroom field guide or using an app is a great way, especially if you’re new to mushroom foraging, to quickly identify the mushrooms you encounter, their poisonous look-alikes, and the best way to determine between the two.

Tell-Tale Signs

It can be difficult at first to distinguish one mushroom from another, or what to even look for, but with practice and the right know-how, you will be able to tell a Pheasant Back Mushroom from a Puffball Mushroom in no time. A guide can also help assist you in what you should be looking for when trying to identify a mushroom in the first place; how and where they are growing, what type of base and stem it has, the shape and structure – spores or gills.

Color is often a major indicator in identifying a mushroom species.  You will also want to note the texture and the smell of the mushroom that you are trying to identify. Overall, there are many characteristics to look for that can help you identify your mushroom. Identification is the most important aspect of mushroom foraging.

Distinguishing between your mushrooms should not be taken lightly, which is why it is so important to follow the number one rule when mushroom foraging – do not eat it unless you know exactly what it is.

Out of the thousands and thousands of fungi species—only 15 to 30 produce fleshy mushrooms that are edible.

Common Mushroom Species to Find

When mushroom foraging, you will come across a variety of mushroom species, but picking ones that are useful rather than inedible or toxic ones is your main goal. Here are some of the most popular mushrooms foragers hunt for.

Puffball and Earthstar Mushroom

giant puffball mushrooms

These round, white mushrooms have a spongy-like texture and delightfully resemble cotton or puffballs – making these fungi incredibly easy to identify in the wild. Growing small to up to a foot, puffballs, and giant puffballs range in size and look almost like they don’t have stems, and they have no visible gills either.

Puffballs have a poisonous look-alike, the immature amanita mushroom. So, make sure to cut open your puffball to make sure it isn’t a young amanita in disguise! Other varieties of puffball mushrooms include the gem-studded puffball and the purple-spored puffball.

Earthstar mushrooms are similar to puffballs in shape when they are young, but as they mature, earthstar mushrooms grow into a saucer-like shape, with four or more spores splitting from the top and curving back, taking on the shape of a star.

Chanterelle Mushrooms – A Beginners Dream

bucket full of yellow chanterelle mushrooms

Chanterelles are at the top of the popularity list for mushroom foragers, and they are perfect for a beginner. They come in a range of pale oranges, yellows, and bright golds, making this mushroom easy to spot and identify, specifically against its poisonous look-a-like, the jack-o-lantern mushroom; a poisonous orange gilled mushroom that contains toxic chemicals that can cause severe upset stomach, including vomiting, diarrhea, and headache. (Another reason to follow the DON’T EAT IT rule!)

These tasty ‘shrooms can be found hiding underneath oak trees, and often will be growing in a bunch with more than one; however, it will not grow on fallen wood. If you are lucky enough to find some, take a look at our article, 8 Chanterelle Mushroom Recipes for Any Home Cook for some cooking ideas.

Oyster Mushrooms – The Pearl of the Forest

white oyster mushrooms on tree

Beginners to mushroom foraging have found great success with Oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms often grow in clumps, vertically, on both living and rotting trees and logs. They vary in color, ranging from white, pale brown, and even light pink.

Oyster mushrooms have pure white gills that are short and are just off-center of the stem. They also have a long growing season, so you can forage for oyster mushrooms almost all year round. With a light taste and smooth texture, oyster mushrooms are one of the most popularly sought-after fungi for culinary use.

Chicken of the Woods – Tastes Like Chicken!

yellow chicken of the woods mushrooms

These mushrooms are known for their meatier substance and taste, resembling chicken, which is how it earned its suitable name. Chicken of the woods, or sometimes known as the “sulfur shelf” mushroom, grow on trees, stacked tightly in layers. They are a bright orange-red color and do not have any gills. When you come across these mushrooms, chances are you will be able to fill your basket to the top as these mushrooms often grow in groups.

Read our article Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms — the Complete Guide for more information about these delicious mushrooms.

Maitake or Hen of the Woods Mushroom

hen of the woods mushrooms

Originating in China and translating to ‘the dancing mushroom’ in Japanese, the Maitake mushroom is one of the best edible mushrooms you can find. Not only for its texture and flavor, but it is said to boast medicinal properties as well. Maitake mushrooms grow on or around the base of trees and continue to grow in the same spot repeatedly. You can recognize Maitake mushrooms by their large size, overlapping, lacy fronds, and brownish-black color.

Lobster Mushroom – The Shapeshifting Imposter

Despite its name, the Lobster Mushroom actually isn’t even a mushroom at all. These “mushrooms” are a parasitic fungus that instead prey on other mushrooms until they completely cover that specific mushroom. As it preys on a variety of mushrooms, the Lobster Mushroom fugus can be difficult to truly identify. But don’t fear, the give-away will be its bright red coloring outside and white inside – resembling a cooked lobster.

Read our Complete Guide to the Lobster Mushroom for more information about these amazing mushrooms.

Porcini Mushrooms – Diamond in the Rough

Porcini mushrooms are easily recognized by their deep brown and reddish cap and thick, spongy stem. With a rich, earthy taste, porcini mushrooms are another highly sought-after fungi by chefs and kitchen enthusiasts alike. Porcini mushroom foraging is done in hardwood forests, and they can be found growing the forest floor. Porcini mushrooms are popular to forage for, but they are also incredibly difficult to find.  This makes them expensive to purchase in stores. So it is all the more rewarding when you find them while mushroom foraging!

Lion’s Mane or Bearded Tooth Mushroom

The Lion’s Mane mushroom – the mushroom King of the Forest – lacks both caps and stems; in fact, they hardly resemble a mushroom at all. Boasting cascading tooth-like spikes that hang on hardwood trees, fallen trees, and old stumps.

With these long, shaggy, and fuzzy wisps resembling more like a lion’s mane than a mushroom, there are no look-a-likes for these fungi, poisonous or other. The Lion’s Mane mushroom completely edible and quite tasty – almost resembling crab or lobster in taste. It is known to have medicinal properties as well.

The Hedgehog or Sweet Tooth Mushroom

hedgehog or sweet tooth mushroom

The hedgehog or sweet tooth mushrooms are similar to the chanterelle mushroom and even share a similar aroma.  You can find them from mid-summer onwards to late fall. Unlike some other fungi, we humans enjoy hedgehog mushrooms, but bugs and other insects do not.

These irregular-shaped mushrooms have caps ranging from 2 – 8 inches wide.  The tops are flat, and somewhat sunken.  Their color ranges from cream to orange-brown and white. These short, thick-stemmed ‘shrooms are found around birch, beech, and other hardwoods and can be harvested from mid-August right into November.

The Pheasant Back or Dryad’s Saddle Mushroom

pheasant back or dryads saddle mushroom

These flat, broad, kidney or heart-shaped mushrooms are another meaty mushroom found in the wild, full-flavored and entirely edible. Pheasant back mushrooms are typically found growing on elm and deadwood.  The markings on these fungi resemble the markings found on the feathered back of a pheasant. Pheasant Back mushrooms can grow on logs and trees either,  on their own or stacked among each other.  They grow during the spring, and even into the summer in some areas.

Wrapping It Up

It’s easy to become excited when mushroom foraging, but it is important to take only what you need. The strength of forests and the ecosystems within relies on their own biodiversity. Taking only what you need helps keep the ecosystem resilient; the more varieties of mushrooms you find, the more resilient the ecosystem.

It is also very important to know your mushrooms.  But once you have learned, you will never forget.  And you will have gained a skill that will bring you many delicious meals.  Whether you are mushroom foraging for the first time or have become a full-fledged forager, when you are mushroom foraging; your options are endless.

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