A good wild edible mushroom find can bring a gleam to a forager’s eye that few other wild edibles can spark. Hit a motherlode of chicken of the woods and I bet you’re posting pics as fast as you can take them. But at the same time, many people are terrified of eating any wild mushroom. That’s true even if they occasionally forage wild fruit or vegetables. Obviously, entire books have been written about how to safely identify and prepare wild edible mushrooms. As with the plant sections, I am not trying to share comprehensive field guide knowledge species by species. Instead, I hope to give you some overview skills for mushroom hunting that will serve you for a lifetime.
It’s called plant “foraging” but mushroom “hunting” for good reason. Mushrooms can be much more elusive than plants. For example, if I picked an abundance of the perennial edible pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) in a certain spot last spring, I can count on finding it there again the following year. But there’s no guarantee that the oak tree that sprouted maitake mushroom at its base last fall is going to do so again this year or that I’ll get the timing right when I visit “my” chanterelle spot.
Location and seasonal specifics are super important for mushroom identification. Please consult a reliable field guide to help you factor in these details when you are trying to identify a new-to-you mushroom. For example, if you told me that you found oyster mushrooms growing in a lawn I would assume that either you misidentified the mushroom or you didn’t see a buried stump or log (oyster mushrooms grow on wood). And if you told me you found a morel in November, I would confidently reply that you did not (morels are a spring mushroom).
Many mushrooms are also associated with specific plant species, and that, too, is an important part of identifying them. Saffron milkcap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus), for example, grow under pine trees. Other important mushroom identification factors include whether or not the mushroom stains a particular color when sliced or bruised; whether it does or does not exude a particular color liquid when the gill layer (if it has one) is nicked; and last but certainly not least, scent. You already know that I am a big fan of scratch-and-sniff foraging when it comes to plants. That is equally true when it comes to mushrooms. Some mushrooms have distinctive aromas that are absolutely a part of their ID. For example, dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus) really does smell remarkably like watermelon.
As with plants, it is essential to be 100 percent certain of your identification. In addition to physical characteristics such as shape and color, take note of where (in leaf litter? on wood?) and what time of year the mushroom was growing. It is worth taking a spore print to confirm your visual ID.
Harvest mushrooms, a.k.a. the fruiting body of the fungal organism, at soil level, leaving the mycelium (what some people mistakenly refer to as the “roots” of the mushroom) behind in the earth. Do not carry fungi in plastic bags or containers because they will become slimy and unappetizing. Instead, use cloth or paper bags or woven baskets to get them home. My mentor Gary Lincoff recommended rolling up freshly harvested mushrooms in waxed paper twisted at either end to create a container.
Before preparing your recipe, give your wild mushrooms a light scrub with a vegetable brush under cold water (ignore that old advice about not using water because the mushrooms will soak it up—it simply isn’t true). If the mushrooms are at all buggy, soak them for a few minutes in heavily salted water (about 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water), then rinse them off before proceeding with your recipe.
Most wild mushrooms are good simply sautéed in butter or oil with a little garlic and salt. Go gentle on the heat. The mushrooms will first release their liquid. Then the liquid will disappear, partly reabsorbed into the mushrooms and partly evaporated. Mushrooms can also be grilled (skewers of marinated mushrooms with other vegetables or meat are classic) or baked (toss with extra-virgin olive oil or another lipid and salt before putting in a single layer in a baking dish).
Slightly old and therefore more porous mushrooms are better puréed in soups, or dehydrated and then reconstituted before cooking. Another trick if the flavor is good but the texture tough, is to first dehydrate and then grind the mushroom. Use the powder to pump up the flavor in mushroom-first dishes such as mushroom risotto.
Note that all wild mushrooms should be cooked before they are eaten.
Most mushrooms are best preserved by dehydrating. Use a dehydrator to preserve the color, but a low oven temperature works just as well to preserve flavor (expect darkening, though). Use a temperature somewhere between 95°F and 125°F if using a dehydrator. If using an oven, use the lowest setting; if that is 150°F or higher, prop the oven door open with the handle of a wooden spoon. To use dried mushrooms, pour boiling water over them and let them soak for 10 to 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the pieces. Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid, squeeze out excess liquid, and proceed with cooking as you would with fresh mushrooms. Don’t throw out that soaking liquid! It is loaded with flavor and fantastic in soups, sauces, risotto, and more.
All mushrooms can also be well preserved by first cooking and then freezing them. For example, sauté some chestnut boletes in oil or butter until cooked through, let cool, and then pack into freezer bags or containers and freeze. Densely fleshy, not very spongy mushrooms such as maitake (hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa) can be successfully frozen without cooking them first.
Pickling mushrooms is another good way to preserve them. Pickled mushrooms are traditionally served with a cold vodka chaser in Russia and eastern Europe. However, a few mushrooms are edible only if they are not combined with alcohol, such as the common inky cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria). Research which mushrooms this is an issue with before you pour that shot of vodka.
Cap and Stem Mushrooms with Pores
Cap and stem mushrooms with pores not gills (such as Boletus, Suillus, and Tylopilus) are considered relatively safe mushrooms compared to cap and stem mushrooms with gills (but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to confirm your ID). From the top or side, mushrooms in this category look much the same as gilled cap and stem mushrooms. But flip one over, and instead of gills on the underside of the cap, you’ll find a spongy layer of pores.
Porcini, called cepes in France (Boletus edulis), mushrooms are the best known among the choice mushrooms in this category. It is not uncommon to hear all mushrooms in this category referred to as “boletes” even though technically only those in the Boletus genus merit that name.
In late summer through fall in Europe, Russia, and other fungi-enthusiastic countries you’ll find families out gathering this type of mushroom. The reason is that their pore-not-gill undersides are very easy to recognize, and they are safe enough to taste test. This means that if you’ve found cap and stem mushrooms with a spongy pore undersurface instead of gills, you can safely nibble a bit. If it is bitter, spit it out. Not only does the bitterness mean that mushroom wouldn’t be good to eat but also that it could make you sick. Another tip is to avoid those with orange or reddish pore surfaces (although exceptions to this tip do exist).
For detailed individual species identification, you’ll need a mushroom field guide or reliable website. It is beyond the scope of this book to cover all the individual mushroom species information, but know that you need to think about location (meadow, deep woods, etc.), associated plants (oak, pine, etc.), and season when keying out the mushroom you’ve found. For example, some cap and stem mushrooms with pores rather than gills only grow near pine trees while others prefer oaks.
So there it is: a round, fleshy mushroom cap. When you harvest by slicing or snapping it off at the base of the stipe (the “stem” of the mushroom), you see that the stipe is fairly thick. Most importantly, you’ll find a spongy pore layer instead of gills on the underside of the cap. In young mushrooms, this layer may be so dense and firm that it seems almost solid. In older ones it will be more porous, like an old foam kitchen sponge. The pore layer is your major clue as to whether the mushroom, assuming it is an edible species, will be good to eat. The firmer and less soggy the pore layer, the better the texture of your final product.
Among the cap and stem mushrooms with pores, Boletus and Tylopilus mushrooms are divine simply sautéed and lightly seasoned. Suillus mushrooms need more preparation: Peel them, using a paring knife to remove the cap skin. I also recommend removing the pore layer from any of the mush¬rooms in this category if it is more than a centimeter thick (the texture once cooked will be better).
All the mushrooms in this category can be preserved by dehydration, and some are even improved by the drying. You can also cook the mushrooms in a little oil or butter and then freeze them. ?
This excerpt is from The Skillful Forager by Leda Meredith © 2019 by Leda Meredith, pp 210-215. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com
Leda Meredith has been foraging since she was a toddler (it’s her great-grandmother’s fault). An instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Leda is also the author of five books including Northeast Foraging and The Forager’s Feast.