How To: Getting Started Picking (and Eating) Wild Mushrooms

The Hen Of The Woods comes to roost in the kitchen–to the delight of all mushroom lovers. (David Shedd photo)

Too much rain can literally dampen a lot of outdoor fun, but it does have one major side benefit: mushrooms sprouting everywhere! Here at EasternSlopes.com, where most of us like to cook and eat almost as much as we like to play outdoors, hunting edible mushrooms is one of our favorite excuses for getting outdoors and having fun.

A lot of folks get a little queasy at the thought of picking and eating wild mushrooms, believing they are going to die a slow, agonizing death if they eat any mushroom that doesn’t come wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what can happen if you aren’t careful. Some of the most enticing mushrooms to look at, are among the deadliest. Some innocent-looking little mushrooms could send your mind exploring alternate universes. And some of the best edibles look like they could kill you. Go figure . . . ?

If you want to be absolutely 100 percent safe, don’t eat any wild mushroom, ever. But what fun would that be? If you are cautious in your approach, learn to identify a few species that can’t be mistaken for anything else, and pick ONLY mushrooms you know, you can safely enjoy eating wild mushrooms. Many of us have done it for decades with no ill effects and none of us are true mushroom “experts”; rather, we are just people who love to eat mushrooms and have learned to pick with caution so extreme that it borders on paranoia. Among us, we currently have a dozen or so mushrooms (of the many hundreds or even thousands that grace the New England landscape) that we’ll pick and eat. These tend to be unmistakable varieties, or ones that we’ve been taught to recognize by real experts.

It’s easy to see the difference between these two mushrooms. One is a delicious edible; the other will kill you—do you know which is which?. Don’t eat any wild mushroom unless you are 100 percent sure you know what it is! (David Shedd photo)

While mushroom hunting is a great excuse to get outdoors and go exploring, we sometimes find our best mushrooms while we’re doing something else. Some of us have been known to spot a good cluster of Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) while driving a highway at 65 miles per hour . . . .  And, when it’s safe to do so, we’ve been known to slam on the brakes, pull over and harvest them.

We’ve also been known to spot edible mushrooms on people’s lawns, or on the trees in front of their houses and stop, knock on the door and ask permission to pick them. Yes, we get some strange looks sometimes, but people are usually very nice about humoring us. And, best of all, they always refuse when we politely offer to share.

But hiking is usually a far better way to find most mushrooms, especially some of the smallest, choicest varieties like morels and chanterelles. You can sometimes find edibles along trails—keep your eyes peeled. But think about it. Mushrooms often grow in the same general area year after year. One person sees them growing along a trail and comes back year after year. Good for them, not so good for you. The best way to find mushrooms is to go bushwhacking in areas where other people rarely, if ever hike. In other words, “Go find your own mushrooms!”

David Shedd, the publisher of EasternSlopes.com, and Tim Jones, the executive editor always take at least one hike a year with the specific intention of finding edible mushrooms. They mainly look for the “Hen Of The Woods” (Grifola frondosa) which is pretty common in rainy fall weather, but various Boletes, Chantarelles and of course, Oyster mushrooms (which also like rainy fall weather) are also on the menu. Typically, they’ll find lots and lots of mushrooms that certainly look edible. But if they aren’t 100 percent sure what they are, they’ll leave them in the woods.

You don’t always have to take long hikes. Last fall, for example, Tim found  a large cluster of Golden Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and several very choice large King Boletes (Boletes edulis) on his daily stroll down the driveway to the mailbox. Correspondent Susan Marean Shedd seems to have a knack for finding Hen Of The Woods in her neighborhood back yards.

Just learn to identify a few edible mushrooms, always have a knife and some plastic bags handy, and then keep your eyes open as you have fun outdoors.

Executive editor Tim Jones found this unmistakable Giant Puffball at Fort Ticonderoga while on a bicycle tour. All 20 tour participants enjoyed it the next morning at breakfast. (Chip Martin photo)

Pedal-powered Mushrooming

Last fall’s mushrooming season began with a tremendous find. As Tim tells it: “My sweetheart Marilyn and I were riding our tandem bike near Lake Champlain with Vermont Bicycle Tours. This was four days after Hurricane Irene had dropped flooding rains. One day, we took a ferry ride across Lake Champlain to visit Fort Ticonderoga. While pedaling the access road to the fort, I spotted what looked like a soccer ball in the middle of a lawn and stopped to investigate. It turned out to be the largest giant puffball mushroom (Calvatia gigantea, which some mushroom books describe as ‘edible, choice’) I have ever seen. I might not have seen it from a car, but it was hard to miss from a bike. It was absolutely perfect, still firm, not an insect hole to be seen. So I collected it and handed it to Chip Martin, the tour guide driving the sag wagon for VBT, who had come along at just the right moment.

The next morning at breakfast, Dominic Francis, the chef/owner at Shoreham Inn where we were staying presented our group with a huge platter of puffball done in three styles—grilled, deep fried and sautéed. Everyone at least tried it; I think everyone liked it. I know I sure did. It was one of those special moments that captured the pure joy of finding edible mushrooms.”

Learning Fungi

Look for the Hen Of The Woods near Oak trees, and rejoice when you find one as beautiful (and tasty) as this specimen. (David Shedd photo)

The web is loaded with so many resources on mushrooms that it can get confusing. If you know nothing about the subject, try starting at http://ediblewildmushrooms.com/ from Forager Press, which publishes a number of good mushroom guides. This site gives you five good mushrooms to start with. Add the Giant puffball and Oyster mushrooms and you are well on your way to becoming a proficient collector. Another online resource we’ve used is Mushroomexpert.com.

If you really want to learn mushrooms, however, join a club: You can usually find a local group if you look hard enough—though mushroom hunters are sometimes as elusive as Morels (a particularly tasty but hard-to-find mushroom species that comes out in the spring).

The Northeast Mycological Foundation has an extensive list of local clubs, as does Mushroom, The Journal of Wild Mushrooming. In addition,  The Connecticut/Westchester Mycological Association, The Boston Mycologial Club, and The Berkshire Mycoligcal Society all sponsor regular walks, and there are many others.

Among experts, you’ll learn to see mushrooms you’d miss otherwise. You can put names to them.  Learning to name some, fuels your desire to learn more. Just remember, when picking mushrooms to eat, the rule to live by is “When in doubt, throw it out.”

 

 

 

 

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