There’s no better way to enjoy rainy weather than to break out your Wellies and go mushroom-hunting in the forest. Mushrooms are a healthy addition to your diet and are loaded with important vitamins and minerals that are hard to find in plant food such as Vitamin D, B Vitamins, Selenium, Potassium, Copper and Beta-Glucans, which are important for your immune system. Of course you can find common button mushrooms, cremini and portobello (which are all just different sizes/colors of the same species) in your local supermarket, and you can grow your own oyster mushrooms, but it’s a lot more fun to forage for your own exotic fungi! Many delicious species such as chanterelles, cauliflower mushrooms, truffles and porcini can only be found through foraging, since they are not grown commercially. Some people are scared of the idea of mushroom foraging, since there are deadly mushrooms that can kill you with one bite. But don’t fear – there are several types of mushrooms that are perfect for beginner foragers since they’re unique and easy-to-identify, with few or no poisonous look-alikes. Read on to discover three types of easy-to-identify mushrooms for beginner foragers.
FIRST: A WORD OF CAUTION
Know first what you definitely don’t want, and then what you are looking for. DO NOT try to identify any mushrooms based on this article or any pictures you see on the web. You need to have good firsthand familiarity and experience eating and preparing a certain type of mushroom before you can correctly identify it in the woods. Get to know a local mycologist in your area!
It’s important to learn how to identify poisonous mushrooms that you want to avoid before you start. NEVER EVER EVER eat anything you are not 150% sure of – and usually that means that you are an expert or you consulted with a mushroom expert on this particular mushroom. WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT! Bay area foraging expert Feral Kevin suggests that beginner foragers avoid all wild gilled mushrooms, since there are so many unidentified gilled mushrooms, and most poisonous mushrooms have gills.
(Gills are the little folds under a mushroom’s cap – watch the video above to see what “gills” look like). Feral Kevin also suggests beginners avoid all “Little Brown Mushrooms” – just because they are so hard to identify and most species of “Little Brown” are unknown. As the saying goes:
Little brown, throw it down!
LEARN TO IDENTIFY DEADLY AMANITA MUSHROOMS
Most fatal mushroom poisonings around the world are due to just one species: the Amanita Phalloides (Death Cap mushroom). It is important to know how to identify the common deadly Amanita genus mushrooms such as the Death Cap and the closely related Destroying Angel mushroom, so you know to stay away from them. Many Amanita mushrooms are poisonous, so it is best to just stay away from the entire genus. They are easy to identify by these characteristics: they have well-defined gills under the cap, and usually some sort of “skirt” / ring or “partial veil” encircling the white stalk of the mushroom. Destroying Angels are usually white and Death Caps are also often white-ish with shades of brown, green or silver, though the color is not a great help in identifying Amanitas, since they come in many different colors. Amanita mushrooms start out in the shape of eggs, growing in an egg-like sac called a “universal veil” which breaks as the mushroom gets larger, leaving behind traces of the veil on the stalk (the skirt/ring or volva), and sometimes little white spots on the top of the mushroom, as commonly seen in the iconic red and white Smurf Mushroom, aka the “Amanita Muscaria”. (For a fascinating read on this mushroom’s connection to the Santa Claus legend, check out the story of Santa and The Shrooms)
So now that I’ve gotten that warning out of the way, I hope I haven’t freaked you out so much that you’ve given up on mushroom-hunting altogether. There are many species of yummy edible mushrooms, such as cauliflower mushrooms, which are totally unique, easy-to-identify, and don’t resemble any poisonous mushrooms. If you stick with easy-to-identify edible mushrooms, and get to know a local mushroom expert, you can feel confident in mushroom-hunting.
People have been mushroom-hunting for thousands of years, and many ancient cultures revered mushrooms as magic food that could give people super-human strength. There may be some truth in this idea, as mushrooms have recently been demonstrated to show anti-tumor and anti-cancer activity – at least in test tubes. Studies show that many types of mushrooms increase immune system activity.
Let’s start with Cauliflower Mushrooms, scientific name Sparassis, since they are probably one of the simplest and easiest mushrooms to identify, and are well-loved by the people who forage them. You can’t go wrong with Cauliflower Mushrooms, since there are no poisonous mushrooms that look like this unique, coral-shaped mushroom. Foragers who are familiar with this mushroom say that they have the texture and taste of lasagna noodles, and are great scrambled into eggs, put in soup or stir-fried. Mushroom experts say they are best when white – if they turn yellow, they are too old and fibrous to eat. And like all mushrooms, they need to be cooked thoroughly before consuming. Sparassis is a parasitic fungi which lives in the roots of live host trees. It can usually be found growing in the roots or base of a hardwood tree, often oaks or pines. A group I was hiking with found some gigantic cauliflower mushrooms a few weeks ago growing under pine trees in Oakland, California.
PORCINI AND OTHER BOLETES
You may have encountered porcini mushrooms in your risotto at a fancy Italian restaurant. These revered gourmet mushrooms are often described as “meaty”, “nutty” and ‘full of umami“, and grow commonly throughout the northern hemisphere. They have been foraged and eaten in Europe for centuries. In France they are known as “Ceps“, in Italy “Porcini“, and in England “Penny Bun” or “King Bolete“, and the scientific name is Boletus Edulis. Because these mushrooms are mycorrhizal (i.e. they grow only in symbiosis with a host tree), they are almost impossible to cultivate commercially – meaning any porcini mushrooms you are able to find for sale at the grocery store or from specialty shops is foraged in small numbers, and therefore rare and expensive. Another reason why foraging for them yourself is so fun and rewarding!
The reason we recommend Boletes to beginner foragers – apart from the delicious taste – is that they are very easy to identify with few poisonous look-a-likes. Porcini are members of the “Bolete” family of mushrooms, almost all of which are edible. Boletes are easily identified by the spongy pore-layer on the underside of the cap, where most mushrooms have gills. Supposedly all boletes are edible except for a type which is bright red under the cap (Satan’s bolete) – this creepy looking mushroom is hard to miss. Otherwise, they are all safe to try. Like all mushrooms, Porcinis need to be thoroughly cooked before consumed!
Anecdotal tip: Porcini mushrooms are so yummy that flies and other creepy-crawlies really like them too. That means you want to look carefully and only pick ones that are young, firm, and completely unblemished with no holes. I learned the hard way that flies like to lay their eggs in boletes, and will hatch maggots if you leave them around for a couple days. Cut your boletes in half to check for maggots and worms immediately when you harvest them, if you don’t want to be in for a nasty surprise!
Cheerful orange chanterelles are a favorite mushroom for mushroom-hunters – probably because they are delicious, grow everywhere around the world, and are hard to mistake for anything poisonous. These delicious mushrooms are mycrorrhizal, which means they live in symbiotic relationships with living host trees. The underground mycelium threads of the fungus actually extend the root system of the host tree and allow it to find nutrients that it never could alone. This means that chanterelles are always found under certain trees, growing up out of the ground (growing literally out of underground tree roots). In the San Francisco Bay Area, Golden Chanterelles have a mycrorrhizal relationship with Live Oaks, but in different locations, they live with different types of trees. If you get to know a local mushroom guide in your area, you’ll know where to look for chanterelles!
Here’s a video dedicated to the joys of chanterelle hunting
Because chanterelles are mycorrhizal they cannot easily be cultivated, which is why people love foraging for them. It’s becoming more common to see these at supermarkets, but the ones you see there are usually foraged as well.
For more information on mushroom foraging, check out the video we made (above). Let us know what you think! Have you tried these mushrooms? If so, what do you think? Are there any not on this list that you think should be added?