You’ve lost the trail and miscalculated just how much food you needed to bring with you. You stumble upon a sunlit grove with patches of mouthwatering mushrooms – are you saved? The following is an introductory guide for beginning mushroom hunters. Keep reading to learn how you can tell the difference between a fatal fungus and a life-giving snack.
Whether you’re foraging in your backyard or looking for food on the trail, you should never eat a mushroom until you are 100% sure it’s safe.
You should always avoid:
Eating mushrooms raw. Similar to meat, raw ‘shrooms are hard to digest and are more likely to be dangerous. Whenever possible, cook, fry, or stew them before eating. Some – but not all – species of toxic mushroom actually become safe to eat after sufficiently cooked.
Parasols. All amateur ‘shroom hunters know to avoid parasols. These mushrooms look like little umbrellas and are likely poisonous; some even have psychedelic effects. The image above shows just one of the many types of Amanita mushroom. The genus Amanita contains over 600 species of mushroom and is responsible for more than 90% of deaths caused by mushroom poisoning.
False Morels. The morel mushroom is quite tasty, but a false morel is not. These brown ‘shrooms are wrinkled with irregular caps that look similar to brain coral and unfortunately look very similar to true morels. Mycologists recommend that beginners avoid all morels just to be safe.
Rotten ‘shrooms. They’re already a fungus, so what’s the big deal if they are decaying? While it may sound like an oxymoron, avoid rotting mushrooms. Instead, look for fresh, firm, whole specimens with thick stems. Avoid mushrooms that look like they’ve been nibbled on by animals or insects.
What you should pick up:
Puffballs! Almost cute, these round and fluffy mushrooms are the quintessential edible mushroom and have no poisonous look-alikes. Puffballs can be large – up to 12” in diameter. Most puffballs grow during the summer/late fall and can be found in the soil or on decaying wood. If you find tiny puffballs, cut them open to make sure they aren’t baby parasols. Hint: they taste best deep-fried.
Oyster Mushrooms (image at left). These are super easy to spot in the wild! Oysters are white or off-white, soft, and usually found growing on wood during warm months. If you’re interested in growing mushrooms at home, oysters are usually the easiest variety to cultivate.
Chanterelle Mushrooms. To me, chanterelles look more like flowers than fungus. Chanterelles are bright yellow with wild, wavy caps and irregular edges. Before you start cooking, take a close look at the gills. If they are sharp or jagged, the mushroom may in fact be the poisonous Jack O’ Lantern mushroom. If you can’t be sure, throw it out.
Hen of the Woods (image at left). This peculiar fungus looks like a huge, exploding pinecone or an angry turkey. Also called a Maitake mushroom, this type of fungus has brown, fan-like caps that overlap each other. Maitake ‘shrooms can grow to huge sizes, even weighing up to 100 pounds! The soft, tender parts of a big Maitake can feed a hiker for days. The best part is that Hen of the Woods mushrooms have no poisonous impersonators, so if you see one you can be sure it’s safe to eat.