Foraging Wild Mushrooms
Closer To Nature
The burgeoning interest in organic and locally sourced foods has been growing enormously in the last decade. A growing number of restaurants feature many items or sometimes entire menus full of local, organic ingredients. When shopping for their own table, health-conscious people usually think of local farmer's markets or even certain specialty chain grocery stores that feature locally grown or produced organic products from small nearby farms. Some of the more crafty and motivated among us turn to our own back yards as a place to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. These are all wonderful ways to have a closer connection to the food you eat.
If you have ever browsed through the mushrooms while at the market, you have probably been stunned by the beauty and variety of what they have to offer. You also might have been just as stunned by the prices of some of the more exotic looking varieties. There is a good reason why those beautiful crimson-orange lobster mushrooms cost more than five times the price of the humble white button mushroom that see everywhere. Many of the more expensive species you see are difficult to grow in captivity, while quite a few of them cannot be cultivated at all and are only found in the wild.
Nature's Produce Section
If you have ever experienced the thrill of eating a salmon that you caught yourself, or fondly remember stuffing your face with wild blackberries during the warm summer months of your childhood, then you already have a hint of the satisfaction that mushroom foraging brings. The good news is that with a little bit of effort and luck, you can end your next walk in the woods with your hands full of some of those very same mushrooms that seemed so ridiculously expensive during your last trip to the market. If you are lucky enough to live in an area that gets a decent amount of rainfall, especially forested and mountainous regions, foraging is the most rewarding way to put fresh, healthy and delicious mushrooms on your plate.
But Be Cautious!
The images and descriptions of mushrooms in this article are not a substitute for proper mushroom identification. Many poisonous mushrooms look similar to edible ones. Read a book on mushroom identification or consult an experienced mushroom hunter before attempting to identify or eat any mushrooms you find.
Identification: Know Your Mushroom!
One of the local favorites in my area is the golden chanterelle. Not only is it a choice edible, but it grows in many areas throughout the world and is very prolific when conditions are right. It is not uncommon to walk around a corner on the trail and find a hillside covered with them. They tend to grow in clusters, so if you find one, stop and explore that area for a while and you'll likely find more. There are a couple inedible look-alikes, but once you have seen a genuine chanterelle it would be very hard to mistake another species for it.
For safety's sake we still call those that even vaguely resemble them look-alikes, because you can never exercise enough caution. When gathering mushrooms, as with any wild food product, it is extremely important to familiarize yourself with the species you are looking for. I suggest bringing someone with a good knowledge of mushrooms with you the first few times you go, as well as reading several articles and mushroom identification books.
If you are ever unsure of what you have, there is an easy to remember phrase that experienced foragers swear by: "When in doubt, throw it out!" Better safe than sorry! There are many prized edible mushrooms with inedible or poisonous look-alikes, such as the matsutake or the prince mushroom, which is why they are not recommended for beginners.
I highly suggest starting out by choosing a distinct, easy-to-identify species that grows in your area. Take some time to familiarize yourself with that species and then move on to another. Although it takes time to learn, it is well worth it when you are able to come home from a hike with a basket full of beautiful mushrooms that you have confidently identified and make an amazing dinner.
I highly suggest Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. It is very informative as well as fun to read.
But Where Do I Find Them?
While during the right time of year it seems like there are mushrooms growing under every tree in your neighborhood, it's not always as easy as just venturing into any random wooded area and coming home with more mushrooms than you can carry (although it does happen on occasion!) The boletus edulis, also known as the king bolete, porcini, penny bun, or cep, depending on what country you live in, is an example of a delicious and easy to identify mushroom which grows in areas throughout the world with native populations of pine and fir trees. It is easy to identify due to the fact that it has no gills, but instead has a cluster of pores underneath the cap that resemble a sponge. It is a rhizomorphic species, which means it is associated with the roots of certain trees, in this case pine or fir.
What we call a mushroom is just the fruiting body of the fungal structure known as mycelium. Using an apple tree as an example, think of the mycelium as the tree and the mushroom as the apple. Why am I telling you all of this, you ask? Because knowing this gives you a clue as to where to start looking for a certain species by knowing what plants and other environmental features it is associated with. A little online research or flipping through the pages of a good mushroom identification guide will help you a great deal, so you aren't just aimlessly wandering through the woods, although that can be fun on it's own too!
Storing Your Mushrooms
Wild mushrooms are always better fresh, but many times you will find more than you can eat in one meal. I find it best to store fresh wild mushrooms as you would any mushrooms: in a loosely folded paper bag in the refrigerator. Another option is to dry them. If you plan to take on foraging as a hobby, a dehydrator is a very good investment. They can also be chopped up and stored frozen, although certain types hold up to freezing better than others.
Mushroom foraging is like fishing, it can be hit or miss. It's a mix of skill and luck. You won't find them every time, but once feel that thrill for the first time, you will hear the call of the woods every time you hear the sound of rain.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.