Amateur Mushroom Foraging for People who REALLY Don’t Want to Eat Poison

Wild mushrooms are in a class of their own when it comes to culinary usage and self sufficiency. They can pack unique flavor and aroma, vital nutrients, and maybe even some medicinal potential, so it is no surprise there are so many avid mushroom fanatics out there. Chefs will fight over a rare find, expert mushroom hunters will relish the chance to bring dinner to new worlds of flavor, and casual amateurs like me will feel a thrill at having something uncommon and wonderful to share with the family. But how do you know whether a particular mushroom will taste good? And more importantly, how will you know it isn’t poisonous? 

A few very simple steps for foraging mushrooms

I’m not going to claim to be a mushroom expert. Because I’m not. But I do have a process that has worked so far, resulting in no poisoning or death at all.  That’ right, I ate some wild mushrooms I found and I’m still alive!  Being able to taste these mushrooms that you can’t easily find anywhere else is a special experience, too.  It’s not every day you taste chicken of the woods on a pizza.

Chicken of the Woods Mushroom on a Pizza
Chicken of the Woods Mushroom on a Pizza… so good!

Admittedly, my method is a very timid approach, but with the chickens at various stages and our kids requiring a decent amount of attention, I don’t seem to have much time for hunting mushrooms actively anyways!  So here are my rules:

Start by getting familiar with easy to identify species

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There are a few species of wild mushroom in North America that have readily distinguished characteristics that make it somewhat difficult to confuse them with any other mushroom.  Here are a few, identified in the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America:

I’ve gone ahead and linked each of the above to a website with details on the species and how to identify for your convenience.

A few years back I looked at photos of these four species, both in foraging books and websites and via Google Image Search (a very helpful foraging tool, by the way).  I also took time to read the descriptions of how they are identified, essentially filing the information away in my head in case I happened to come across the mushrooms while walking to dog or on a hike.   And that’s exactly what has happened with chicken of the woods and morels, which I’ve found while walking the dog on trails near our home.

chicken of the woods mushroom
Chicken of the Woods

So check out a field guide, get a mushroom identification book, or use the internet and get acquainted with these mushrooms.  There are many sites out there on mushrooms to dig into. Here’s one I’ve found pretty useful: Mushroom-appreciation.com

Key things to remember for identification

While you familiarize, here are some key things you’ll want to focus on:

  • What are the key characteristics of the cap (top, bottom, etc.)?
  • Does it have gills?
  • What are the key characteristics of the stem?
  • What are the correct colors to look for?
  • How do you select a high quality mushroom and tell when they are too young or too old to enjoy?
  • What type of area is the mushroom typically found in?

The hunt

If you want to go on a mushroom hunt, the best advice I can give you is to find out when and where the target species is most likely to grow to increase your chances.  Study the characteristics of the mushroom, memorizing sizing and colors for good specimens so you can get good at spotting them from a distance.  And really learn where it likes to grow.  Chicken of the woods likes to grow on dead deciduous logs.  Morels like to grow in areas that have been burned.

I definitely recommend talking to experts.  If you’re lucky like us, you can often find guided mushroom foraging tours, lead by experts, often free of charge.  This is a great way to learn how to hunt, where to hunt, and benefit from the highly accurate identification skills of the leader should you find something good.

Initial Confirmation by Images and ruling out look-alikes

Once you’ve found what you think might be one of these edible, tasty mushrooms, it’s a good idea to confirm you’re on the right track with some quick steps to rule out mistaken identity. It’s hard to really know a mushroom until you’ve seen and handled it a bit.

So go ahead and collect the mushrooms while you’re out there and bring them home for further research.

morel mushrooms
Morels

Use Google Image Search to look up “false [name of mushroom]”.  And do another search for ” [name of mushroom] look alike”.  Between these two searches, you’ll see many photos of various species that could be confused with what you’ve found.  This is a good way to quit while you’re ahead in cases where you’ve got a look alike.   If you think you found a morel, but the images of the false morel are a close match for what you have, you might have to throw them out. All for the best, since false morels are poisonous and can even lead to death if consumed.  But false morels don’t look THAT much like the real thing, once you’re familiar with the different appearance.

Now go ahead and search for images of the mushroom you think you have. For morels, just throw “morel” into Google Image Search.  Peruse the results and you can quickly get a sense if you’re on the right track now.

Gain confidence in your identification

Now you want to review the ways to positively identify and confidently rule out look alikes.  This requires a mushroom guide.  I find that the general foraging guide I have is OK at this, but the details are a bit sparse.  Since I don’t have a dedicated guide for mushrooms specifically, I always review details on websites with more in depth descriptions.  Again, there are a lot of mushroom sites out there.  Mushroom-appreciation.com works for me.

inside morel mushroom
Morels are hollow on the inside and are fully attached to the stem all the way, as shown in this split sample

You’ll see there are specific characteristics for each mushroom species to look for to get a positive identification.  Chicken of the woods has a look alike that does not have a smooth bottom.  This is easy to rule out just by checking the underside.  Morels have a look alike with the cap not fully attached to the stem, which you can see if you split them in half.  For those four species I mentioned above, these characteristics are pretty easy to confirm, which is why I stick to them!

If not feeling 100% confident: Seek out an expert or throw the mushrooms away

If you go through all the above processes and still don’t feel certain you have the right mushroom, you have two options.  Find someone who really knows mushrooms and have them assist with identification, or go ahead and throw it out.  No matter how good it could taste, it’s better to be safe than sorry with mushrooms.

Take a moment and reflect at this point.  How sure are you, really?  

Final test – eat a small boiled sample

Even if you have 100% confidence in your mushroom, maybe even expert guidance, it can still be a little scary to take that first bite.  If you’re still nervous you can always take a small chunk (like a square centimeter) of the mushroom and boil it for about 10 minutes.  Give it a try, and when you don’t feel sick after a day, you can feel fully confident in your find.  This is not actually necessary if you ask me, since at this point you’ve studied the mushroom closely per the guides and made sure to only go for the easy to identify species.  If you didn’t have the confidence, you would’ve sought out an expert or thrown them out already.  This test is really just to help you muster the courage to eat a fantastic wild mushroom.  If you’ve got this far, enjoy!

Preparing the mushrooms for eating

For tips on how to prepare the mushrooms you found, take a look at your foraging guide, a favorite mushroom site, or ask experts.  Mushroom-appreciation.com has some ideas specific to each mushroom.

The four easy mushrooms we’ve been talking about should all be cooked.  We’ve found that morels and chicken of the woods are  great sautéed in butter until tender.  You can also batter and fry them (which we will be doing soon with our remaining morels).  Once they’re cooked, you can serve as a side, throw on a pizza, or get creative.  Maybe combine with caramelized onions to top a burger?

Mmmmmmmmmushrooms!

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