I’m not a mushroom expert. But I still gather and safely eat several types of wild mushrooms, and have done so for years. Wild mushrooms are a tasty and nutritious addition to any diet, and the ability to identify and gather a few safe species is a great asset to any set of survival skills.
The keys to wild mushroom safety are learning and admitting your limitations, religiously sticking with a few guidelines, and seeking out expert help to increase and enhance your knowledge.
Before starting to gather wild mushrooms in your area, read some good books like Mushrooming without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms or even North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi, and seek out an actual mushroom expert, also known as a mycologist.
Where I live, in the Ozark Mountains of western Arkansas, I have the good fortune of having met a mushroom expert who’s served a term as the president of the American Mycological Association. He puts on a wild mushroom lecture in the fall in a local state park, that includes slides, actual mushroom samples, a mushroom hunting hike, and a “Cooking with Wild Mushrooms” segment that involves actual cooking and eating of wild mushrooms. This particular expert has proven very helpful, even to the point that he doesn’t mind me e-mailing him digital pictures of new types of mushrooms I’ve found, and identifying them as best he can. For the rest of this article, I’ll refer to him as “Dr. Mushroom.”
That said, even this man, with a Ph.D. in mycology, is sometimes totally stumped by the digital pictures and descriptions I send him.
Read those words again.
Several times, a man with a Ph.D. in the study of mushrooms has been unable to identify a mushroom based on the digital pictures and closely-written descriptions of where I found the mushroom, what kind of plants were growing nearby, what kind of leaf litter was on the forest floor, how close to water, and all sorts of other possible indicators.
Again, this is man with a Ph.D., who’s been the president of the national society for people with doctorates in mushrooms. Sometimes, even he can’t tell.
In some cases, the only way to really tell exactly to what species a mushroom belongs is to make a “spore print” of the mushroom. Making a spore print means cutting the cap off the mushroom, and placing it overnight atop a sheet of clean paper. The spores fall out of the cap, and leave distinctive colors on the paper. The specific color of the spore print helps nail down the specific species.
If it’s a mushroom that requires me to make a spore print, I’m not eating it, or anything that even looks like it.
Understand that gathering wild mushrooms for food can very easily kill you and anyone else who eats that fatal meal with you, including your wife, your kids, your friends, your kids’ friends, anyone.
Think about that very clearly and carefully before you start collecting wild mushrooms to eat.
And do not think for a second that what keeps me safe in the Ozarks of western Arkansas will keep you safe in the hills of Northern California, or the wilds of Appalachia, on the Great Plains.
You must consult an expert for the specific area where you intend to gather wild mushrooms for food. You must do your own research. To paraphrase Davy Crockett’s advice, be first absolutely sure that you are right, and then go ahead.
Whatever you do, don’t put several types of mushrooms into one bag, or one basket. Carry a separate bag or container, and put only one type of mushroom into each to avoid possible cross-contamination, just in case you pick a bad one by mistake, and don’t’ realize it until you get back home.
BASIC MUSHROOM ANATOMY
Edible mushrooms can be broken down into two basic groups. Those with caps and stipes, and those without.
To understand cap and stipe, draw a mushroom, or a mushroom cloud, or a mushroom shaped like a mushroom cloud. The stipe is the “stalk” of the mushroom, or the long skinny part of the mushroom cloud rising up from the ground. The “cap” is the dome-shaped top of the mushroom, or the mushroom cloud. It’s the classic mushroom shape, and the reason why a “mushroom cloud” had the “mushroom” part in its name.
Lots of edible mushrooms have stipes with various types of caps. However, lots of deadly poisonous mushrooms share this exact basic anatomy.
Confusing the two can kill you.
Other mushrooms like puffballs and black trumpets or shelf fungus don’t have stipes or caps at all, but other structures.
IF IT’S GOT GILLS, IT KILLS
“If it’s got gills, it kills” is a little saying that I created for myself, and beyond which I never venture when I gather wild mushrooms for food.
The “gills” are structures on the underside of the cap that look like fish gills, or a ring of playing cards turned on edge, or skinny blades of flesh arranged in a circle. It’s hard to describe gills, but once you see them either in the photos of good mushroom book, or in person, you will know exactly what gills are.
There are many types of perfectly edible, very tasty mushrooms that have a stipe and a cap with gills. In fact, if you go to the grocery store and look for the whole mushrooms in the produce section, you’ll see commercially-grown mushrooms with stipes, caps, and gills. Wonderful Portabella mushrooms have stipes, caps and gills.
However, the really nasty deadly mushrooms from the genus Amanita also have stipes and caps with gills underneath. These nasty ones have common names like “Death Cap” or “Spring Destroying Angel” or “Destroying Angel.” Did you notice the pattern in the common names? Death? Destroying? Did you know that the only way to survive some of these mushrooms is to get a successful liver transplant in time, and sometimes not even that works?
There are several species from the Amanita genus that are allegedly very good to eat, as well. I say “allegedly” because I have never, and will never taste any of the wild varieties because it’s hard for even experts to tell the difference between the tasty ones, and the deadly ones.
For some of these species, the only way to really tell is to make the spore pattern. Again, if a mushroom requires me to go the trouble of making a spore pattern to tell it from a deadly-poisonous look-alike that can kill everyone in my family, then it’s simply not worth my trouble.
Even though I may miss out on some really tasty wild edibles, following my little saying of “If it’s got gills, it kills”also keeps me from eating a Death Cap or a Destroying Angel.
START LOW AND SLOW WITH THE LOWLY PUFFBALL
The first type of mushroom that everybody starts with (at least everybody who lives beyond his first wild mushroom gathering) is the lowly puffball.
Puffballs are the easiest to identify of the edible wild mushrooms. They are exactly what they sound like, roundish, fleshy balls of mushroom. There are no deadly species of puffball where I gather, although there are species that just aren’t good to eat because of bad taste or disagreeable textures.
Be sure to check with an expert where you live to make sure there that puffballs there are safe.
To really be safe with puffballs, you have to cut them open down the middle after you gather them. What you want to see is a formless, featureless white expanse inside, like a slice of white bread. If the flesh is any other color than white, don’t eat it.
Puffballs eventually turn dark and release their spores in dark “puff” clouds when you step on them. They just aren’t edible once they start to turn color.
The other reason you must cut puffballs down the middle is because that some deadly forms of Amanita mushrooms form puffball-like pods in their juvenile stages. They look like puffballs on the outside, but when you cut them open, you can see the “larval” stage of the stipe, cap, and gills inside the little pod mushroom. If you cut open a “puffball” and see structures inside it, pitch it.
Again, what you want to see inside a puffball is a blank, featureless whiteness, like fresh, undisturbed snow, or a slice of white bread.
The best part about puffballs is that you often find a cluster of them together. They grow just about anywhere. I have gathered them off the lawns and green spaces of the college where I teach English. I’ve had folks tell me I’m crazy for gathering puffballs, but I just smile, and give them silent, crazy-faced look.
In my experience, puffballs have more flavor than store-bought white mushrooms, either fresh or canned, but aren’t as good at Portabellas. Puffballs are tasty sauteed in butter with garlic, but what isn’t tasty sauteed in butter with garlic? I mostly use sliced or chopped puffballs in scrambled eggs, or in spaghetti sauces. Don’t try to dry or save puffballs. If they’re blank and white on the side, cook ‘em up and eat ‘em.
BLACK TRUMPETS and CHANTERELLES
After gathering a eating puffballs for a few years, the second type of wild mushroom I added to my menu in large quantities were members of the order Cantharellus: Black Trumpets, Golden Chanterelles, even the little bright hunter-orange Cinnabarinus, that have a peppery hotness when raw, and taste awesome sauteed or spread across homemade pizzas. Another favorite way I prepare chanterelles is in a cream and wine sauce, and ladled over fresh pasta. Absolutely heavenly.
These types of mushrooms are low to the ground, and trumpet shaped to varying degrees. Some kinds of them have “false gills” which really aren’t gills, but little folds or rolls in the flesh of the mushroom. There are some types of toxic gilled mushrooms that superficially look like chanterelles, according to my Dr. Mushroom, but most chanterelles and trumpets are fairly easy to identify once you’ve had a few types of them positively identified for you by an expert. There’s also the “Devil’s Urn” which superficially looks like a Black Trumpet, but that grows on dead wood, but once you see them side by side, it’s really hard to confuse the two.
Once you’ve had a little help from an expert, and gotten your hands and your nose on chanterelles, they’re another “can’t miss” variety, almost as easy to identify as puffballs. Only they taste and smell a lot better than any puffballs.
In the Ozarks, Black Trumpets grow almost year round, although they are most plentiful in the spring after good rain, and in the fall. In some years, Black Trumpets are astoundingly abundant, and then heartbreakingly scarce in other years. These mushrooms dry well. If you dry them in a food dehydrator, use the lowest setting you can. I usually just spread out some paper towels on little racks from an old hibachi grill, and just let them air dry. I’ve used dried Black Trumpets and Cinnabarinus mushrooms a year after I harvested them. All I did was put them in water, and let them plump back up for a few hours, before putting them in pasta sauce, or using them in stews or on pizzas.
STEP UP TO BOLETES
After getting some confidence and experience gathering puffballs and chanterelles, lots of mushroom hunters take a step up the food chain and add boletes to their menus.
Boletes are mushrooms that have the classic mushroom look. They have a stem leading up to a cap, but they don’t have gills on the bottom side of the cap.
Instead of gills, boletes have pores or tubes. Again, consult a good mushroom book with quality photos and illustrations. The underside of the cap will have lots of little round holes, or look like a sponge, or like a slice of bread, but will not have any gills at all.
Where I live, in the Ozarks of western Arkansas, there are no known species of deadly boletes, at least according to the mushroom expert whom I consult.
There are plenty of species of boletes that will give you projectile vomiting and projectile diarrhea, to the point that you might wish the mushroom would just go ahead an mercifully kill you. But in my particular area, there are no known boletes that will destroy your liver, or cause your kidneys to fail, and otherwise kill you graveyard dead.
To avoid the “gastric upset” inducing boletes, there are few little guidelines that Dr. Mushroom taught me, which I follow religiously.
1) I avoid all boletes that have pores or tubes that are red or bright orange. While there are some edible boletes with red or bright orange tubes on the undersides of their caps, there are enough boletes with red or bright orange pores and tubes to make it just not worth the risk.
2) Before I eat any bolete, I pinch off a bit of the cap, and also slice the whole cap in half, and wait 15 minutes. If the flesh of the cap bruises or stains black or blue, I don’t eat it.
According to Dr. Mushroom, in my region, the boletes that can cause bad upset stomach aches have red or orange undersides on their caps, or they stain or bruise black or blue when pinched or sliced. Some take a few minutes to change colors when pinched or sliced, and some do it immediately. I don’t know what it’s properly called, but I encountered an attractive tan bolete this past summer that when I pinched off a little chunk of its cap, it stained a startling, almost electric blue within seconds.
The color change was so striking that I actually looked for this type of mushroom just so I could pinch off little pieces and watch the flesh turn from white to blue. But I made sure to never eat it, and wash my hands thoroughly before picking any mushrooms that I planned on eating.
I treat boletes like the mushrooms I buy at the grocery store. I saute them. I break them up raw for salads, especially the ones with attractive, earthy odors. I dry some of them to crumble into soups.
I have learned the hard way that some types of boletes smell great when gathered, but get a strong, funky “unwashed feet” odor when sauteed in butter. They still taste okay, they just stink up the kitchen quite a bit.
The holy grail of mushroom hunters, especially in the Ozarks, are the various species of morels. Morels have stipes, but their caps are crinkly and wrinkly and hollow, without gills or pores. They look all the world like little stalks with clumps of brains atop them.
And they taste awesome sauteed in butter. That’s the best way to eat morels, in my opinion. Just simply sauteed for a few minutes in butter, and eaten without any further adornment, because they simply don’t need any enhancement.
There is the “false morel” to watch out for, but for the most part, once you get an idea of what a morel looks like, from either a good book or from an experienced mushroom hunter, you simply can’t mistake them for anything else.
Here in the Ozarks, folks who know where morels reliably appear typically protect their morel hunting grounds with the same type of intensity that female saltwater crocodiles defend their eggs. In fact, morels are so popular around here, that when you say “I hunt mushrooms” many folks just assume that you mean morels, and nothing else.
If you find a good morel patch, look for the delicate morsels of heavenly mushroom goodness to appear in the spring.
So far, I’ve been lucky enough to find only a handful of morels, and they’ve all appeared around the same tree. And I’m not saying where it’s located, either.
Shelf fungus are pretty much what the name sounds like. They appear to be little shelves of fungus growing off of trees, or on dead logs, or even up out of ground. Several types are edible, and many others are non-toxic, but so woody and chewy that you’d be better off trying to eat pine sawdust.
Where I live, there are various kinds of shelf fungus that are quite good to eat, one of the most commonly-known being “Hen of the Woods.” The Hen is called such because in its splendiferous adulthood, it looks all the world like a pile of gray hen feathers. And it tastes good.
I have found a few small hens of the woods, and was totally heartbroken this fall to find an enormous one in my regular deer-hunting spot, only about a week too late. It was huge, and blackened and rotting and infested with ants and several other kinds of bugs. I had to stand over it for a moment of regretful silence, but I have marked the exact spot, and plan to make more regular checks in the future.
By educating yourself with good books and by consulting experienced, trustworthy experts, you can add several types of wild mushrooms to your menu, enhancing and expanding your ability to use wild foods in a survival situation. And so long as the world as we know it doesn’t end, you can also really jazz up your recipes and impress both friends and family with the wonderful delicacies that nature offers in the form of edible fungi. Just be sure to educate yourself, seek out experts.
Safety Proviso: If you ever have any doubts whatsoever about the identify of the mushroom you’ve found, then don’t eat it. No mushroom, no matter how tasty it might be, is worth dying for.