Gathering Wild Mushrooms
- photo by Colin Rose
by Peggy Deland
Mushroom hunting is a time-honored tradition in many rural areas, and it's not
just about getting a little free food. Many wild mushrooms are considered
delicacies, and difficult or impossible to find in stores. For example, morel
and chanterelle mushrooms have amazingly complex flavors and can be used in a
huge variety of dishes. If you've only tried the bland white mushrooms sold in
grocery stores, you're missing out!
Most mushrooms appear in the spring or the fall. Although there are a few
varieties to be found in the summer months, they're rarely worth the effort,
unless you just happen to stumble upon a patch while walking in the woods. One
exception to this is in cold climates; for example, spring mushrooms (such as
morels) grow late in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. There, spring
mushrooms are often found as late as July.
Edible wild mushrooms grow almost everywhere in the United States, but the
widest variety are found in the Midwest and southern states. Missouri, Arkansas,
and eastern Oklahoma have an especially bountiful supply of wild mushrooms.
There are also plenty of mushrooms to be found in the Pacific Northwest,
especially in Washington and Oregon. Mushrooms thrive wherever there are forests
and frequent rain. A few edible species -- such as the meadow mushroom and the
giant puffball -- are commonly found within the grass.
How to Gather Mushrooms
You don't need many supplies to start gathering mushrooms, but you should bring
along a basket or bucket, a pocketknife, and some cloth or paper towels to
separate different types of mushrooms. Bring a field guide, if you can.
Sometimes it's easier to identify mushrooms while they're still in the ground.
The National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Mushrooms has
plenty of color photographs and information on look-alike mushrooms. It's also
small enough to carry in your pocket.
When you find a group of promising mushrooms, cut them off close to the ground,
but don't uproot them. Leave old, bug-infested, and very small mushrooms behind.
They're not worth eating and they will produce spores to grow more mushrooms for
next year. Make a note of where you found the mushrooms: on a dead log, under an
oak tree, in the grass. This will help you be certain of the mushroom's identity
when you get home.
As a novice, it's best to limit your gathering to species that are readily
identifiable without spore prints. These include morels, chanterelles, black
trumpets, giant puffballs, and sulfur shelf mushrooms. Of course, you should
carefully examine the mushrooms and be well aware of poisonous mushrooms with
Once you've brought your harvest home, carefully examine the mushrooms under a
bright light, and consult your field guide for specific identifying features.
Split the mushrooms lengthwise to view the inner structure, and watch to see if
the cut areas change color. Look for any seeping liquid from the cut surface.
Examine for signs of insect infestation, and discard any mushrooms with
Sweet Tooth Mushroom
- photo by Colin Rose
An old saying goes, "There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters,
but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters." If you are not absolutely certain
of a mushroom's identification, don't eat it! Most poisonous mushrooms will make
you miserable with symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps, but
they won't kill you. A few wild mushrooms can make you seriously ill. The
destroying angel is notoriously dangerous, and has caused a few deaths, but it's
not hard to identify and easily avoided.
Beware of old wives' tales, like that any mushroom with pink gills is edible.
There are always exceptions, and relying on simple rules like this one could
earn you a trip to the hospital.
Always cook wild mushrooms before you eat them. Some species that are generally
considered harmless contain toxins that are destroyed by heat. For salads,
you're better off sticking with grocery store varieties.
Before storing or preparing wild mushrooms, trim away any damaged areas, wipe
away soil, and soak them for a few hours in salt water. This will cause any
insects hidden between gills and in crevices to leave the mushroom. Rinse
thoroughly before using.
You can store wild mushrooms for a few days in a paper bag in the refrigerator.
For long-term storage, mushrooms can be frozen or dried. Before freezing, boil
the mushrooms for a few minutes and allow to cool and drain completely. Freeze
them in a single layer on a cookie sheet for a few hours,
then transfer to a
freezer bag or plastic container.
Wild mushrooms can be dried in a food dehydrator or oven. If you use an oven,
make sure the temperature is set to 100 to 150 degrees F, and check frequently
to prevent burning. Slice mushrooms to about 1/4 inch thick before drying, and
dehydrate thoroughly. Ideally, the mushrooms should be as crunchy as a potato
chip. Once dried, store in an airtight jar or bag. Reconstitute by soaking in
warm water before using.