At a time of year known for harvesting and for things that thrill and terrify us, it seems only appropriate to talk about edible mushrooms. No doubt, if you’re like most of us, you’re harboring a healthy fear of wild mushrooms (and with good reason). There are some very dangerous, and very lethal wild mushrooms. Some of them kill you quickly but uncomfortably. Some of them make your liver fail over the period of a couple of weeks. And some of them just give you such severe stomach and intestinal issues that you might wish you’d eaten the lethal ones instead. Mmm. Makes you want to go right out and eat a plateful, doesn’t it?
You’re probably wondering why anyone would even want to attempt such a hobby. For some, it’s the challenge that motivates them. For us, it was a variety of reasons.
Have you ever had a home grown vine-ripened tomato? Would you agree that it’s not the same as a store bought tomato? The same applies to most wild foods. Wild strawberries and blueberries, for example, have intense flavor that makes the store-bought versions taste like water. You could easily make the same comparison between button mushrooms and their wild brothers. To validate that point further, many exclusive restaurants prize wild mushrooms for their gourmet entree’s.
Nutrition & Health
Many types of wild mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses with a surprising amount of health-giving properties. Depending on the type of mushroom, they can be high in fiber, protein, Vitamin D, Iron, Niacin, Vitamin C, and compounds known for boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, fighting cancer and even shrinking tumors.
While most of the food we eat is through traditional grocery supply chains, we like having at least some knowledge of how to find food outside of the system. You’ll see a common thread throughout this blog of “eating wild” through fishing, catching crayfish, berry picking, mushroom hunting, and foraging for other wild edibles. It probably seems strange to most, but there’s a certain satisfaction gained that comes from learning the age old practices of finding your sustenance at it’s natural source.
Who doesn’t like tromping around in the woods? Foraging gives you an excuse to do it. Plus, there’s the sense of excitement and inevitable adrenaline rush that comes once you’ve discovered a treasure trove. Even if you don’t find anything, or (more likely) you don’t find anything edible, you’ll still have had a wonderful day breathing the fresh air, exercising, and having a little reflection time in nature. Pack along a picnic lunch to make it a banner outing.
The Key: 100% Certainty in the Mushroom Identification
There’s a saying among wild mushroom foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are NO old, bold mushroom hunters.”
The key is to make sure (100% sure!) that you’ve identified the mushroom you’ve found correctly. If you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Not even a little bit. This takes a bit of work, and truthfully, 99% of the time, the mushrooms we find are inedible, poisonous, or else we just can’t be certain of it’s identification. For those, back to nature they go.
We use a minimum of 3 different field identification guides, and often internet resources too. Try to find mushroom guides that are specific to your geographical location. Learning how to take spore prints is an important identification tool also. Many areas also have mushroom hunting clubs or tours.
Some of the more advanced mushroom foragers use chemicals and microscopes. Admittedly, we’re not at that level. I don’t know if we ever will be. For now, we’re content to stick to the ones that are easy to identify and have low risk in terms of poisonous look-alikes.
3 Easily Identified Wild Edible Mushrooms
Early in the fall season, we were fortunate to find 3 amazingly delicious wild mushrooms while in Northern Ohio. (These are all fairly widespread across the continent, and even in other parts of the world.) Brace yourself. None of these wild mushrooms will look even remotely like what you’re used to seeing at the marketplace.
While available in higher end grocery stores, the taste is not the same as the fresh wild ones. When harvested at their peak, they are tender and flavorful. They remind me of seafood, and would make a lovely chowder. Or, simply use them as you would any mushroom in your favorite dishes. They also make a delightful vegetarian version of calamari that’s much more tender than their tough and chewy squid counterpart.
Oyster mushrooms are reputed to contain the following: Dietary Fiber, Protein, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Manganese, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus, Copper and Potassium.
Look for Oyster mushrooms on deciduous trees that are dying, or on logs. Do not eat oysters growing on conifers/evergreens, as they can be toxic. Learn to identify the difference between Oyster Mushrooms and the potentially dangerous Angel Wings.
Maitake mushrooms have held a position of respect in the alternative medicine realm for some time, but are also a gourmet mushroom with strong nutritional contributions. Also known as “Hen of the Woods” (not to be confused with “Chicken of the Woods”, see below), Dancing Mushroom, or by it’s scientific name Grifola frondosa.
Hen of the Woods mushrooms have a more substantial and almost gamey flavor, when compared to the more delicate flavor of oyster mushrooms. They also will batter fry well, especially in a tempura style batter, and will add both nutrition and flavor to any dish you use them in. I love them in stews, soups, and pasta dishes. I’ve even tried them roasted in butter and honey, which was an odd pairing, but a delicious treat nonetheless.
Hen of the Woods/Maitake will usually be found in large clusters at the base of oak trees and maples. They’ll be growing from the tree roots in the ground, near the base of the tree. Often, there will be multiple bunches circling the tree. This mushroom should have no gills. If it does, it’s not a Maitake. Use your field guides to be 100% certain of the identification.
It’s not uncommon for a single harvest to be 10 lbs. or more. They seem to last longest in the fridge in brown paper bags, but you’ll want to plan to process them soon after harvesting. Hen of the Woods wild mushrooms dehydrate well (clean them before dehydrating). You can also sautee’ and freeze them. These mushrooms are also a bit unique, in that you can freeze them raw (clean them and cut to size first). Just be sure to take them straight from the freezer to the pan without thawing for best cooking results. Maitake mushrooms also make nice pickles.
Maitake mushrooms boast 190% of your daily Vitamin D requirement per serving. It also has a reputation for fighting cancer, diabetes, and boosting your immune system.
Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms*
While the names are similar, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is nothing like Hen of the Woods. The only thing they really have in common is that they’re both gourmet finds that would make the finest chefs envious. Named for it’s supposed chicken flavor, I found it to be decidedly different and delicately flavored; not mushroomy, but not like chicken either. In addition to it’s delightful taste, it’s also visually appealing and retains it’s coral color after cooking.
Chicken of the Woods contains potassium, Vitamin C, protein, Vitamin A, antioxidants, and compounds suspected of fighting bacteria and cancer. I haven’t tried dehydrating, but is supposed to work with this mushroom. I stuck with the traditional method of sautéing and freezing for later use.
For more information on Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms see: https://www.tyrantfarms.com/introducing-the-chicken-of-the-woods-mushroom-laetiporus-cincinnatus-et-al/
NOTE: For all 3 of these types of mushrooms, it is best to stay away from any that are growing on evergreen trees (they can be toxic).
A Few Last Tips to Remember
- Once you’ve 100% identified the mushroom as edible, do not eat it raw. Eating raw wild mushrooms can make you very sick. Instead, cook the mushrooms at least 20 minutes. This breaks down the proteins that are otherwise very hard on your digestive system.
- Eat only a small amount the first time. Some people have allergic reactions, so it’s best to take it easy at first. Test a little, and see if your system is ok with it before eating a large quantity. Although, it’s not advisable to eat a whole plateful of mushrooms regardless. That can overload your digestive system also. All things in moderation!
- Only take as much as you are prepared to process and use. No need to be greedy. Wild mushrooms don’t have a long shelf life, so you’ll want to be realistic about how much time you have to dedicate to cleaning, preparing, and cooking or dehydrating your find. Again, take only as much as you can really use. Be a pro, and leave some for nature, or for others to find.
- Take note of where you found the mushrooms and when. As long as you’re careful when you harvest them (cut them above the surface of the tree and don’t dig into the tree), the mushroom organism should be fine to continue it’s job of breaking down the tree, and produce fruit (mushrooms) for several years.
- Share your recipes! 🙂