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A Beginners Guide to Foraging for Wild Mushrooms

1 / 8
When eating wild mushrooms following a few simple rules can reduce risk to almost zero.
2 / 8
The cep, or king bolete (boletus edulis), is one of the most prized edible mushrooms. There are bitter-tasting and dangerous lookalikes, though. It's best to learn your foraging skills with the help of several field guides and a local expert.
3 / 8
The morel is probably North America's most sought-after wild mushroom and should be appearing soon!
4 / 8
Chicken mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphuseus) are especially tasty in stri-fry dishes, and can also be batter-dipped and deep-fried.
5 / 8
Chanterelles are commonly recommended to novice gatherers, but they do have at least one poisonous lookalike. As with all mushrooms, be sure before you eat!
6 / 8
Shaggy manes are delicate-looking and short-lived, but also delicious. Try them with veal or chicken.
7 / 8
The hen-of-the-woods, ruffled like an angry broody chicken, appears on the bases of trees in the autumn.
8 / 8
Odd-looking but quite edible, the hedgehog mushroom appears in wooded areas, coast to coast, from July to November.

A beginners guide to the book of fungi, also known as wild mushrooms. Excerpted from the book by Sara Ann Friedman. 

Once I was standing at the base of a giant redwood in
northern California. Huge branches, larger than whole trees
in my eastern woods of birches and maples, crisscrossed in
intersecting webs. There was no sky above, only more redwoods
and the secrets of a thousand years.

Fleeting shadows, footsteps, and whispers broke the mood.
Were they the murmurs of hidden forest creatures? The
shadows turned into substance, the whispers into loud human
voices. “Anything yet?” called one. “Over here,” another
answered. There must have been 15 or more of them circling
the trees, their eyes fixed on the forest floor.

A shaft of sunlight filtered through the tops of the trees
and disappeared among the highest branches. Look up!
Look up!
I wanted to shout, but to my bafflement they
were all on their knees, filling their paper bags and
baskets with large, white mushrooms. I could not help but
laugh to myself at the sight of these frenzied
foragers—a group of local wild mushroom hunters out in the
woods on a single-minded search—who could not see the
forest for the fungi.

Today my laugh would be touched with irony, for in the
years since then I have become one of them, a mushroom
zealot. My search for these fleshy fungi has taken me to
the steep slopes of the Rockies, where I never looked up to
see a snow capped peak. And I am glad to have once seen the
redwoods, for I now know that when I return, it will be on
my hands and knees, nose to the ground.

There are thousands of species of mushrooms in North
America, many of which have very strange shapes and don’t
look anything like mushrooms at all. Resembling heads of
cauliflower or coral, slabs of beefsteak, soccer balls,
turkey tails, or icicles, they hang, protrude, and billow
from tree trunks, leaf mold, dead logs, and stumps. (They
also grow on bathroom floors, dead bodies, in woodpecker
holes, and on other mushrooms.) Mushrooms have fanciful
folk names like “witch’s butter,” “shaggy mane,” and
“bear’s head.” Some turn blue or red when they are bruised;
others glow in the dark. (A World War I soldier wrote home
to his wife, “I am writing to you by the light of five
mushrooms.”) Many mushrooms are wonderful to eat; others
are toxic enough to cause serious, if temporary,
discomfort. Most are simply unpalatable, tasteless, or too
tough to eat. A few are deadly.

Fungi inhabit every nook and cranny of the living world. By
releasing an enzyme, they break down and absorb organic
material into their own tissue. As a parasite the fungal
mycelium attacks living trees or tree wounds as well as
tissue in flowers, stems, leaves, and roots. One-celled
parasitic fungi cause corn smut, chestnut blight, Dutch elm
disease, and wheat rust. Some fungi are saprophytes (the
Greek word for “rotten”), nourishing themselves on the
tissue of dead and decaying wood, leaves, conifer needles,
dung, bones, and feathers.

As I ventured into this new kingdom, I began to see how
intricate and complex the world of fungi is, and how
intertwined with our own. Without them, we’d be up to our
eyeballs in fallen trees. Decomposing bark, leaves, and
twigs, fungi clear the fields and forests of nature’s
clutter and turn decaying matter into nutrient-rich humus.
Efficient waste disposers and major manufacturers of
organic fertilizer, their success has not yet even been
approached by the greatest human efforts.

Not alone in my devotion to mushrooms, I am part of a small
but growing population of loyal subjects. There are
thousands of us in North America and many more in Europe,
where the gathering of mushrooms dates back to ancient
times and has always been a family ritual.

It is difficult to explain why these fungal fruits draw us
into the woods, tempting us to forget time, ourselves, and
our families. Looking for wild mushrooms allows us to
satisfy without dire consequences those childhood urges
that we are encouraged to bury. It allows us to get dirty.
It gratifies our urge to steal. Crawling furtively through
the woods, guarding our secret places, we fulfill our
primal, competitive, and territorial drives. The search for
mushrooms expands our world and leads us down new paths of
knowledge, connections, and pleasure. Finding them allows
us to retreat into private obsession. Anyone who has
climbed the Himalayas or collected baseball cards,
butterflies, or Mayan vases knows what it means to search
for wild mushrooms.

Foraging for Wild Mushrooms: An Introduction to the Field

For some, identifying mushrooms turns out to be a far more
challenging activity than finding them, and far more
rewarding than eating them. It exercises the mind and
creates the pleasant illusion that the world would be a
manageable place if only we could put the right label on
everything. To the newcomer, many mushrooms are
indistinguishable, like so many ducks on a pond. But as you
learn to tell a mallard from a decoy, you learn to tell a
Russula from a stinkhorn. All you need is a sharp
eye, a delicate touch, and a strong nose.

A mushroom will willingly answer a lot of your questions,
but first you need to know what to ask: Where and how is it
growing? On a log or on a tree? In a grassy meadow, under
the leaves, or in the bathroom shower? Some mushrooms grow
singly or in scattered groups; others grow in clusters, all
attached to a single base. When you dig up a mushroom, be
sure to get it all out and to examine the base: Is it
straight or is it bulbous? Does it have a sac? When you
turn mushrooms over, you will see that many have gills
underneath the cap, while others have pores, teeth, or
coral branches. Colors vary in tone and intensity.
Mushrooms come in all shades of almost any color you can
think of. Sometimes, but not always, color is a key to the
mushroom’s identity.

Feel the mushroom: Is it rough and leathery, fleshy, or
fragile? Does it have a stem? Is the cap smooth, hairy, or
downright slimy?

You can also use your sense of smell. Mushrooms give off an
amazing variety of odors, resembling everything from nectar
to burnt rubber. Like fingerprints, these characteristics
of mushrooms are clues to proper identification.

If you want to learn more than a handful of species, a
field guide is essential. Even 20 year veterans keep one in
their back pockets. There are probably 100 in English
alone, ranging from small local and regional guides to
books that cover North America. Some are illustrated with
lush colored plates; others rely on a clear, precise text
and limit themselves to black and white drawings or
photographs. Some are universally respected; others are
totally useless.

Apart from buying books, mushroom hunting is not an
expensive activity. All you need is a basket, a box of wax
paper or some wax paper bags, a knife, a 1OX hand lens, a
compass, insect repellent, index cards, lunch, and of
course your favorite field guide. Pick fresh specimens, and
try to find them at different stages of development. On one
side of an index card, note the habitat (lawn, log, tree,
kind of tree if you know it, and so on). On the other side,
when you get home, you will want to place a cap gill-side
down, cover it with a glass, and take a spore print. Spore
color is very important in the identification of most
gilled mushrooms. And remember to wrap each species
separately in wax paper. Sometimes you might want to stop
and actually use your field guide in the field. Ideally,
this patient and efficient style of collecting will make
your task of sorting and identifying much easier.

I know of few collectors who follow their own advice,
however, and more often than not I find myself forgetting
everything but lunch.

The Gilled Mushrooms

These are what most of us picture when we say the word
mushroom. They have a stalk and a rounded cap with gills
underneath. Spores develop on these bladelike gills, which
radiate from the stalk to the edge of the cap.

Gilled mushrooms come in a dazzling variety of sizes and
colors and an infinite variety of characteristics that are
clues to their identification: central and of center
stalks; gills that are close, distant, smooth, or serrated;
caps that are velvety, slimy, scaly, or fuzzy; spore colors
that are white, pink, brown, or purple-black. Some grow on
the ground; others grow on wood. Some grow singly; others
grow scattered or in clusters. Most of the mushrooms found
in woods and on lawns are gilled. They include some of the
best common edibles (the honeys, blewits, parasols, and
meadow mushrooms) as well as some of the deadliest killers
(the Amanitae and Galerinae).

Boletes

With over 200 species in North America, this large family
of mushrooms, Boletaceae, is easy to recognize. Boletes
often resemble gilled mushrooms from the top, but when you
turn them over, you will notice a spongy bottom or pored
surface instead, which may be white, gray, yellow, orange,
red, or brown.

Boletes grow in mycorrhizal, or symbiotic, association with
the roots of many trees, and some grow under only one kind
of tree such as ash, white pine, or larch. By noticing
this, you can learn about both trees and mushrooms. Many
boletes will turn blue when they are bruised.

Corals

Many members of this mushroom family, Clavariaceae, truly
resemble underwater coral. They usually come club-shaped or
branched and in many bright colors, from white to yellow,
pink, orange-red, amethyst. Sometimes they will cover the
ground in late summer or fall, particularly favoring
conifer woods. Others resemble cauliflower or heads of
lettuce. Most coral mushrooms are edible. A few, like
Sparassis crispa and Sparassis radicata, are choice.

Cup Fungi

Turning over a rotten log on a wet spring day will often
reveal a tiny orange or scarlet mushroom shaped like a cup.
Appropriately named cup fungi, these brightly colored
species are part of a class, consisting of many families
and orders, called Discomycetes, which contains all the
fungi resembling cups or saucers, spoons, sponges, saddles,
brains, tongues, urns, or fans including the highly
esteemed morel and truffle.

Polypores

Even on dry days and in the dead of winter, these mushrooms
will cover trees and stumps with fungal shelves. Polypore
means “many pores.” If you turn over one of the mushrooms
in this very large and diverse group, you will see tiny
holes-hexagonal, round, or mazelike-under the cap.

Some polypores are edible and delicious. Many are tough and
leathery. They can be virulent parasites on living trees,
or they can serve an important function as saprophytes
helping to decay dead wood.

In many cultures and for many centuries, certain polypores
have been used as tinderboxes, perfumes, dyes, and as
medicines and tonics.

Puffballs and Earthstars

One of the most common groups of I mushrooms, puffballs
grow throughout the summer and fall in all parts of the
country, in grassy areas and on logs. Sometimes they are
large, round, and white like a soccer ball; other times
they grow like small prickly pears in dense clusters.
Puffballs and earthstars are of the class Gasteromycetes, a
word that means “stomach mushroom”; their spores mature
while completely enclosed in and protected by a surrounding
“skin.”

Earthstars, which like puffballs are members of the order
Lycoperdales, are small fungi that resemble flying saucers.
They are shaped like a ball when young; then the surface
splits open, releasing the spores through the top, and the
pieces curve back, forming four or more arms that resemble
a star. Growing mostly in sandy soil, earthstars are
distributed throughout North America.

Stinkhorns

Your nose will probably lead you to these strong-smelling
mushrooms before you ever catch sight of them. But when you
do, you will discover some of the most colorful, oddly
shaped fungi in the forest. The stinkhorns, which are of
the order Phallales, have evolved a unique means of spore
dispersal. The spores are embedded in a slimy, green
substance that smells of decaying flesh. The . odor draws
flies and other insects, which remove the slime—and also
the spores—with their feet. Stinkhorns first appear as eggs
that resemble puffballs or Amanita eggs. As it matures, the
egg opens by expansion from within, and fanciful shapes
develop. Stinkhorns are exotic and erotic, largely southern
in their habitat.

Tooth Fungi

It may seem like Christmas in September when you are in the
woods and walk smack into a tree decorated with large
clusters of glistening white icicles. But the tree is more
likely to be an oak, maple, or beech than a fir or spruce,
and the cluster of icicles is a mushroom called
Hericium. 

Members of a large family of mushrooms called Hydnaceae,
the genera Hericium, Dentinum, and Hydnum
produce their spores on long spines or teeth that hang down
toward the ground. Although not as common as boletes and
polypores, these tooth fungi are just as easy to recognize.
Some, like the Hericium, grow on logs, stumps, and
living trees, and thus they are noticeable from a distance.
The smaller Dentinum often grows on the ground
with caps of many colors. Although none of the tooth fungi
are known to be poisonous, many are too tough and bitter to
eat. Several species of Hericium and
Dentinum are edible and choice.

Introduction to Edible Mushrooms

For many Americans, hunting and eating wild mushrooms seems
a risky business. For the rest of us, it is challenging,
frustrating, and time-consuming, but the rewards are many,
and by following a few simple rules the risks can be
reduced to almost zero.

  • Eat only those mushrooms you can positively identify
    (as edible, of course). There is no way to tell a
    poisonous species from an edible one except to learn them
    both. You should be able to learn, without much trouble, a
    dozen or so easily recognizable good edibles and the small
    number of deadly toxic species. Use your eyes, your field
    guides, and other amateurs whom you trust to enhance your,
    knowledge.
  • Be patient, and don’t cut corners. Pick the
    whole mushroom; identification is often determined by the
    base-the part that is sometimes underground. Take a spore
    print when you aren’t absolutely certain. It will often lead to positive identification, especially with gilled
    mushrooms. Separate the edible species in your basket from
    those that you know to be inedible and from those that you
    can’t identify, and when you get home, go through the
    collection again—sometimes two similar but different
    species can get mixed up in the basket.
  • Even after you have positively identified a mushroom
    as edible, eat only a small amount the first time.
    Some people have an adverse reaction to certain mushrooms;
    it’s usually mild but can be uncomfortable and is worth
    avoiding.
  • Be sure that you know the local flora where you are
    hunting. If you live in New York and are visiting
    California, double-check your identifications. Species can
    vary from region to region, and some are unique to a
    particular area. A few species are toxic in one region and
    harmless in another.
  • Eat only firm, fresh, young mushrooms. As they
    age, mushrooms decay rapidly, sometimes causing toxic
    reactions. They also don’t taste as good.
  • Cut into mushrooms to check them for insect holes
    and other evidence of living creatures. They probably
    won’t hurt you, but it is no more pleasant to find a grub
    in your mushroom soup than it is to find half a worm in
    your apple.
  • To be on the safe side, cook all mushrooms
    thoroughly. Although some can be eaten raw without
    harm, many delicious species, like the honey mushroom and
    many boletes, contain toxins that are easily destroyed by
    proper cooking. Several minutes of sauteing over a
    medium-high flame is sufficient.
  • If you drink alcohol when you taste any mushroom, do
    so moderately — and not at all with a member of the
    genus Coprinus. Many field guides advise you not to
    drink liquor at all when you eat wild mushrooms. A few
    species, like Coprinus atramentarius, may cause an
    unpleasant reaction if you do.
     
  • In the field, wrap your mushrooms in wax paper or
    wax paper bags. Plastic will cause them to
    decay more rapidly. To preserve them until cooking, keep
    them in the refrigerator.

Mushrooms are excellent assimilators, adapting to, even
enhancing, almost any culinary environment that they find
themselves in (with the possible exception of Jell-O and
chocolate ( hip cookies): scups, soufflés, stews,
vegetable casseroles, sauces, omelettes, ragouts, pasta,
breads, and cheeses. They may also lit eaten alone as
finely chopped duxelles, of they may be sauteed, pickled,
of broiled. Many are interchangeable, and recipes often
call simply for “1/2 pound mushrooms.” Rut just as they do in
the field, wild mushrooms also defy easy categorizing in
the kitchen. In general, a more delicately flavored
mushroom will do best in a chicken, veal, or other light
dish, while stronger-tasting mushrooms can take more highly
seasoned meats and sauces.

Most mycophagists believe that mushrooms are more desirable
and tastier unwashed. You should cut and clean off most of
the dirt in the field; at home, you can wipe them with a
damp paper towel or a soft brush.

The first time you cook a mushroom, make it a one-species
sauteed dish. Half the fun in mushroom cookery is
experimenting, and this will give you the chance to
experience your find in all its glorious essence. Start
over a low flame with some butter and a small amount of oil
to prevent burning. Some species, like the chicken
mushroom, are profligate butter soakers. They soon begin to
dry out, and the butter keeps disappearing no matter how
much you add. These mushrooms need a very low, slow flame
and may be best covered. Others will turn golden before
your eyes—brown if you turn away for a second—and then will
shrivel and sizzle right out of the pan. So remove them
right away—don’t answer the phone while you are sauteing
mushrooms. After a while, you will become familiar with
each species’ habits in frying pans, and you will decide
for yourself how much salt and pepper to use, whether to
add garlic or shallots, or dip them in sour cream, or add
them to a spaghetti sauce, or just put them on toast points
and serve them to your guests.

In the next section, I will describe some good edibles,
followed by suggestions for cooking them. Although it
should be helpful in identification, this section is not
intended to serve as a field guide. Be sure to check at
least one, better two, field guides for specific details of
description, such as habitat, spore color, and toxic
look-alikes. (Editor’s Note: In the book from which
this article is excerpted, the author describes in detail
no less than 20 edible mushrooms, as well as the half-dozen
North American species-all of which are gilled-known to be
severely toxic. Because of this article’s space
limitations, and because distinguishing between gilled
species can be tricky, we have chosen to include only
nongilled edible species (with the exception of one; the
unmistakable shaggy mane). All are considered easily
identifiable, but keep the author’s caveats in mind: Always
consult authoritative field guides, and never eat any
mushroom that you can’t positively identify. Beginners
should resist the temptation to go it alone. Better to
study under the tutelage of an experienced mushroomer
first.)
 
 

Edible Mushrooms

King Bolete, or Cep (Boletus edulis)

Most genera and species of
bolete that grow in this country are edible and taste good.
A few red pored or blue-staining species are toxic no
matter how you cook them, and a few others will cause
discomfort if you eat them raw or undercooked. Several
other species are distasteful (Gyrodon
merulioides)
or tasteless; others are bitter (several
species of Tylopilus, especially felleus), but it
is easy enough to find these out by tasting them. A larger
problem with boletes generally is that insects and other
small creatures seem to find them as tasty as we do. There
are few things more disappointing than to come upon a dozen
large, healthy-looking boletes, only to pick them and have
them turn to mush in your hand, or to cut them open and
find a rush-hour traffic circle of larva tunnels running
right through the flesh.

For most mycophagists, there are many equally choice
boletes. By common agreement, however, there is one that
stands out as king among kings. It is Boletus
edulis,
known also as the cep, Steinpilz,
prawdziwek,
and by a dozen other names.

Like most other boletes, the cep grows under conifers and
deciduous trees from June through October in most parts of
the country, and in late fall through winter in California.
It is a variable mushroom with a smooth cap ranging from
red-brown to tawny to chestnut to dark brown. The flesh is
white and the pores are white when young, turning tawny
with age. The stem can be short or long and is usually
stout or bulbous. Just under the cap on the top of the stem
are white or pale-colored weblike hairs called
reticulations.

There is one major look-alike for B. edulis; and although confusion won’t result in a
serious problem, it can be very frustrating. Tylopilus
felleus,
known appropriately as the bitter bolete, is
similar in general appearance to the cep. Its cap color and
stalk shape both vary in the same way, and the mushroom has
webbing on the upper stem. But the reticulation on T.
felleus
is dark, and the mushrooms pores are
pinkish. If you have any doubts, just take a small bite. T.
felleus
has a disagreeable bitterness that cannot
be disguised or cooked out.

Many experienced mycophagists insist that the cep is far
better dried than fresh. The flavor, they say, is enhanced,
and the reconstituted mushroom does not have that soggy
texture common to so many fresh boletes. There are many
ways to cook boletes, but they seem to go especially well
in soup.

Morel (Morchella
esculenta
or deliciosa)

To many, this
spongy-capped creature is the Moby Dick, the Holy Grail,
the El Dorado of mushrooms. Even where it is plentiful,
mushroom hunters will lie, cheat, and steal for a
mouthful – or a ton. Generous to a fault about revealing
their sites for other kinds of mushrooms, morel hunters
threaten to shoot on sight any person caught poaching on
their territory. To others, including many of us in the
eastern United States, morels are more like UFOs: We are
certain only that others have seen them. Back
East, we count them; in the West, they weigh them.

Morel season lasts for approximately three weeks in the
spring. These three weeks fall at different times in
different regions of the continent. They may begin as early
as March in Los Angeles and North Carolina and end as late
as June or July in Canada. Morels are found in the Rockies
as late as August. Part of the attraction of morels is the
mystery that surrounds their location. They are said to
grow in old apple orchards, under tulip poplars and near
dead elms, on banks and under hedges, under ash, walnut,
and butternut, in conifer woods, in swampy places, and in
construction sites. So where are they? With all our clues,
we find them, if at all, where and when they choose to
appear.

Morels vary in size and shape, and their colors range from
pale gold to near black. But their most distinctive
features are consistent: an egg-shaped-to-conical head of
ridges and pits and a hollow cap and stem.

Beginners are always warned to look out for the
Gyromitra, a fleshy Ascomycete of rather dubious
reputation. Once you have seen them both, however, I
believe there is no danger of mistaking one for the other.
The cap of the Gyromitra is more brain-shaped than
spongy, and it is not hollow when you cut it open.

Some people prefer morels fresh, while others say that the
woodsy flavor is enhanced by drying and then rehydrating
them in water, wine, or cream. Some devotees insist that
morels are so good that they should be eaten alone, sauteed
in butter and shallots, and then served on toast points or
stuffed—with chopped morels, of course—and then baked or
broiled. Others, less purist, are perfectly satisfied
cooking morels in cream sauce and serving them with veal.

Chicken Mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)

This fleshy, colorful
polypore is plentiful, popular, and easy to spot. Growing
on stumps, logs, and living trees, its large, overlapping
shelves of orange and yellow always remind me of giant
Halloween candy corn. The chicken mushroom, or sulphur
shelf, is a wound parasite. Its mycelium enters a tree
through an opening caused by lightning, axe, or woodpecker
and penetrates to the heartwood, releasing enzymes to
digest the cellulose, thus causing the wood to rot. It is
known to damage wooden boats and to be a major cause of dry
rot.

The sulphur shelf grows on many kinds of wood, but in the
East I have found it mostly on oak. It grows from May to
November in all parts of the country. One tree may provide
over 20 pounds. All of it may be edible, but the
best parts to eat are the tender young tips. The mushroom
should be moist—almost slimy, according to some
purists—when it is picked. The taste should be soft and
lemony; if it is chalky, don’t eat it, no matter how
beautiful and how tempting it looks. As the mushroom ages
it toughens and is frequently distasteful. In the East this
is one of the safest edibles around, with no look-alikes.
It is rarely eaten in California, where it grows on
eucalyptus trees, or in the Pacific Northwest.

Some say the flavor of this mushroom resembles chicken; I
don’t agree, although it is used often enough in recipes
calling for chicken, and it is especially tasty in stir-fry
Chinese dishes. It is good sauteed, either alone or dipped
in flour, egg, and bread crumbs. It can also be dipped in
pancake batter and deep-fried.

Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

 There are several choice
species of chanterelles, but it is Cantharellus
cibarius
that is the best known and most popular.
There are few sights more tantalizing than a woodland floor
carpeted with scores of these vase-shaped, orange
mushrooms.

In beginning mushroom courses, the chanterelle is usually
presented as one of the easiest mushrooms to recognize.
Still, it has several lookalikes; one of them is poisonous,
and it does take some care to tell them apart. The
chanterelle is distinguished from its lookalikes by the
presence of blunt ridges—they are not really gills—with
forked veins running down the cap and onto the stem.

The poisonous jack-o’-lantern (Omphalotus
olearius)
has sharp, knife-edged gills. It is a fall
rather than a summer mushroom, it grows on wood rather than
on the ground, and it grows in large clusters rather than
singly or in scattered groups. Despite these supposedly
clear differences, there are more reported poisonings in
the East resulting from confusion between these two
mushrooms than any others.

Chanterelles are firm, fleshy mushrooms with a strong,
fruity aroma that often resembles apricots. Although it is
best to cook all fresh mushrooms as soon after collecting
them as possible, chanterelles can be kept for a week if
they are well refrigerated. And although no one will
disagree about their edibility, there is little agreement
regarding how they are best cooked. Some say they
absolutely need a long, slow saute over a low fire; I have
also heard that one or two minutes over a higher flame
until the mushrooms are almost crisp is best. Some people
prefer them as a side dish, untainted by other tastes,
while others cannot think of a better way to stuff Cornish
game hens or make rice pilaf than by using chanterelles.

Shaggy Mane (Coprinus
comatus)

 This mushroom is ethereal-looking,
exquisitely edible, easy to recognize, and anatomically
intriguing. Scores of these shaggy, white mushrooms appear
out of nowhere, like ants at a June picnic, all over lawns,
golf courses, roadsides, and other grassy areas after heavy
rains. Perfect city mushrooms, they also grow in vacant
lots, housing project lawns, parks, and dumps.

Unlike other gilled mushrooms, the Coprinus does
not release its spores by means of gravity. Under its
cone-cap, the gills are pressed together very tightly in a
vertical position, leaving very little space for falling
spores. The means of spore dispersal for the
Coprinus is called autodigestion, or
deliquescence; the gills literally dissolve into an inky
black fluid. As the gills dissolve, the spores contained in
the inky fluid drop to the ground. For this reason, many
species of Coprinus are called inky caps. There
are no toxic lookalikes for the shaggy mane.

The whole process of deliquescence can take place in a few
hours; it is best to catch shaggy mane and other edible
inky caps before they begin to turn black. Some suggest
taking a frying pan into the field and cooking them there.
Others have discovered that such drastic action isn’t
really necessary. Placed in the refrigerator in a covered
jar of cold water, shaggy manes will stay fresh for a week.

These delicately flavored mushrooms can be cooked in a
variety of ways. In addition to being sautéed in
ghee, or clarified butter, they are delicious in a cream
sauce with scrambled eggs, veal, or chicken.

Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa)

This smoky, gray-capped
polypore with a white pore surface resembles a mass of
ruffled feathers nesting at the base of a tree. Its small,
flat, overlapping caps fan out in clusters that often reach
a size of up to several feet. Growing at the bases of oaks
and other trees, this fall mushroom is primarily an eastern
species in the United States, unknown in California and the
Pacific Northwest. It is common in Europe and Japan, where
it is cultivated and prized.

The hen-of-the-woods has no toxic lookalikes and, except
for the spring and summer mushroom Polyporus
umbellatus,
has no real lookalikes at all.

When cooking the mushroom, use only the tender fronds. The
base is excellent for soups and stocks only. It is a lovely
addition to chicken or veal and is excellent in casseroles.
 

Hedgehog Mushroom (Hydnum repandum)

 This is the most common and
best known of the tooth fungi. Although, viewed from above,
its orange-to-reddish-brown cap makes it look like any
number of gilled mushrooms, the tiny, white, tooth-like
structures that it has on its underside instead of gills
are its mark of distinction.

Although there are other tooth fungi that have stems, and
most are of unknown edibility, there is no lookalike for
this orange-capped mushroom, which grows on the ground in
wooded areas, coast to coast, from July to November.

This is a good, steady edible; it is popular in Europe and
sold canned in France. Some say it is best mixed with other
mushrooms.

Magnificent Obsession

I have been hunting wild mushrooms since 1975. What began
as mild curiosity has become an obsession. I have stalked
the fleshy fungus from New York City parks and Long Island
lawns to the woods of Ohio, Texas, Oregon, Canada, and
France. Along the way I have learned to follow the flow of
a river, to name mosses and ferns, to observe the behavior
of insects, and to use a microscope. I have learned to
distinguish between deer dung and rabbit dung, not out of
any scatological interest, but because hidden among the
leaves they look like small brown mushrooms. I have
explored the myths of science and the science of myths. I
have come to know a variety of extraordinary people, and I
have come to know myself.


Editor’s Note: Celebrating the Wild Mushroom,
only a small portion of which is excerpted here, is
available in paperback for $10.95 and in hardcover for
$18.95 at most bookstores. We recommend it highly.
 

Reprinted by permission of Dodd Mead & Company Inc from Celebrating
the Wild Mushroom by Sara Ann Friedman, copyright © 1986 by Sara Ann Friedman. 

Published on Mar 25, 2021