Mushrooms – they’re hearty, earthy, and rich, with a taste that’s absolutely unique. This year, why not add some wild flavor to your Mother’s Day brunch or springtime suppers by dining on fresh mushrooms that you’ve collected yourself! With a little practice and a bit of luck, you can learn enough to hunt for your own morels, chanterelles, puffballs, and even the treasured, sought-after (and very valuable) truffles
Begin your mushroom hunt in the bookstore. Your first and most important step is to buy a thorough, reliable mushroom guide. You’ll want one with good pictures and descriptions of mushroom varieties, as well as warnings about deadly or dangerous look-alike mushrooms. While there are many edible and delicious mushroom varieties in the U.S., there are also some poisonous ones, and it’s crucial that you learn to tell the difference.
To find mushrooms, head into the forest between mid April and May. This is the best time to collect mushrooms, although the season can vary depending on the temperature and rainfall. Moist conditions are best. Mushrooms often grow in the remains of fallen trees – oaks or apple trees in the eastern part of the country; fir trees in the west. When you find a group of mushrooms, consult your book to determine what type they are. Beginners should completely avoid dangerous groups like Amanita, and for the most part it’s smart to avoid little brown mushrooms (called LBMs by mushroom hunters). Like the LBBs – or Little Brown Birds – of bird watching, these are too varied and too difficult to identify safely. Ignore these and move on in search of bigger, more distinctive mushrooms.
Be sure to identify your mushroom based on size, color, gill connectivity (are the gills connected to the stalk or not?), habitat, odor, bruising color, and any other criteria noted in your mushroom book. Many mushroom hunters bring a collection of small paper bags with them on the hunt. When they’ve identified a batch of morels, for instance, they write “morel,” the date, and the location on the bag. Never store your mushrooms in a plastic bag, even for a short time, or they’ll get slimy! If you collect any mushrooms you aren’t sure about, keep them in a different bag from the ones you’ve identified.
Mushrooms are the fruits of underground fungi, so they’ll recur every year, even if you collect all the mushrooms in the area this year. That’s why it’s useful to note the location of your mushrooms, since you might be able to come back to this same spot to collect year after year. Slice the mushrooms off with a knife instead of pulling them up by the roots, since this can harm the fungi and stop them from coming back again.
Good mushroom hunters always identify their mushrooms twice – once in the field and once more before consumption. To cook your mushrooms, soak them overnight in salt water, pat them dry and slice them, dip them in flour or egg, and fry them up in butter. Fried mushrooms can be frozen. Because some people are allergic to certain types of wild mushrooms, be sure to only eat a small amount the first time you try them. Once you know you aren’t allergic, you can feast on your wild bounty!
They may not be very attractive, but these dark, lumpish fungi are the most expensive food in the world. A pound of truffles sells for between $100 and $400 on the world market – and you can find them in the woods for free! In the U.S., the only truffles grow in Oregon and Washington, in moist, warm forests. It’s best to head out about two weeks after a heavy rain. Truffle fungi buddy up with certain kinds of trees, so don’t bother hunting near maple trees, since they aren’t a good match for truffles. Limit your search to the base of fir, oak, hazelnut, hickory, birch, beech, and eucalyptus trees.
Squirrels and chipmunks also play a part in the truffle lifecycle. They’re responsible for dispersing truffle spores and helping the fungi thrive, so search for truffles in rodent pits near the base of fir trees. You might bring a little hand rake or stick for poking around. Truffles can be red, brown, white, or black, and they’re often small, so keep a sharp eye out. Be sure to have your truffle identified by an expert – maybe a restaurant owner who’ll want to buy your harvest!