One of the most common mistakes beginning foragers make is to search for mushrooms without any specific target species in mind, assuming they will take home whatever they find for identification. Though this approach may occasionally be fruitful, it does not result in many grand mushroom feasts.
For one, it is simply inefficient. While I may occasionally stumble upon a morel on my walk home from work, I usually have the most success finding gourmet mushrooms when I go on a directed foray with a specific species in mind. This way, I know where and how to look. During chanterelle season I will head into an oak or mixed hardwood forest, scanning the forest floor in wide swoops for patches of yellow. Better yet, I will check on a tried and true spot where I’ve found chanterelles in the past. Last July I went to a spot where I had seen a few chanterelles in a previous season, only to be rewarded with an entire golden hillside. Needless to say, I’ll be checking that spot again following a rainstorm this summer!
Even more saliently, the haphazard mushroom hunting approach can be unsafe. It often results in starry-eyed but well-intentioned foragers throwing every mushroom they find on a foray into their baskets, assuming this will increase their chances of winding up with a few edible ones once they arrive home and scour their field guide.
However romantic it may sound to proudly arrive home with a spread of mushrooms of every shape, size and color, this approach is flawed. There are thousands of species of fungi in North America, and you would need a team of seasoned mycologists to sort out all the different random species you have gathered. Even this team of experts might have trouble with some of your finds; important field ID characteristics may have been lost, such as nearby tree species, growth habit, or the presence of an often underground cup-like volva at the stem base (incidentally, a key ID feature of the infamous Amanita genus).
Luckily, you shouldn’t need a panel of experts to help you separate the good from the bad and ugly mushrooms – you just need to begin by focusing on a few distinctive species, gradually adding to your list of fungal allies each year. Many of the most delicious mushrooms fruiting in North America happen to be fairly safe to identify once you have learned a few key characteristics, such as lion’s mane, black trumpets, giant puffballs, hedgehogs and lobsters. In my article, “Lion’s Mane: A Foolproof Fungus,” I quoted mycologist David Aurora’s advice on this fall delicacy: “If it looks like a cluster of white fungal icicles hanging off a decaying log, stump, or dead tree trunk, and it seems very fresh, bake it (or fry it slowly in a mix of butter and oil) and enjoy!”
We are excited to introduce a new feature on The Mushroom Forager that should help you make your forays more targeted and fruitful – the ForageCast. We will aim to update this list of edible mushrooms currently fruiting somewhere in the Northeast weekly. The ForageCast is not an ID tool, but it will give you a sense of which charismatic species of mushrooms you should currently be looking out for, along with basic information on where to look for them. It will help you sort through the legions of nondescript fungi and find the gourmet species. Of course, you should still never eat a mushroom unless you are 100% confident of its ID, but hopefully the ForageCast will make it easier for you to find the species you know and love. Since this is a new feature, we look forward to hearing your feedback!