Open Season

How to forage your own wild mushrooms.

Foraging for wild mushrooms is the ultimate in foodie fun, and each edible species has its own unique, earthy flavor, often making them highly sought-after delicacies prized by the world’s top chefs. The following six mushrooms are among the easiest to identify and the most delicious. Edible mushrooms can grow year-round in many regions, but the damp months of spring are particularly friendly to fungus.

Because eating a toxic mushroom can be fatal, it’s incredibly important to identify them with 100% accuracy. Make sure you take a good wild mushroom field guide โ€“ not with just photos or just text, but both โ€“ that applies to your geographical area. Second, if in doubt, throw it out (or rather, just leave it be). And finally, never eat wild mushrooms raw.

Chicken of the Woods

By far the easiest to recognize, ‘sulfur shelf’ or ‘chicken of the woods‘ is the best wild mushroom to start out with if you’re a beginner. It’s also one of the most substantial, and some say tastiest, of the edible wild mushrooms that grow in the U.S. It looks like layers of orange ruffles edged with yellow or white, and has a substantial meaty texture. Harvest the small, actively growing ‘edges’ of the mushroom and leave the large parts, which have grown too tough to eat. Avoid those growing on a conifer, eucalyptus or locust tree, as these mushrooms are a different species and can cause gastrointestinal upset.

Cook them with butter, eggs and cheese in an omelette, or with penne and wine in pasta primavera.

Morel

This prized springtime-fruiting fungus tastes better than it looks, with its spongy pitted cap. Its unique nutty flavor is hard to describe, and nothing brings it out better than butter and a little white wine. Look for morels in wooded areas, particularly at the base of dead or dying trees. Harvest just enough to eat by cutting them flush to the ground; choose firm fresh-looking caps. (A note on distinguishing from false morels, which can be toxic: true morels are hollow inside and range from yellow to light brown. False morels are dense, meaty, solid, and often have reddish or deep brown coloring. There is also a type of false morel with a skirt cap and a hollow stem; this, too, should be avoided.)

Cook them with a touch of garlic butter on the grill, or quickly sauteed with asparagus and herbs. Be sure to cook them thoroughly.

Giant Puffball

The giant puffball mushroom definitely lives up to its name: it can reach a foot in diameter, and when it’s fully mature, it bursts, sending a puff of spores into the air. Puffballs come in a number of other edible and nice-tasting species like the purple-spored puffball and the skull-shaped puffball, but the giant puffball is the most popular. Its texture is similar to that of the white button mushroom. Before the spores are produced, it’s solid white with a dense texture and a rich flavor. Look for specimens measuring at least four inches and cut into them to be sure they’re solid white with no gills.

Cook them like a pizza with sauce, cheese and toppings, or breaded and fried, eggplant parmesan-style.

Shaggy Mane

Often found growing in clusters in lawns or on the side of dirt roads, shaggy mane mushrooms are best when eaten at button stage, about three inches in height, when they are still mostly white or beige. As they age, these black-gilled mushrooms wither and drip black liquid that was once used as ink. The texture is oddly reminiscent of fish, but shaggy mane mushrooms have a delicate flavor.

Cook them with butter, scallions and chicken broth in soup or sauteed with onions and tossed with pasta and cream sauce.

Chanterelle

Tender yet firm, the chanterelle is prized for its bold, slightly spicy flavor and has a fruity apricot-like aroma when fresh. Found at the bases of trees and shrubs in temperate forests, chanterelles are golden and fleshy with wavy caps and shallow widely-spaced gills. These beloved mushrooms, in culinary use for centuries, are high in vitamins C and D as well as potassium.

Cook them with short-grain rice, parmesan and white wine in an earthy risotto.

Bear’s Head Tooth

It looks like something that should be growing under the sea, so it’s not too surprising that the bear’s head mushroom has a flavor that some liken to lobster. The shape is unmistakable, resembling a clump of translucent icicles hanging off a log, stump or tree trunk.

Cook them in butter over low heat to prevent them from getting too chewy.

Images: andriuxuk, vaprwere, damurphy, me’nthedogs, photogirl7.1, smlp.co.uk, shira golding

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