Foraging for mushrooms can be a lot of fun and, for some, profitable. Like any hobby, the more information you have the greater your success and enjoyment will be. Here's a guide to get you started:
I cannot stress the importance of reliable field guides. Buy as many as you can. Like any living organism, a mushroom’s appearance can vary widely. Young mushrooms look different than mature mushrooms, and any number of other factors can impact its appearance, including known variances within a species and growing conditions. Never underestimate the value of a seasoned mushroom hunter or mycologist. Conservation departments, mushroom clubs and local universities always have individuals who can inspect your find in person.
Always collect the entire mushroom. There are numerous characteristics that aid in identifying from the base of the stump to the tip of the cap. Carefully dig beneath the mushroom to ensure you don’t break it off at the base. If you’re collecting several varieties at once, consider either using separate bags or wrapping each specimen in wax paper and placing it in a shallow basket. Separating one species from another will avoid possibly contaminating edible mushrooms with toxic mushrooms.
Identifying mushrooms in the field can be very difficult. A visual inspection just isn’t enough many times. Before you take them home, take note of the surroundings. Was the mushroom growing in soil or on wood? What types of trees were present? Was it growing in an open field? Was it growing in clusters or were they scattered?
Once home, consult a field guide with detailed illustrations or pictures. Start with the spore-producing surface, usually the underside of the cap. Are their gills or spores? By elimination you can narrow down the general type of mushroom, then move on to other characteristics.
Shape, color and size tell a lot about a mushroom. Initial color observation is only one indicator; be sure to check for staining and bruising. Does the flesh change color when bumped, scratched or cut?
A spore print imparts valuable information. Place the cap—stem removed, spore-side down—on a sheet of white paper, and cover it with a jar. After a few hours, inspect the dropped spores under a light. Its color can go a long towards indicating species.
Other characteristics to take note of include, but are not limited to: scales, wart-like bumps, netting on stalk, sheaths and veils or remnants of, rings on stalk, secretions, and texture.
Many mushrooms have odors that can be clues as to their identity, but it shouldn't be the only thing you go on.
Sometimes a taste test is warranted. Be cautious! Only use this test when you’re certain that the mushroom you’re identifying isn’t deadly. Pinch a small amount from the cap and taste it. Take note of bitterness, sweetness, spiciness or even lack of flavor.
Mushrooms should be carefully cleaned after identification. Using a soft brush, gently remove any dirt. Use a paring knife to trim away any woody or dried stems. Also trim away any part that's bug-eaten or looks less than fresh. Many wild mushrooms are inhabited by maggots, mites and other creepy-crawlies. To clean, simply soak the shrooms for a few minutes in a warm salt-water solution, then rinse, drain and pat dry. Some varieties, like chanterelles, can tolerate water very well and can be sprayed off and more vigorously cleaned. If the mushroom is past its prime, toss it. After working so hard to identify it, you don’t want to end up with food poisoning due to spoilage.
If using fresh mushrooms, it’s best to cook them as soon as possible.
If the mushrooms are to be preserved, you have several options. Some choose to blanch or sauté them before freezing, others opt for canning. Many find that drying preserves them for the longest time—sometimes indefinitely—while also intensifying the mushroom’s flavor. Keep in mind that drying can alter the texture, often resulting in a woodier, chewier mushroom.
To dry mushrooms, place them in a single layer on sheet pans. Some prefer to line pans with wax paper or paper towels or to simply use screens in place of the pans. You can dry your mushrooms indoors or out. Be sure that they are protected from moisture and insects. Turn them occasionally if not using screens. You can also use your oven to speed up the process: Just keep the temperature below 165˚ F. If you have a food dehydrator, simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Once the mushrooms are dry enough to crumble with a little pressure, they’re done. Store in jars or bags, tightly sealed.
Whether you plan to eat your find or simply be an amateur mycologist, getting out and taking in the local scenery while poking through the leaf litter and dead wood is interesting and beneficial on many levels. Happy hunting!