Let’s get something straight right off the bat: as the title suggests, this post is a primer. It’s not a manual, a field guide, or, heaven forbid, a Mushroom for Dummies knockoff. The real dummy would be the person who writes a blog post sending the uniformed masses off into the forest in search of dinner. Why? Because although mushrooms can heal us in truly mind-blowing ways, there are also a few species that can, well, kill us.
But before you write off the whole idea of foraging as too risky, consider this: Microbiology Spectrum estimates the number of mushrooms species to be between 2.2 and 3.8 million. Of which approximately 70-80 species are known to be poisonous and 30 species consistently fatal. Of course, we’re not suggesting you play the odds, but can we pause to marvel at the diversity of the mushroom kingdom and its millions of species? For comparison, currently, there are only ONE species of humans. Borrrrrrrring.
Now that we’ve covered our ass on the legal side of things let’s get into the fun stuff.
What You’ll Need
Ideally, for your first foraging trip, you’ll be heading out into the woods with an expert. Before you roll your eyes at the implausibility of that suggestion, check out the North American Mycological Association’s website to find an affiliated mushroom club near you.
You’ll want to bring along a basket, bucket, satchel, or sack for your bounty. Steer clear of plastic bags because they don’t allow the spores to spread as you move through the forest. A pocketknife or scissors might also come in handy since certain types of mushrooms tend to bring a large clump of mycelium up with them when pulled. This, however, is up for debate, with many mycophiles preferring a simple twist and pull method.
A field guide is mandatory– even mushroom experts don’t leave home without them. A favorite is the National Audobon Society’s classic Field Guide to Mushrooms. This book manages to fit over 700 species of North American mushrooms (with pictures–in color!) in a book just slightly larger than a smartphone. Speaking of smartphones, apps can be helpful too. Check out Book of Mushrooms or Roger Phillips Mushroom App; just make sure you can access the content offline since Internet service can be dodgy in the woods, and make sure you’ve got the battery power to spare. Back to books again, East Coasters might want to check out Mushrooms of the Northeast: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms. An excellent guide for beginners with over 400 species of mushrooms organized by color and shape.
You may also want to bring along a hand mirror for identifying trickier mushrooms, bug spray, and a hat. And, most importantly of all, your curiosity.
Favorite Mushrooms to Forage
Maitake (Hen of the Woods)
These guys can blend into the forest floor with their dark brown color. Commonly found huddled underneath oak trees, they can get BIG; maitakes over 100 pounds have been discovered. Relatively easy to find and lacking any toxic twins, these mushrooms are a good place for beginners to start.
Photo Credit | Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner/Flickr
These beauties are a foraging favorite and a culinary treat. Usually found growing on hardwoods in smaller clusters, beware of their poisonous doppelganger: the Jack-o-Lantern.
These crustaceans of the countryside have a bright orange color, meaty flesh, and a seafood-like taste. You can find them growing on birch and coniferous trees like pine, fir, and spruce at the edge of forests. Ideal for those who prefer to forage from their car.
Yes, it tastes like chicken. With a pretty white center fanning out in an orange ring like a party dress, chicken mushrooms can often be found growing from oak trees.
Italian for “pig,” porcinis have a fat little fruiting body and are indeed a favorite of hogs everywhere. Also known as King Bolete, these are very mushroom-looking mushrooms that can be found under both conifer and deciduous trees. A culinary treat!
Found on dead trees and logs, oyster mushrooms have a pearly white appearance and are also a good choice for beginners, as they have no toxic look-alikes.
Field and Forest Products
One of our favorites! Look for this beauty on dead maple, willow, or birch trees. Unlike many of the other functional mushroom darlings, Lion’s Mane is delicious pretty much on its own. Sautéed with butter, its taste has been compared to lobster.
If the idea of educating yourself on millions of mushrooms seems a tad daunting, remember, there’s nothing better than real life experience. Go for a walk in the woods and pick a mushroom or two to identify. Who knows, maybe you’ll venture onto a path that you’ll spend the rest of your life exploring.
Not feeling outdoorsy? Get all the benefits of mushrooms with minimal effort. Simply hike on over to our product page to try one of our delicious mushroom beverages or chocolate bars – no foraging required!