We were inspired by this mushroom collage from Insta-pal, Flora Forager, to cover a topic we’ve been meaning to talk about now for years: mushroom foraging! Mushrooms are about as bizarre and exotic as food gets – in a storybook kind of way. As mushroom lovers and locavores, we’re fascinated by this unique harvesting process and reached out to a pro we love from the Great Northwest to help us understand more about these incredible fungi.
Rachel Box, also known as Yellow Elanor, teaches the mushroom foraging workshop at Wildcraft Studio, a school whose workshop topics range from leather sandal-making to natural foraged dyes. Enjoy photos of this incredible outdoor class by healthy foodie and photographer Charlotte Dupont above and Yellow Elanor’s insights on the whole shroomy process below…
The Chalkboard Mag: Can mushroom foraging be done anywhere? What areas and climates are best for foraging?
Rachel Box: One of the incredible things about mushroom foraging is that it can be done almost anywhere in the world. Wherever you find other plant life, you will find fungi – they have a very close-knit relationship. You can forage for mushrooms in nearly every climate – including the desert. Areas of the world that have distinct seasons, a mix of rain, sun and a variety of tree species will produce large varieties of mushrooms year round. The more diverse the plant life, the more diverse the mushrooms will be. And don’t think foraging can only be done off the beaten path or deep in the forest. Local parks, grassy meadows or your own backyard could be rich in mushrooms. For example, in New York City’s Central Park you can find over 300 different species, some of those being edible and medicinal mushrooms. A nice rain can transform any area into mushroom heaven, which is why the fall season is such a wonderful time to get out and explore!
TCM: What is your favorite resource on the topic?
RB: The book Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora is the resource I use most often, but it may be a little daunting for beginners. Its partner book, All That the Rain Promises and More, is my most recommended. It is very user friendly and its easy to follow the technical jargon. And MushroomExpert.com is a great online resource.
TCM: Any tips for foraging safely?
RB: Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- When in the woods, continually get your bearings! With your head down and your heart set on finding mushroom treasures, it’s much too easy to lose track of direction and time and end up lost.
- The mushroomer’s mantra: “When in doubt, throw it out.” Don’t ever eat anything unless you are 110% sure of its identity.
- Separate and examine each individual mushroom before prepping it for consumption. Sometimes an inedible mushroom slips into our basket by accident, or we forget that we collected a ‘pretty one’ to photograph, and once a mushroom has been chopped up to cook, there may be no way to tell which is which.
- When foraging in the city, be aware of toxins that may be in the area or sprayed on the nearby plants – mushrooms can easily absorb these.
- It’s okay to touch, feel, smell and pinch poisonous mushrooms, they will not hurt you unless consumed. It’s good to get up close and personal with the poisonous ones so familiarity sets in and they can be avoided.
- Be aware of poison oak, ivy and other like plants. When foraging you often rummage around near the ground, be careful of what you put your hands (and face!) into. I have had to learn this lesson oh-so-many times…
TCM: Favorite mushroom?
RB: Right now my favorite mushrooms are the Hericium (common names: bear’d head, lion’s mane, tree hedgehog, pom pom du blanc…) It is a choice edible, often compared to crab and frequently used in dishes as a seafood replacement. It grows beautifully, delicate white icicle-like spines hanging down in clusters, hardly recognized as a mushroom because of its peculiar shape. Hericium can grow on hardwood or conifer trees, and you can find them in woodlands or city parks. Once you find one, look around for more, they tend grow in groups and will also return year after year on the same tree. Not only is this mushroom uniquely beautiful and edible, but it has health benefits that are off the charts. Aside from helping boost the immune system, certain species of Hericium have been able to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor, implicating their potential to fight nervous system disorders like Alzheimer’s and forms of dementia. And these incredible mushrooms can be cultivated, so not only can you grow your own food, but grow your own medicine!
TCM: How should mushrooms be stored?
RB: Wild mushrooms are best enjoyed fresh, but if you can’t get to them right away, they can be safely stored in the fridge for several days. Wrapping them in a paper towel will help control their moisture content – it’s a balancing game between allowing them to breathe, not get too dry but not absorbing too much moisture at the same time. If you’ve foraged more than you’re going to eat in a week, then drying or freezing are great options for long-term storage. Some mushrooms do not dry and re-hydrate well, like chanterelles, so be sure to choose the best method for your mushroom.
TCM: Do any of these Northwest mushrooms have special health benefits?
RB: Yes. Here are a few common, easy-to-identify ones:
- Turkey tail/Trametes versicolor: Boiled and made into a tea, these mushrooms boost the immune system, contain anti-viral compounds and have been used for cancer therapy.
- Oyster mushrooms/Pleurotus: These can be foraged or found at farmer’s markets – and even in supermarkets. They are a tasty addition to a meal, best broiled with a splash of your favorite oil and a herb-spice blend. These mushrooms help reduce cholesterol and have anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and immune-boosting properties.
- Shaggy mane/Coprinus comatus: These can be found in grassy areas right after a rain and are often enjoyed steamed like asparagus. They are high in antioxidants and help regulate glucose levels.
Many more mushrooms promise special health benefits. Even the common button mushroom sold in grocery stores is being studied for its promising anti-cancer properties!
TCM: What equipment is necessary for mushroom foraging?
RB: Here’s my list of essentials:
- Mushroom basket or bag: I love using a wicker basket. Use something breathable, not plastic bags. You want the mushroom’s spores (seeds) to be able to disperse while you walk around, plus, plastic bags tend to make mushrooms ‘sweat’ and become slimy.
- A knife: You need a good sharp knife for both for digging and cutting. When identifying a new mushroom, you want to dig the entire thing up to check ALL details. For harvesting mushrooms properly, cut the mushroom so that the mycelium (roots) stay in the ground.
- Field guide: Finding a field guide that covers the local area you live in is the best place to start. The biodiversity of mushrooms is vast, and narrowing it down to a book on your region will is less overwhelming.
- Whistle: This is admittedly not the coolest accessory you can wear in the woods, plus it’s effective for when you’ve kept your head down for too long and can no longer hear your foraging buddies.
- Camera/Notebook/Pen: Carry these for documenting information about the mushrooms and their surroundings, for identification purposes.
- Brush: Use this for cleaning off dirt and other debris from your mushrooms. Something soft bristled like a paintbrush works quite well.
TCM: Is there any foraging slang we should know about?
RB: Mushroomers tend to be colorful characters themselves, but their terminology is quite textbook. Aside from all that textbook talk, there isn’t a lot of need-to-know slang. But there are some behaviors beginners should know about. For example, don’t ask someone where they found their mushrooms and expect to get directions. If someone is willing to give you a general direction, “Oooh I found these up the McKenzie River…” be happy with that and don’t pry for more info.
TCM: Biggest safety precaution:
RB: Know it before you eat it. Always. Collect and identify a mushroom more than once before bringing it to the table. When I learn a new edible mushroom, the first thing I do is learn to identify its poisonous lookalikes. If I can confidently identify a mushroom’s lookalikes, then I can even more confidently identify the mushroom itself.
TCM: Fave way to enjoy mushrooms:
RB: I keep it simple when it comes to wild mushrooms. I want to truly enjoy the flavor and texture they have to offer, not hide or overwhelm them. This is especially true when I try a new mushroom for the first time. Once I have sampled it in its simplicity, I can better visualize what other flavors to pair it with. Mushrooms over brown rice has always been a favored go-to for me, whether it’s a simple sautéed mushroom, or a mushroom cream sauce, you can’t go wrong.
TCM: Tips for preparing mushrooms?
RB: Be careful in the cleaning process that you don’t over saturate your mushrooms in water. Some can handle it, but some turn into a slippery mess and their flavor is lost once cooked. When it’s your first time consuming a wild mushroom, do it in moderation. Just like with any food, you may be allergic, or your stomach may not like you overindulging in a new, rich food like mushrooms. After you’ve determined that your tummy is happy with your foraged finds, feel free to dig in a little more!
TCM: Keys to help identify your mushrooms:
RB: Here are a few basic questions to ask:
- Does the mushroom have gills, false gills, pores or spines?
- Does it have a partial veil or ring leftover from one? Does it have a vulva/sac at base of the stalk from a universal veil?
- What is the spore color? (See spore printing instructions below.)
- What is the mushroom growing from? Dirt, wood, what kind of tree?
- Does any part of the mushroom bruise, change colors or ooze fluid when broken or pinched?
- Any unique colors, textures, tastes or scents?
TCM: Tell us about spore printing:
RB: Knowing a mushroom’s spore color is key in identification. Collecting those spores in mass via spore printing will help you see what color they are. Here’s how to spore print:
- Collect mature, but fresh specimens.
- Carefully remove cap from stalk.
- Lay cap, gills down, on a piece of paper.
- Place glass bowl over specimen. This prevents the mushroom from drying too fast and safeguards the spores from airflow.
- Wait approximately 5-10 hours (sometimes longer if specimen wasn’t as mature or fresh).
- Remove bowl and mushroom cap from paper, left behind should be a deposit of spores.
- If you don’t see any spores, it may need to sit longer or your spores may be white and hard to see on white paper. Hold the paper up to the light at an angle – if white spores have been deposited, you should be able to see the texture of the spore sprint.
TCM: Can you share a fave mushroom recipe that might be appropriate for the holidays?
RB: Sure! I love making this recipe with a baked sweet potato on the side. I drizzle the extra oil mixture over the potato and enjoy the two together!
Broiled Rosemary + Garlic Oyster Mushrooms
12 oyster mushrooms (large caps – more if small caps)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp of roughly chopped rosemary
1 Tbsp of lemon juice
2 Tbsp oil
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F, place baking sheet in oven.
Clean mushrooms by rinsing with water, checking for any dirt or bugs. Remove stems and discard. Mix together garlic, rosemary, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Add oil and mix well. Remove hot pan from oven and place mushrooms, gill side down. Brush mixture over the mushroom caps. Cook until the tops appear crisp, 4-6 minutes, then rotate mushrooms with tongs and continue roasting for 3-5 more minutes, or until browned and crisp.
Happy and safe foraging to all!
Note: Do not consume wild mushrooms/plants unless they have been correctly identified as safe for consumption. Descriptions given here are merely guidelines to begin the identification process, not a source for thorough and exact identification.