Wild Mushroom Season: A Forager's Guide
Camp dinners taste even better, especially if you score a Matsutake
This autumn, you can spice up your campfire fare -- and make your hikes more rewarding -- by foraging for mushrooms from local forests. It just takes a little leg work and careful identification.
Some specifics: Check with local officials for regulations on foraging. Remember to cook wild mushrooms thoroughly to avoid stomach upset. Make sure to know your fungi-facts to avoid any misidentification.
“Don’t just get a field guide,” says Marian Maxwell, president of the Pacific Northwest Mycological Society. “Join up with a group and get field experience. That way you learn whether you’re picking up on the right identification characteristics.” This is especially important, because even though we're all aware that some mushrooms can be deadly, pickers sometimes miss the subtle differences between safe and dangerous varieties.
Finally, be careful every time you try a new mushroom. Even if it's generally considered safe, you could have an allergy you're unaware of.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Maitake mushrooms can grow up to 39 inches tall
Also known as the dancing mushroom or chicken-of-the-woods, maitakes are a favorite of Maria Reidelbach, former president of the New York Mycological Society.
“They are beautiful, fluffy, hen-like mushrooms,” she says.
Maitakes are most common in eastern North America and are found at the base of old oak trees.
Reidelbach recommends you drizzle the mushroom with oil and roast or cook it in foil over a campfire. The nutty, umami taste goes well with Asian flavors like soy sauce, as well as fall herbs such as rosemary and garlic.
Chanterelle Mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)
The author with a chanterelle mushroom in Olympic National Park, Washington
This meaty species is found in Sitka spruce forests in the Pacific Northwest. In the fall, they are the most commonly foraged wild mushroom, says Hildegard Hendrickson, Coordinator of wild mushroom identification for Puget Sound Mycological Society.
The untrained eye can confuse a real and false chanterelle.
“The real chanterelles have ridges on the underside, while the false chanterelle has gills,” Hendrickson said. The ridges of true chanterelles also go down the stem. Hendrickson recommends adding as little as possible to chanterelles to enjoy their meaty flavor. She likes to sauté them with butter and onion.
Porcini (Boletus edulis)
A basket full of porcini mushrooms
The porcini, also known as the king bolete, is renowned for its unique taste.
“It has this intense, caramel, mushroom flavor,” Reidelbach says. The hearty mushroom goes well with other robust flavors, such as sage, garlic, and winter savory.
The mushrooms have a stronger flavor when dried.
“When they are crunchy, you put them in the blender and make a powder,” Hendrickson says. “You can both thicken and flavor sauces or gravy with that flour.”
Porcini's grow most often in pine, spruce, hemlock and fir forests. They can be found across North America, but are harder to find in the East.
Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum)
Hedgehog mushrooms have teeth underneath the cap
On his property near Newton, Texas, David Lewis, president of the Gulf States Mycological Society, forages hedgehog mushrooms every fall. Lewis and his family sauté them with butter, onions and garlic.
“We always keep it simple,” he says. “We like to get the flavor of the mushroom, because they have their own unique taste.”
Hedgehog mushrooms are found across North America in coniferous and deciduous woodlands.
Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare)
Matsutake mushrooms can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound in Japan
In Japan, matsutakes can sell for well over $100 per pound. We've heard of certain varieties going for nearly $1000. They're free, of course, if found in forests across the United States.
“They have an incredible fragrance that is like mushrooms and pine trees,” Reidelbach says. “And that’s what they taste like when you cook them.”
To preserve the aromatic properties, you must prepare the mushrooms carefully, said Youko Yamamoto, chef and owner of Gomen Kudasai in New Paltz, N.Y.
“It is all about timing and how you treat the matsutake,” she said.
Unfortunately, this tasty species is easily mistaken for deadly lookalikes, so you must be extremely careful with identification.