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Image of mushrooms.

Forest Delicacies

From late summer until the first frost of autumn, foragers seek a bounty of edible mushrooms.

On this sweltering August day in the hardwood forest, the mosquitoes are biting and the shade of the oak canopy provides no relief from the humidity. But I can easily overlook these discomforts when each step holds the promise of more wild mushrooms. I raise my basketful of golden-hued chanterelle mushrooms to my nose and breathe in their delicate apricot scent.

Fabulous Fungi
warbler image

See more images of wild mushrooms found in Minnesota woods.

Like many people, I once allowed my fear of potentially toxic wild mushrooms to overshadow my curiosity about edible mushrooms. But after acquiring some basic knowledge, my perception has changed. Today I regard mushrooms as another path to the simple joy of procuring one's own food.

Make no mistake: Eating wild mushrooms can be dangerous. Every mushroom field guide is sure to note that words and images are no substitute for learning proper identification firsthand from an expert. Fortunately, finding experts is as easy as attending a Minnesota Mycological Society mushroom foraging excursion—known as a foray.

First-time mushroom hunters quickly learn that foraging is a sensory experience. In addition to a mushroom's appearance, its feel and its scent can be important attributes for discerning a choice edible from a poisonous lookalike.

As a rule of thumb, all edible wild mushrooms should be cooked because it makes them easier to digest. Most wild mushrooms also contain small amounts of toxins, which readily break down with heat. So it is back at home in the kitchen where culinary adventures await the successful forager. Harvested mushrooms that can't be eaten within a few days should be preserved. The flavor of some mushrooms, such as black trumpets, is intensified by dehydrating them. Other mushrooms, such as chanterelles, maintain their flavor best if they are sautéed and frozen.

Unlike the cultivated, white-button Agaricus mushrooms found in most grocery stores, the flavor of wild mushrooms rarely elicits indifference."When people say, 'I don't like mushrooms,' I always ask what kind of mushrooms they've tried," says John Lamprecht of the Minnesota Mycological Society. "If they say the white ones from the grocery story, I point out that is like saying you don't like vegetables when all you've ever tried is broccoli."

April and May are for hunting the morel—Minnesota's state mushroom. But myriad choice edibles appear in Minnesota from late summer through fall. In the field, under the tutelage of an experienced forager, beginners can easily learn to find and identify the following species of wild fungi.

Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

Chanterelles are among the most widely sought and consumed mushrooms in the world. They are found growing in soil near oak trees, and never on decaying wood. Foragers often find many in one area. While chanterelles are occasionally found in small clusters that grow from a common base, foragers should exercise caution: The toxic jack o' lantern mushroom, which always grows in large clusters, can be mistaken for a chanterelle.

The cap of the trumpet-shaped chanterelle varies from bright yellow to yellow-orange. The underside of the cap and the stem are slightly paler. Chanterelles have a distinctly fruity, somewhat peppery taste. They are sumptuous simmered in soups or simply sautéed with onions and butter.

image of mushroom

Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax)

Black trumpets grow in hardwood forests, especially around oaks. The mushroom's irregular shape and dark color make it easy to overlook amid leaf litter, but this elusive delicacy is worth searching for. The earthy, somewhat floral flavor of the black trumpet is sometimes compared to truffles. One popular preparation method is to sauté them in butter and roll them into an omelet.

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King Bolete and Noble Bolete (Boletus spp.)

Both of these mushrooms are choice edibles and are often harmlessly mistaken for one another, but their location is key to their identity: The king bolete prefers coniferous forests, while the noble bolete (above) grows in hardwood forests. Boletes as a group can be identified by their spongy underside. Instead of gills, they have a mass of tiny, vertical tubes containing spores.

The king bolete, known as the porcini in Italy and the c?pe in France, is one of the most prized edible mushrooms. The caps of these meaty mushrooms can be sautéed or even grilled.

image of mushroom

Hedgehog, aka Sweet Tooth (Hydnum repandum)

The hedgehog shows up in hardwood and coniferous-hardwood forests. One might mistake this dark orange to brown mushroom for a dried-up chanterelle, but a closer look will reveal toothlike growths beneath the cap. It has a wonderful nutty flavor, which can be enhanced by sautéing it with hazelnuts or almonds.

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Sulfur Shelf, aka Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.)

Found primarily in hardwood forests, this bright orange mushroom is easy to spot, plentiful, and difficult to mistake for anything else. It's usually found growing on a tree or sprouting from downed timber. Like the bolete, the sulfur shelf has a mass of tiny pores on the underside. Its base is often tough, especially as it matures. However, the tender outer margin can be cut off and consumed.

This meaty mushroom can be pickled, sautéed, or boiled in stock and used as a substitute for chicken.

image of mushroom

Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)

Found at the base of oak trees, this parasitic mushroom causes a white rot of the root system and trunk base. Known as the maitake in Asia, it's treasured as both an edible and a medicinal mushroom. Its purported health benefits include antitumor properties, enhancement of the immune system, and reduction of glucose levels.

Hen of the woods is great sautéed in butter or battered and deep fried. It can be preserved by dehydrating, parboiling and freezing, or pickling.

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Foraging Tips

  • When in doubt, throw it out
  • Never pick more than you can eat or preserve
  • Don't eat a mushroom that is not in good condition or that smells bad
  • Eat wild mushrooms only when cooked thoroughly and only in moderation, especially if you're trying one for the first time—overindulging can cause symptoms similar to mushroom poisoning
  • Public lands in Minnesota open to mushroom picking include state parks, wildlife management areas, and state forests
  • Always ask permission to pick mushrooms on private land, and always check to make sure it is legal on public land
  • Join the Minnesota Mycological Society to learn from experienced foragers. Sign up for a foray at www.minnesotamushrooms.org.
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