Ever heard of Chicken of the Woods? It’s an edible mushroom that grows on trees and tastes just like chicken. While you can always head over to your local grocery store for a pack of Button mushrooms, remember that you also have the option of getting other varieties for free. Here are 8 edible mushrooms in North America and how to forage for them.
Edible vs Poisonous Wild Mushrooms
There is a common misconception that mushrooms are edible and toadstools are not, but there really is no difference between the two. The word “toadstool” was first used in 14th century England, back when toads were believed to carry diseases and blamed for making mushrooms poisonous by sitting on them.
Now more evolved, humans have discovered that the digestibility of mushrooms has nothing to do with toads. In fact, there’s no general rule in determining edible mushrooms. Dedicated scientists have taken it upon themselves to personally try different mushrooms and take note of its effects. Take mycologist, Charles McIlvaine, for example, who tasted more than six hundred species of toadstools.
The best way to tell whether a mushroom is poisonous or not is through proper identification. Read on to learn how to properly identify 8 common edible mushrooms.
Signs of toxic mushrooms
- Indigestion after eating
- Offensive odor and/ or taste; feels slimy
- Contains an odorless and tasteless poison (least likely)
The first two can easily be distinguished by taste, which is why it is advised to avoid excessive spices when cooking with foraged mushrooms. For the third, many varieties of the Amanita family, best known from Super Mario, contain a violent and deadly poison.
Avoid all fungi with these Characteristics
They are most likely a deadly Amanita if they present these characteristics:
- A flaky or warty top where the protrusions easily rub off but leave the skin intact
- A collar-like ring around the stem, that is bent backwards or falling downwards
- A sheath (volva) enclosing a young mushroom and remains at the base of the older plant which leaves a “socket” on the ground when plucked
How to Forage for Mushrooms
It is best to have a sharp knife ready and a breathable container, like a mesh bag or basket, as mushrooms tend to spoil easily. Do not twist or pull them as this will push dirt into the gills and make them hard to clean. It can also damage the mycelium or the mushroom “roots” and prevent future growth.
POCKET FIELD GUIDE SURVIVAL KIT
Take these weatherproof info cards when foraging in North America.
SMALL FORAGING BAG KIT
Comes with knives perfect for pruning and harvesting mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables.
8 Common Edible Mushrooms That Are Easy to Identify
Chicken of the Woods
Identification: There are seven North American species all with distinct overlapping brackets of vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and peach. No other mushrooms look quite like them.
When/ Where to Find: They care more about their host than location, popping up from late summer to fall, not only in forests, but also in parks and roadsides on dead or dying hardwoods especially oak, cherry, and beech.
How to Harvest: It’s best to harvest them young and just emerging from the tree as bright cyst-like knobs instead of fully formed stacked brackets. Mature chickens are woody, chalky, and tough while young chickens are tender and succulent, ideally secreting a thin, clear or yellow liquid when cut.
Food Prep: Use a damp cloth when cleaning and go easy on the cooking oil as they are absorbent. Many describe it to taste like chicken, hence the name, and it can be used as a meat substitute for many recipes. It goes well in curries, casseroles, and egg dishes. Although quite bland, it readily absorbs flavor when cooked.
Identification: Aside from being known as Hawk’s Wing or Pheasant’s Back due to their feather-like markings, they are also known to smell like cucumber or watermelon rind. There are some similar-looking mushrooms like the Trainwreck and Giant Sawgill (both edible), but you can easily check underneath the cap as the Dryad’s Saddle does not have gills, but pores.
When/ Where to Find: They can be found in early spring and again in fall on dead or dying hardwood trees like ash, elm, magnolia, beech, box elder, willow, poplar, maple, and walnut.
How to Harvest: Mature ones are hard to miss with thick brackets that can grow up to 2 feet wide, but they are actually best harvested young and tender, while the pores are small and packed together. The pores widen as they age and indicate that the mushroom will be tough. You can also check by scraping the pores with a knife. Young ones’ should easily scrape off.
Food Prep: Brush or wipe off the cap, making sure to check for any bugs underneath, then use a knife to scrape off debris from the stem. Cut into thin slices and discard any leathery, corky, or rigid portions as they will be tough to eat. Sauté with a bit of oil and salt and pepper to taste, making sure not to overcook as it will toughen. They are a nice addition to stir fries, soups, and stews, and have a light and earthy taste.
Identification: Also known as Black Chanterelles, they are good for beginners to identify as they don’t have poisonous look-alikes. They are brown, gray, or black funnel-shaped mushrooms with no pores or gills under the cap, making for a smooth or slightly wrinkled suede-like feel.
When/ Where to Find: Although quite common, they can be hard to spot as they like being in dark and damp areas. You can find them in summer and fall near hardwoods like oak and beech, on the forest floor and not on the wood itself. They are also easier to spot in mossy areas or on the edge of small streams.
Food Prep: To clean, tear them apart and gently wipe both sides as it is brittle. It is also okay to give them a quick rinse if clogged with dirt. They have a rich, smoky flavor and can be added to basically any dish that doesn’t have overpowering tastes. They can even be dried, powdered, and used as a spice.
Identification: Puffballs come in different sizes, and don’t look like your traditional mushroom because they don’t have gills, caps, or stems. While most mushrooms have spores in their gills, puffballs bear theirs inside and will eventually puff out a cloud of spores when mature, hence the name.
When/ Where to Find: Little puffballs, smaller than a softball, are usually found on dead or dying tree stumps in spring through fall. Some can also be found on the forest floor. Giant ones tend to grow in the same spot yearly in late summer to early fall. They’re found on the ground in meadows and grasslands, and never on wood.
How to Harvest: Only young puffballs are edible. The best way to tell is to slice them open. The flesh should be completely white and dense. If there is any other color, like yellow or brown, then they have already started decomposing and are no longer fit for consumption. The flesh should also be solid with no gills.
Food Prep: Wipe the little puffballs with a damp towel to remove dirt. Giant puffballs have a leathery outer skin which you should peel off before cooking. Dubbed the “tofu of mushrooms,” they are bland, but easily absorb flavor. They are most popular lightly battered and fried, but can also substitute tofu and eggplant in any recipe.
Identification: You shouldn’t mistake them for the poisonous false morels which may look similar at first glance, but are also easy to tell apart. True morels are hollow inside and have honeycombed egg-shaped caps with deep pits. False morels have lobes, flaps, or wrinkles, and have chambers inside.
When/ Where to Find: Among the 18 species of Morel in North America, only one grows nationwide, the Morchella Americana. It grows with a wide range of trees, mostly hardwoods, with the season depending on the region and climate.
Food Prep: Make sure to clean them by cutting lengthwise and soaking in salt water for 10-15 minutes to remove any tiny bugs. Rinse them off and dry on a towel. They can be sautéed, pan-fried, or stewed.
Identification: Aptly nicknamed “the king” for its large size, they not only look like bread but smell like them too. They have a tan cap resembling a bun that gets tacky when wet, white pores instead of gills under the cap, a chunky white or tan stem with a net-like pattern at the top, and smell like sourdough.
When/ Where to Find: They are quite elusive as they are a food source to many other creatures, but they grow in late summer or autumn 2-3 days after significant rain on the forest floor near trees. On the east coast, they are inclined to oak trees and hardwoods while pine and other conifers are preferred on the west coast.
How to Harvest: They are best harvested as young buttons since they are easily infested with bugs, which is why time is of the essence when hunting for these. Young boletes have a firm, white pore surface. Older ones’ are like an old, used sponge with some discoloration.
Food Prep: Gently brush dirt off the cap and use a knife or vegetable peeler to scrape dirt off the stem. They have a nutty, meaty flavor, and smooth, creamy texture after cooking. They can be stir-fried, sautéed, dried, or pickled.
Identification: Their oyster-shaped caps have white gills underneath that run down the stem. They are white to light brown in color and smooth with no warts or scales. They grow in a shelf-like formation with overlapping clusters, and have a mild sweet odor.
When/ Where to Find: In summer and fall, they grow on dead or dying deciduous hardwoods, especially beech and aspen trees, and are sometimes found on conifers as well.
How to Harvest: It’s best to harvest them before they’re overgrown. Signs of overgrowth are drying out or hardening, and darkening at the edges of the gills and caps.
Food Prep: Brush off any debris, wipe them down with a damp cloth, and make sure to check for bugs. Oyster mushrooms have very versatile recipes as they can be cultivated, so chefs have been able to play around with them. They can be stir-fried, added to soup, put on toast, and pretty much anything you can think of. They have a mild taste, but readily absorb flavor.
Identification: Their white oblong cap sometimes has a brownish circle at the top with scales that flare down, making it appear shaggy. It kind of looks and acts like a squid as it melts into a black, inky mess when mature. The stem is white, hollow, and smooth with a ring around it. They do have a look-alike, the Inky Caps that resemble the mature Shaggy Manes that have started to turn black. Inky Caps are also edible, but are known to cause severe reactions when mixed with alcohol.
When/ Where to Find: They grow together in dense groups in fields, grasslands, and meadows from summer to fall.
How to Harvest: Only harvest young ones, before they start turning black. They also disintegrate into a black gooey mess hours after picking so always plan your timing.
Food Prep: Clean by gently wiping with a damp cloth. They are very watery, so people often prefer them in a soup or sauce. It has a mild tasty flavor that can easily be overpowered in a dish, and is best cooked gently over medium-low heat as they are delicate.
Common Edible Mushrooms in Specific Regions of the US
|REGION||COMMON EDIBLE MUSHROOMS|
|Michigan||Morels, Oyster Mushrooms, Chanterelles, Maitake, Michigan Truffles, King Boletes|
|Ohio||Morels, Chanterelles, Puffballs, Shaggy Manes, Chicken of the Woods, Shaggy Parasols, Delicious Milk Mushrooms, Meadow Mushrooms, Slippery Jacks|
|Missouri||Morels, Puffballs, Shaggy Manes, Coral Fungi, Chanterelles, Bearded Tooth, Oyster Mushrooms, Boletes, Chicken of the Woods, Maitakes|
|Colorado||Chanterelles, King Boletes, Dryad’s Saddle, Delicious Milky Caps, Puffballs, Morels, Lobster Mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms, Puffballs|
|Maine||Black Trumpets, Chanterelles, Morels, Chicken of the Woods, Lobster Mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Puffballs|
|Virginia||Chanterelles, Black Trumpets, Morels, Puffballs, Oyster Mushrooms, Chicken of the Woods, Champignons, Maitakes|
|Texas||Oyster Mushrooms, Morels, Chanterelles, Puffballs, White Jelly Fungus, Stinkhorns|
|Washington||Chicken of the Woods, Shaggy Manes, Chanterelles, Lion’s Mane, King Boletes, Puffballs, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Oyster mushrooms, Slippery Jack, Bear’s Head|
|Montana||Shaggy Manes, Chanterelles, Icicles, Lobster Mushrooms, White Matsutakes, Morels, Boletes, Oyster Mushrooms, Dryad’s Saddle, Bear’s Head|
|Maryland||Morels, Chanterelles, Honey Mushrooms, Boletes, Chicken of the Woods, Lion’s Mane, Oyster Mushrooms|
|Louisiana||Chanterelles, Oyster Mushrooms, Morels, Boletes, Portabellos, Cremini, Old Man of the Woods, Puffballs, Black Trumpets|
|Arizona||Chanterelles, Oyster Mushrooms, Morels, Lobster Mushrooms, Boletes, Morels, Puffballs, Slippery Jack|
Common Edible Mushrooms in Specific Provinces of Canada
|REGION||COMMON EDIBLE MUSHROOMS|
|British Columbia||Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Lobster Mushrooms, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Puffballs, Oyster Mushrooms, Shaggy Mane, King Bolete|
|Ontario||Morels, Bear’s Head, Apricot Jelly Mushrooms, Chanterelles, Puffballs, Chicken of the Woods, Hedgehog mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms|
The Bottom Line
The best way to avoid being poisoned lies in correct identification. Be 100% sure you are about to eat what you think you’re about to eat. Even then, test a small amount first before digging in because like other food, mushrooms may be unfit for consumption due to decay, poor growth conditions, or you can simply be allergic to them.
Also, always cook the mushrooms you’ve harvested and never eat them raw.
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