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By Mike Krebill From the September/October 2009 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.
When it comes to hunting mushrooms, the spring morel mushroom is king of the woods. Yet fall is a fabulous time to be outdoors, and a great time to take your family mushroom hunting. The days are cooler, the colors beautiful and the still-warm earth and September rains produce a riot of mushrooms. While it is true you won’t stumble upon the prized morel, there are plenty flavorful fungi to be found.
FLAVORFUL FALL FUNGI Lion’s Mane (scientific name Hericium erinaceus) looks like a cheerleader’s white pom pom and tastes like lobster. Sulfur mushroom (a.k.a. chicken of the woods) has a texture worthy of its name, with an uncanny resemblance to chicken when cooked in chicken stock. The hen of the woods has its own taste, and is delightful grilled and basted with barbecue sauce.
The Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius in particular) is slightly peppery, but eagerly sought after here and abroad. My sister’s favorite is a gray to black chanterelle known as the black trumpet. It would be nice if the King Bolete were more common in Iowa; its meaty texture and nutty flavor have made it beloved here and in Europe. Oyster mushrooms, a very popular edible with a pleasant, fruity smell, does not taste like an oyster; the name refers to the shape of its cap.
Other good-to-choice fall edibles include the Shaggy Mane, the Giant Puffball and two of the smaller puffballs that grow on wood. My seventh grade students loved to coat small pieces of giant puffball with onion ring batter, deep fry them to a light golden brown, and then dip them in ranch dressing. I consider the taste bland when cooked up any other way.
“Giant Puffballs are bland when they’re cooked in butter in a pan, even though that’s how most people eat them,” agrees Dave Layton, president of the Prairie States Mushroom Club. “But unpeeled and raw in salad or on a sandwich, they’re delicious. They’re one of the few I eat raw and I’ve shared them that way with others without problems, although many experts advise against eating any wild mushrooms raw. Always sample new mushrooms cautiously whether raw or cooked.”
GETTING STARTED The best and safest way to begin learning about mushrooms is to get outdoors with someone who can identify them. This is critical if you intend to collect and eat mushrooms, as you must be certain of their identity and edibility. Most states, like Iowa, are blessed with a mushroom hunting club located via a simple Internet search. Members range from experts who study fungi for a living to long-time hobbyists to neophytes. By taking your family on forays (mushroom hunts) with a club, you will have fun and a wonderful opportunity to learn.
Iowa’s club is the Prairie States Mushroom Club. Click on “Forays” in the sidebar and you can learn the date, time and location of the next outing. The website is informative, with photos and links that open up a new world for you.
COLLECTING GEAR AND TIPS For carrying mushrooms, a basket or a mesh bag is preferred. Waxed paper, waxed sandwich bags or paper lunch sacks help separate, keep clean and protect different kinds of mushrooms. Never put mushrooms in plastic bags; they will spoil quickly.
A gardening trowel simplifies digging around the base of musooms to make sure they are not Amanitas. (Amanita mushrooms have a volva, a cup-like sac around the base of the stalk, and a ring around the stem—important characteristics in identifying this group of mushrooms with deadly poisonous members.)
A knife is handy to cut through the mushroom’s stalk, its attachment to wood or to trim away bad parts or dirt. A 1.5-inch paintbrush is handy for brushing off mushrooms to clean them.
Insect repellent helps when the bugs are bad. Apply it before leaving the car so you do not need to carry it. Deerflies may be a nuisance in early September; wear a cap for protection. Before setting off through tall grass, brush or woods, defend yourself from ticks by stretching your socks over your pant legs. That will keep them from crawling up inside your pants and biting you or burrowing into your skin before you get back home. Be sure to inspect yourself carefully when you return home.
As far as other collecting gear, a hiking stick is useful. Besides assisting you up and down hills and when crossing creeks, it can be used to move leaves and bend small plants to spot hidden mushrooms.
Letting people know where you are going is a good precaution when heading outdoors. A whistle and cell phone can aid others in finding you if you become lost or injured. A compass might help you get back if you take a bearing before you start walking. Some people like to carry along a GPS unit. A camera is handy. Personally, I like to carry a water bottle. I get thirsty hiking around.
IDENTIFYING MUSHROOMS There are several ways to identify mushrooms. The simplest and safest way is to take the actual specimens to an expert, and let that person identify them for you. Becoming a member of a mushroom hunting club helps you make those contacts. Tracking down a botanist or calling a herbarium at a college or university may provide you with references, too. A naturalist who works for a county conservation board may know, or may know whom to ask. Your local Iowa State University Extension office might be able to point you in the right direction. Finding an expert every time you want a mushroom identified may be tough, however, so you should learn how to identify mushrooms yourself.
Sending photos by email, or posting photos online for people to guess at, is not nearly as safe. Identifying a mushroom beyond the shadow of a doubt requires more than a picture. While guesses might help you narrow the possibilities, they do not guarantee the identity of the mushroom—a must if you are entertaining any ideas about eating the mushroom.
You might look through the illustrations in a field guide to mushrooms, and find a match or close matches. Even people who have been identifying mushrooms for years do that. They know, however, that the only sure way to positively identify a mushroom is to have all of the book’s descriptive characteristics match the unknown specimen. If you choose this method, be painstakingly sure all characteristics match. If they do not, that is not your mushroom!
A final way is to key the mushroom out. To save time and prevent mistakes in identification, authors of field guides often include a key.
A key separates groups of mushrooms from each other based on true-false statements about their characteristics. Terms used may be new to you, so take the time to learn what they mean. You will probably need to make a spore print, since keys often separate mushrooms by spore color. To make a spore print, place the cap of the fungus down so that half of it is on white paper, half on black paper. (White spores will show up better on the black paper, and dark-colored spores will be easier to see against the white paper.) Cover the cap with a bowl and leave it for two hours before checking it to see if the spores have dropped out.
COOKING MUSHROOMS Few mushrooms can be eaten raw. Sufficient cooking breaks down some types of toxins likely to make you sick. Conversely, cooking will not destroy all toxins and render even poisonous mushrooms safe to eat. Every bit as important to remember is that you must be certain of your mushroom’s identity and edibility before you go ahead and cook it. The cardinal rule is “IF IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT!”
Like produce, select the best for eating. The nicer they look and the fresher they are, the better they will taste. And just like lunchmeat, raw chicken, raw hamburger, or milk, mushrooms can be spoiled by bacteria, and that can make you sick. Use them right away or dry them. Most mushrooms do not freeze well.
How people react to a meal of mushrooms depends on their body chemistry. My mother became ill from eating the same mushrooms the rest of our family ate. In another Keokuk family, all the women were hospitalized after a meal of mushrooms; the men were not fazed. Avoid problems like this by doing two things: 1) be absolutely certain of the identity of the mushroom, then carefully read about its edibility, and 2) eat a modest amount the first time, no matter how good it may taste. Wait 24 hours to see how your body reacts before consuming any more.
Always save one mushroom back for identification in case it is needed by the hospital. Dr. Lois Tiffany—the revered 50-plus year botanist at Iowa State University, now retired—has long served as a toxicologist for the Prairie States Mushroom Club and has handled emergency calls from hospitals regarding mushroom poisoning. It would help her or other professionals to have a specimen of what was eaten.
Recipes can be found in many mushroom books, cookbooks, and by searching online.
MUSHROOM COMMON SENSE Rich in vitamin B2, niacin and copper, and low in calories, mushrooms are a healthy addition to any diet. However, some mushrooms can cause gastrointestinal troubles, and in rare cases, even death. Follow the tips in this article, the tips below and the suggested reading to ensure the mushrooms you put on your plate are safe.
1. Poisonous mushrooms taste nasty. Truth: According to victims, the Death Cap Amanita (responsible for as much as 90 percent of all mushroom poisoning deaths) had a good taste.
2. Animals leave poisonous mushrooms alone. Truth: Insects, slugs and chipmunks can and do eat fungi poisonous to humans.
3. Any mushroom can be safely eaten after cooking. Truth: No method of cooking will make all poisonous mushrooms harmless.
4. White mushrooms are safe to eat. Truth: The most common deadly mushrooms are white (Amanita Group).
5. Even experts have died from picking the wrong mushrooms. Truth: This myth is perpetuated every year. Upon closer examination, it is often found that the person who died was far from being an expert and made a foolish mistake that most mushroom hunters would never make. Even collectors who have been foraging for wild mushrooms for only a short period are unlikely to die from mushroom poisoning. All it takes is a little training in the dos and don’ts of mushroom collecting, and the use of common sense. Until a person learns how to distinguish mushrooms based on their characteristics, it is wise to stick with those species that have no poisonous look-alikes. Try new species only upon the identification by and guidance from knowledgeable collectors who have eaten them.
6. If it grows on wood, it is no good. Truth: Some mushrooms that grow on wood are inedible, some are poisonous, and some are downright delicious. Oyster mushrooms, for instance, are always found on wood, and they are considered a choice edible.
7. It’s easy to tell the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom. Truth: Only if a toad is sitting on it! The distinction between the two is that a toadstool once referred to a poisonous fungus; a mushroom an edible one. That nuance seems to have vanished, and we seldom hear “toadstool” used any more. Instead, we talk of safe mushrooms and poisonous mushrooms. There is no simple way to tell what is safe and what is not, short of spending a lot of time identifying the species. Once the identity is known, the edibility may be stated in the description.
8. Every edible mushroom has a poisonous lookalike. Truth: Some do, but many do not. You can be reasonably safe if you stick with the 11 edible species in this issue. It is still wise to make certain they match all the characteristics described in the references listed in the article. Hunting them with the Prairie States Mushroom Club is highly recommended.