Mushroom hunting season is in full swing in the northern states for some of my very favorites. Yes as much as I love morels as a harbinger if spring, for the thrill of the hunt, and for their delicious nutty flavor, a much larger variety of mushrooms emerges in the late summer fall. Many rival the morel for flavor, a number have important medicinal qualities, and a lot of them tend to be easier to find. Take the ‘sulfur shelf‘ (Laetiporus sulphureus) or ‘chicken of the woods’ for instance. You can see clusters of this bright yellow and orange mushroom growing on fallen logs and the sides of trees from a quarter mile away.
Perhaps my favorite of all, the ‘Maitake‘ (Grifola frondosa) or ‘hen of the woods’ (not to be confused with ‘chicken of the woods’) can grow to be as big as a bushel basket and weigh several pounds. Maitake mushrooms are found around the base of oak trees, and are often prolific around dying oaks. It is valued for its medicinal properties (studies have shown that it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, help to prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells, boost the body’s immune system, among other things) but it is also delicious. Both maitake and sulfur shelf are ‘polypores’, meaning that their underside has pores instead of gills, from which they release their spores. Another favorite, often found on downed logs, or growing on the sides of trees is the Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus species). It can come in a multitude of colors from white to grey, to yellow, or even blueish. Unlike the sulfur shelf or the maitake, these mushrooms have gills, and aren’t quite as distinctive, meaning there are some other mushrooms that can look a little bit like them like them. With any mushroom, it is essential to be 100% sure of what you have before eating it, since many can be poisonous, even deadly. But with a little research and effort, you can learn to identify many choice edible species on sight. And the rewards can be significant. Many mild mushrooms are far more flavorful, delicate, and have more interesting and satisfying texture than the button mushrooms which, until recently were basically the only kind of mushroom you could find in commercial supermarkets and even health food stores and co-ops.
The best place to look for a variety of fall mushrooms is in a mature mixed hardwood, or hardwood/conifer forest. Be sure you know the area, or bring a compass so you don’t get lost, wear long pants and good hiking boots because you need to get off the path if you really want to find what’s choice, and carry a basket or mesh bag so that you spread the spores of what you pick as you’re walking around. Local mushroom hunting groups or clubs exist in many areas, so look/ask around since this can often be the best way to learn. Also check out the many resources and recommended books on mushrooms on our Mushroom Production Page, the bottom of which has information on collecting wild mushrooms.
When preparing wild mushrooms for eating, especially the larger ones described above, I cut off any really dirty or tough parts (with polypores, the edges are typically the most tender and best for cooking) then slice or break them into bite sized pieces, and wash them in a colander to remove any excess dirt, then dry them on a towel.
The simplest way to cook them to really bring out their flavor and texture is simply to fry them in a pan with a tablespoon or so of butter or olive oil (I like to use butter). I also add salt as they begin to heat. this draws out the moisture, and let them cook until the juices have evaporated and they are even a little bit crispy in places, and not slimy which is what many people don’t like about the texture of mushrooms. But they don’t have to be that way. It just takes a little patience. Be careful not to burn them, but cooking them down will give you a nice texture without the mushiness or slimness many people associate with mushrooms (see the finished pan above). Hope some of you will get out there and enjoy the bounty!