Like many of my fondest food associations, my love of wild mushrooms began with my mother, who showed five-year-old me how to find edible mushrooms in the woods. It was puffballs we sought and I remember her excitement at spotting each one, and how much fun it was to search for them—an Easter egg hunt, with a beautiful, edible prize at the end. In my memory, the ones we found were about the size of tennis balls, pristine white and smooth.
After I left home I didn't hunt for mushrooms again until I began spending country time in Ulster County with friends in the early 1990s. Getting out in the woods regularly, after over ten city-bound years, was exhilarating. We were artists and kids, and we naturally gravitated toward observing and collecting during our rambles. Soon the old farmhouse we shared hosted collections of animal bones and bird nests, as well as more ephemeral trays full of mushrooms—wild in their colors, shapes and smells.
The aromas enticed us. There are some wild mushrooms with scents so delicious they can leave you weak-kneed. But there was the sobering knowledge that some could be dangerous, even deadly. We wanted to learn what we could eat and what we couldn't. It turns out that there are some simple mushroom hunting rules that would keep us from eating the wrong thing. I've followed these rules religiously for 30 years and have not yet made a mistake. I'll list them at the end.
July is a great month for lawn, garden and woods mushrooms. There are several fantastic and easily identifiable types of chanterelles. Golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) can sometimes be found in great abundance. They are beautiful, apricot-colored, blossom-shaped masses of deliciousness. They can be cooked in many ways: in pasta sauce, grilled, sauteed and served with chicken or seafood. There is one toxic look-alike, the jack-o-lantern fungus (Omphalotus olearius), but it has many distinguishing differences: much larger, growing in clusters on wood, clear difference between cap and stem. Look online or in a good guide to learn.
Another wonderful chanterelle is the fragrant black trumpet (Craterellus fallax). Because they blend in with leaf litter on the forest floor they are a little harder to spot, but luckily, they grow in groups, and once you've found a patch you can just keep picking. There are no toxic look-alikes for this one. They're delicious cooked many ways, and they dry beautifully and keep forever. (The example on the left is a giant.)
Less well known are the funnel chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis), small, good and found in numbers, and the tiny, cinnabar chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) which has vibrant color that survives cooking.
Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sp.) is an amazing, sometimes enormous, shelf fungus that grows on dead wood and will appear even during drought. There are two types, one is brilliant orange and yellow underside, the other is orange and white below. It's easily identified, with no toxic look-alikes. The part that's eaten are the tender, moist edges of the fan, the younger the mushroom, the more of it is edible.
And then there are those puffballs (mostly Calvatia). There are a number of different kinds, some as big as soccer balls, others small as a grape, and many tend to grow on lawns. Again, easily identifiable—as long as they are stark white inside, with no internal structures, they're safe to eat (given the caveats below). These guys are good dipped in egg and panko crumbs and fried (what isn't?) but are also fun other ways, like using slabs in lasagna or grilling them.
These four types of mushrooms are a very good start to what some people consider an extreme hobby, but what us mushroom geeks think of as a treasure hunt!
Now those rules:
get at least one good print guide to mushrooms—there are many out there. I prefer Gary Lincoff's Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms, and his beginner's guild—Mushroom Hunter.
Don't eat anything you haven't identified in at least three sources (use the internet, links below) and have ruled out toxic look-alikes.
The first time you eat a new type of mushroom, save an uncooked specimen, and eat a bit just e or two. Wild mushrooms contain many complex compounds, besides the possibility of a misidentification, they just might not agree with your stomach.
In order to avoid killing yourself, don't eat any gilled mushrooms (those with radiating fins under the cap, like button mushrooms) until you become more experienced. Although there are many delicious wild gilled mushrooms, all deadly mushrooms in the Northeast have gills, so stay away until you know better!
Always cook mushrooms—most of them contain compounds that are indigestible raw.
More mushroom info:
Join a mushroom club, they're all over the US - a list can be found at the North American Mycological Association. In the Hudson Valley, the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association is a great group, membership is inexpensive, and you have access to expert hunters who are happy to help you learn. Plus clubs have active Facebook pages where people post photos of their finds.
The Mushroom Expert: Michael Kuo's web site. Professor Tom Volk's web site. Fungi Perfecti: Paul Stamet's company that has everything a mushroom lover could want, books, growing kits and equipment, hunting gear and more.
Inaturalist is a great site to explore what has been found in your vicinity, and to log your own fungi, flora and fauna finds.