Mushroom foraging is an art and a science, and like anything, you need to know a few things before you begin. Unlike a lot of new hobbies, eating the wrong mushrooms can have serious health consequences, so it's even more important to make sure you've got the basics when you head into the woods.
Identifying wild mushrooms takes practice and patience. Never eat anything you're not totally confident about. With a little knowledge and understanding, though, you're on the road to some delicious fungi to fine-tune your next meal.
Morels (Morchella esculenta) are a springtime treat for many foragers. However, they look a lot like false morels, which aren't edible, so make sure you note the differences if you go hunting for this variety.
True morels are plump, hollow, and most stems attach near the bottom of the honeycomb cap. False morels have a cotton-like filling, and their stems attach at the top of the cap. Both come in a variety of neutral shades.
There are a lot of old wives' tales about mushroom identification, and discerning fact from fiction regarding safety can be difficult. But one thing that holds true, especially if you're a beginner, is the color red.
Though a few varieties are an exception, if you're not an expert, generally stay away from any mushroom that has red on the cap or stem, as most of them are extremely toxic.
Another general rule when foraging for mushrooms is to look at the gills. Even if you're not a pro, you can peek at the spore-producing underside of the mushroom. If those pleats are white, leave the mushroom where it is — it might be toxic. (One good way to see the gills without touching the mushroom: set your camera to the selfie side and hold the lens under the cap!)
Skirts, or rings, are another indicator of potential danger. The skirt lies just under the cap, on the upper portion of the stem. There's a high likelihood the mushroom is toxic if it has a skirt, so skip anything with this feature.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarus) are bright yellow or golden mushrooms with smooth and shallow gills. Meaty and shaped like a funnel, they often have an earthy or fruity scent. The chanterelle is found in a variety of forests, mainly coniferous, throughout the world. Some varieties prefer grasslands, but all generally grow in clumped groups on moss in a variety of seasons.
False chanterelles are darker and taste bad, but don't have any toxicity. If ingested, they can cause a stomachache.
The fairy ring (Marasmius oreades) is a common North American mushroom with varying harvest times. Small and dry, it's often found growing in a ring or arched cluster. They have thick stems, and are usually a tan or beige shade.
Though fairy rings are edible, their coloring can pose a problem because they may also be white, including the gills. Amateur foragers should be cautious with this variety.
Also known as sweet tooth, the wood hedgehog (Hydnum repandum) is a summer and autumn mushroom found around the globe. It's a great type for those new to foraging because there aren't any toxic lookalikes.
Wood hedgehogs have little spines instead of gills, making them easy to identify. They're shaped like chanterelles, but have a pale orange flesh that bruises easily and changes to dark orange or yellow. They vary in size from under an inch to over half a foot wide.
Meadow or field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) grow on most continents. They tend to pop up in grasslands, either growing alone or in clusters similar in size and shape to fairy rings. Harvest times occur throughout the year, except in winter. But this is another mushroom that you shouldn't forage unless you know exactly what you're doing. Field mushrooms share a lot of identifying features with a number of toxic varieties.
Depending on their age and health, safe field mushrooms may be partially red, which is misleading. They're white-capped with gills that darken over time. If the gills aren't pink, then they're not good to eat.
Shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) is an aesthetically enjoyable mushroom. It has a distinct droopy cap and is covered in loose scales. This unique appearance lends itself to such nicknames as lawyer's wig and shaggy inkcap. It's only edible in its younger state when the gills aren't black.
The shaggy mane is found in European and North American meadows from June to November. It often gets confused with the common inkcap, which isn't especially toxic but can cause an adverse reaction if consumed with alcohol.
Hen of the wood (Grifola frondosa) likes to live at the base of oak trees. It's native to Japan and North America and has no dangerous lookalikes. A perennial mushroom, it sprouts for only a short time after a rain in the late summer or early autumn.
Hen of the wood grows in coral-like clumps that vary in size and color. This is a great find for beginners, though you'll need a large knife for harvesting.
Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) teeter on a slippery slope. They're safe at certain times but dangerous at others. And they have some lookalikes that aren't very friendly.
Puffballs are perfectly okay to eat when they're young. Found in meadows, forests, and fields, they're available in late summer and early autumn. Safe puffballs are smooth and white on the exterior and interior. Mature puffballs, which can grow up to several feet in diameter, have a green or brown inner flesh. At this stage, the mushroom is considered toxic.