Foraging is a fun way to get a truly local taste of the outdoors. However, foraging can be intimidating, as species that will give you a stomachache (or worse) can look similar to those that are completely edible to the untrained eye.
In the foraging world, there is a group of mushrooms known as the “foolproof four” that are considered to be widespread and easily identified: morels, chicken of the woods, chanterelles and puffballs. But some of those foolproof four can be problematic, according to David Spahr, author of “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada.”
“At least two of the foolproof four are not foolproof and not necessarily safe depending on certain things,” Spahr said. “There’s a lot of ways to go wrong with morels. False morels are poisonous and might even kill you. Chicken of the woods is one that people find a lot that is relatively easy to identify, but chicken of the woods when it’s found on hardwood trees — as it usually is — is probably going to be fine, but if it’s found on the hemlock tree it could possibly make you ill.”
Even chanterelles have a toxic look-alike — the jack-o-lantern mushroom — so it might be best for beginners to avoid it, according to Maine forager Tom Seymour, author of “Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide.”
Spahr said that no matter what level of forager you are, knowing some trees is helpful. In Maine, he said at the very least beginners should be able to tell the difference between poplar trees, sugar maple trees, Eastern hemlock, oak and beech trees.
“If you don’t understand habitat [and] if you don’t recognize trees, you’re going to have a hard time,” Spahr said.
Also, no matter what mushroom you try, Seymour said to make sure you start with just a little bit if you’re eating wild mushrooms for the first time. Then wait a few days before having more.
“Some wild mushrooms don’t agree with everyone and make them feel a little off,” Seymour said. “The other thing is that some mushrooms react with alcohol. If you like to have a couple drinks with your mushrooms, it might make you ill. Just try a little bit first and if you have no ill effects, eat all you want.”
With that in mind, if you are just getting started with foraging for mushrooms in Maine — and this is a great year for it, given the abundance of rain this summer — there are a few types of mushrooms that are easier to identify for beginner foragers.
Here’s 5 mushrooms to look out for if you’re getting started.
Lobster mushrooms are easy to identify and safe for beginners to forage. They’re bright orangish-red — the color of a cooked lobster shell — and slightly misshapen.
“They can happen in the hardwoods and the softwoods [forests],” Spahr said. “Lobster mushrooms are dense. They occur mostly in the midsummer.”
Seymour pointed out that lobster mushrooms parasitize and envelop other mushrooms, but they are still safe to eat.
“It’s kind of a Frankenstein mushroom,” Seymour said. “They usually parasitize an edible nontoxic mushroom so really everybody eats them and you don’t hear of anyone getting sick.”
Be warned, though: Spahr said that if you find a lobster mushroom with dark, soft spots, you should not eat it.
Colette Jadis, a beginner forager based in Prospect, said that she has successfully foraged for lobster mushrooms and recommends them for other beginner foragers in Maine.
“I have never felt comfortable eating a wild mushroom as I always [heed] the dangers of potentially getting ill or dying from poisonous mushrooms,” Jadis said. “It was awesome. For a beginner like me, it was super cool. I simply sautéed them up and enjoyed them on my burger.”
With their shelf-like structure, white flesh and thick stout stems, oyster mushrooms are also easy to identify. Because of the variety of species of oyster mushrooms in Maine, the season matters, though — not when it comes to toxicity, but desirability and taste. Fall oyster mushrooms are generally safe and tasty.
“With oysters in the fall, you have to be able to locate sugar maples and you need to be looking for them in September, October and maybe even November,” Spahr said. “They have a very noticeable anisey almondy odor aroma. The aroma when they’re super fresh should be very strong, almost cloying.”
Seymour said that oyster mushrooms can be challenging to find, but they grow back year after year, so once you have a spot that you like, you can go back to it.
“Once you know the trees where they grow they’re very reliable,” Spahr said. “Oysters will grow on the same tree year after year but that being said, oyster mycelium is very aggressive at digesting the cellulose and lichten in a tree so eventually it will fall down and die.”
With their ruffled clusters, piles of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms are easy to spot — and in season now.
“Cold nights tend to stimulate them to grow,” Spahr said. “Hen of the woods growing at the base of oak trees in September and October is a relatively easy one. There are lookalikes, but they mostly do not occur during their true hen season. The so-called look-alikes for hen of the woods are also nonpoisonous.”
Spahr also said that hen-of-the-woods are delicious and can be prepared in many different ways.
“In my opinion, they might be the most versatile cooking mushroom there,” Spahr said.
Black trumpet mushrooms
They can be small and hard to spot, but black trumpet mushrooms are one of the most unique and delicious mushrooms you can forage for in Maine.
“There’s not much that looks like a black trumpet,” Spahr said. “Well, they are trumpet shaped from top to bottom. They’re hollow down the middle. If you pick the bottom of the stem off you can blow right through it. It has thin flesh.There’s a fair amount of color range with black trumpets. It may not be really black. Sometimes it’s gray, brown, dark gray, almost black.”
Spahr said to head to forests that have lots of beech trees, as well as maybe some oak and hemlock trees. Also, these fungi have a distinctive odor.
“Black trumpets have black trumpet aroma that is not like anything you’ve ever smelled,” Spahr said.
Spahr also said that black trumpet mushrooms are delicious dried and made into a powder, kind of like porcini powder.
“If you dry them crispy and use it like a spice, it’s so delicious,” Spahr said. “Mushroom powders are often underrated.”
True to their name, puffball mushrooms look like big, round, white balls in the grass. Between that and their distinctive bready texture, they are difficult to confuse with any other mushrooms.
“There are a number of good puffballs and they’re among the earliest and they’re choice mushrooms,” Seymour said. “They grow pretty much in the open, you can even find them in gravelly places. They grow in poor soil. You can find them in the woods, also in the semi-shade, but mostly they’re out in the open. They’re probably the safest mushrooms for beginners and the easiest to find from July all the way up through frost.”
Make sure you check the color and consistency, too.
“Puffballs must be white inside and soft like bread to be edible,” Spahr said. “Any so-called puffball that’s really really hard is not to be eaten. Pigskin puffball [which are] poisonous [are] black inside. If it’s soft and white inside they’re good to eat. If you cook them right then, they’re pretty good.”
There are several types of puffball mushrooms that foragers can enjoy. Seymour said that generally, the smaller a puffball is, the more delicious it is. However, giant puffball mushrooms can be fun to forage for simply for the novelty of how enormous they get — just look at these giant puffball mushrooms that a Presque Isle forager found in 2019.
Foraging for mushrooms is a fun way to get outdoors and add some local flavor to your cooking. Just make sure you are foraging responsibly and ethically when you do so.
If you are a beginner and still nervous about foraging for yourself, you can always join a mushroom foraging walk with an expert like Spahr. He is hosting foraging events with the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden on September 18 and October 2.