Mushroom Identification + Edibility: A Systematic Approach

Conquering Your Fear

If you are new to the idea of mushroom hunting, then you likely have a healthy fear of eating a poisonous mushroom. And this is a good place to start; some of our seemingly innocuous forest friends can indeed cause serious harm. Despite the fact that I need to leave a huge and obvious disclaimer on this post, I still think it’s an important piece of content to put out there. Mushrooming can be safe, BUT – if and only if you are willing to educate yourself and follow some very important rules. This post is for those of you who want to learn and are willing to employ patience and do the hard work.

A Systematic Approach

There is a methodology to approaching any new species of edible mushroom you wish to put in your basket. With enough research and care, you can get there.

If you are starting out blind, there are a few ways to quickly increase your learning curve. The easiest and most accessible method is to join Facebook and find a few local mushrooming “groups.” These virtual groups are typically made up of mushroom enthusiasts that are hunting in and around your region. If you are not sure what’s in season or where to start – group members will be posting photos of their finds and talking about their experiences. Some folks may even answer a few of your questions now and again. Once you do this, you can often ask about finding a local foray – head into the woods with people who know what they are doing and sponge all the information your brain can absorb. And finally, get a good field guide – you will need a reference in the woods to practice this approach.

Stay Focused

Most new mushroomers get into the woods and begin by pointing out every single mushroom they see. Winning the edibility game means you need to stay focused on one or two or three mushrooms. There’s a ton of fungi in the woods, but for these purposes we only care about a few. For this exercise, stay very focused on all the things you need to know about these few.

Start Simple

Set yourself up for success – start with a beginner mushroom that is easy to identify and has few evil twins. Not sure how to choose this mushroom? Ask that Facebook group… “I’m new to mushrooming and I’d like to practice identification today. Can anyone recommend a seasonally appropriate edible mushroom in this area that is great for beginners?”

Know the Falseys

Most mushrooms do indeed have doppelgängers – evil twin mushrooms that throw you off the true path to deliciousness. Once you’ve chosen the mushroom you are after, make sure you also use your field guide to investigate all of the false versions of this mushroom. You must know these just as well as you know the real deal.

Take Some Pictures

By all means, take pictures. If you want help identifying it, make sure you get pictures of both the top and bottom.

Smell

Be prepared to stick your face right on into that mushroom. Use your nose and your brain to really smell it. Your field guide will give you information about the odor – sometimes it’s very specific. For example, my guide tells me chanterelles are “pleasantly fruity” – in actuality they smell just like apricots.

Taste

Your field guide will have notes about taste – “mild, acrid, distinctly bitter, disagreeable”. Poisonous mushrooms often taste acrid – and they burn the end of your tongue. How would I know? Well there is a safe way to taste raw mushrooms. I wouldn’t taste every mushroom I see, but if you think you’ve got it and want to add another indicator you can. Break off a very tiny piece of the cap (by tiny I mean minuscule here), chew it with your front teeth a little and then taste it with the tip of your tongue. Once you’ve got the taste, spit it out – do not swallow any bits of the mushroom. I like to rinse my mouth with water and spit again for good measure.

What’s Under the Cap

Identification often involves looking under the cap to determine type – do you see gills, ridges, teeth or a porous surface? These are easy to compare to photos in your guide. We only recently started adding gilled mushrooms to our basket – they are prolific and much harder to identify.

Other Indicators

Sometimes your field guide will tell you that a mushroom has a scaly stalk or stains blue or olive green when cut. These are important indicators – pay attention!

Cooking

Always cook your wild mushrooms. Never eat them raw. Mushrooms that are somewhat bitter will benefit from longer cooking times.

Have Patience

When you are working with new mushrooms, it’s important to exercise patience. Don’t plan to go home and cook a whole meal, even if you are 100% certain about the ID. This mushroom, while fine for others, may not sit well with you. With any new mushroom, we always cook just a few tiny bites (maybe a tsp) in butter, eat them and then wait a day. If you are going to experience discomfort, you will know. On day two, eat a somewhat larger amount (maybe a Tbsp) repeat the process.

Trust Your Fear

If you are not sure, respect your fear. Revisit that Facebook group again, post images and ask for help with identifications to test yourself. If you can’t find a backup approach that gets you to a comfortable spot, then just don’t risk it.

Example Identification

Colorado Hawk’s Wing (Sarcodon Imbricatus)

Hawk's Wing COThe commonly named Hawk’s Wing is one of my favorite Colorado mushrooms. Widely under-appreciated, most mushroom hunters will pass over this beautiful mushroom. I think it’s one of the most “mushroomy” and delicious bites out there – lovely on pizza. It can be somewhat bitter, but this can be lessened with longer cooking times. In any case, it’s a good Colorado beginner mushroom because it’s easy to identify, and it doesn’t have any unsavory false brethren that I know of.

Let’s see what the field guide says…

Brown, irregular cap with distinctive coarse, raised, brownish scales; brown spines; thick hollow stalk; on ground. Flesh thick, white to light brownish; odor mild, taste mild to distinctively bitter. Very common after rains in montane and subalpine habitats; usually gregarious; on the ground under conifers and in mixed forests; July through September, depending on rainfall. Spores medium brown in print, on surfaces of teeth. Stucky, Vera Evenson. (1997). Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains. Denver, CO: Denver Botanic Gardens.

So we can determine a few things from this description:

  • From the picture you can see this is a distinctive looking mushroom – it’s scaly top really does loosely resemble a hawk’s wing. They are easy to spot in the woods
  • The underside of the cap is covered in teeth – this is also distinctive; in CO it’s the rarest underside you will see out there.
  • Odor is mild – to me this means it just sort of smells like the woods; there is nothing really special about the smell – it’s not fruity or disagreeable. As you learn more about mushrooms you will be able to distinguish your favorites by smell.
  • Taste is mild to bitter – these mushrooms are best when they are newly fruited, the older they get, the more bitter they become.
  • Often the stalk is partially hollow
  • Flesh color is white to light brownish
  • Grows July – September
  • These grow on the ground (versus on a tree or a dead stump for example)
  • Common after a rain – yes, indeed they are
  • Grow under conifers and in mixed forests

That is a ton of good information! And probably just enough to land a few of these in your basket. I will add that I usually find Hawk’s Wings above 10,000 feet in Colorado. Happy hunting!

Overview

Actions

  1. Get a good field guide that is specific to your region. Always take it with you into the woods.
  2. Join Facebook and find a local mushrooming group. Here are a few in Colorado to check out: Colorado Mycological Society, Western Slope Fungophiles
  3. Find a local foray or someone with local mushroom experience to take you – they do exist. Go on at least two forays before you do your own experimentation. This is the fastest way to up your confidence level. Check our events page for forays near you!

Rules

  • Always cook wild mushrooms. If you dehydrate them, same deal – always cook them after they’ve been rehydrated and before you add to food.
  • After you’ve done all the work and feel confident about your new identification, do not cook up a big batch of mushrooms and eat a huge meal out of the start gate. Start slowly – begin with just a few tiny bites and then wait a day. Eat a bit more the next day and repeat the process. If you are going to have discomfort, you will know.
  • Don’t mix mushroom species in your meal if you haven’t tested your reaction yet. People have varied reactions to safe, edible mushrooms – always best to stick with one and add as you become more comfortable and experienced.

PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK: We are not mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are deadly. Always use extreme care when hunting. Wild mushrooms must be cooked before eating. Never eat a mushroom you cannot identify with 100% certainty. Proceed with caution and at your own risk.

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