Survival Skills: Do's and Don'ts of Mushroom Foraging

oyster mushroom

The wet weather we’ve had in the East this spring has has led to a bumper crop of early-summer mushrooms. But how do you determine which are safe to eat? The right mushrooms can make a delicious meal and are used in the world’s finest restaurants. The wrong mushrooms, however, can be your last meal, or put you on the fast track to a liver transplant. You must use extreme caution when harvesting mushrooms. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you hit the woods.

Follow The Rules: When working with mushrooms, both in the field and in the kitchen, there are some basic rules that will help you avoid many of the hazardous members of the fungal kingdom.

DO verify 100-percent positive identification of the mushroom, including the location and season of growth.

DON'T use the mushroom if there is any doubt in your mind concerning its identity.

DO cook your mushrooms. Many edible mushrooms are safer if they are consumed cooked rather than raw.

DON'T consume mushrooms with alcohol, or at least moderate your booze intake when eating mushrooms. The toxins in some fungi can create more damage if they are mixed with alcohol. Don't even cook the mushrooms in wine or other alcohol.

DO cut or bruise the mushroom, and watch for any color change in the flesh. Color changes can be part of the identification process, along with a close examination of the mushroom's structures and odor.

DON'T eat mushrooms that are growing out of season. Many mushroom poisoning cases are the result of someone eating a mushroom that might have looked okay, but was growing at the wrong time of year.

DO be aware that some verified edible mushrooms can still cause digestive upset or illness in sensitive individuals.

DON'T eat anything with volva and stem rings (annulus), unless you'd bet your life they are not Amanitas.

DO use caution with mushrooms that have a scaly or bumpy texture to the surface of their cap. More than 50 percent of these are dangerous.

Take a Spore Print
Think of a mushroom's spores as its seeds. Spores fall out of the mushroom's gills or pores to grow new mushrooms elsewhere. The spores are also a very valuable identification tool to the forager. The color of the spores can be an identifying factor for many species of tricky mushrooms. Use these steps to make your own spore prints, and use the print color to help identify the mushrooms in your neck of the woods.

STEP 1: Harvest a mushroom you are curious about. Handle it carefully, and assume that any unknown mushroom is deadly. Get the whole thing, if possible, but the cap is the part you need for spore prints.

STEP 2: Wrap each individual mushroom you harvest in wax paper or aluminum foil for transport. Plastic bags will make them sweat, and putting multiple mushrooms in a bag can create confusion.

STEP 3: Place the mushroom cap on a piece of white paper and set a disposable cup or bowl over it. Allow it to sit for several hours before inspecting the spore print.

STEP 4: Remove the cover and the mushroom cap. Observe the color of the spores that were deposited, and use that color for identification. Some mushrooms deposit white spores, which are hard to see on the white paper. Set a strong flashlight beside the paper, shining across the surface, to assist your identification of pure white spores. Check the color you see against several guides, and double check the mushroom’s structures against similar mushrooms to ensure that your mushroom really is safe.

Do you forage for mushrooms? What are your favorites? Have you ever mistakenly eaten a bad mushroom and gotten sick? Tell us your story in the comments.