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Mushroom Identification: Know What You Can and Can’t Eat

basket of mushrooms

Hunting and gathering - the process of hunting and killing animals for meat and foraging for wild food sources - have been a way of life for millions of years. If you’re someone who fishes or hunts deer, turkey, and other game animals for food, you probably enjoy foraging for wild foods, such as mushrooms, as well—and it’s easy to see why. 

If you’re harvesting one resource, why wouldn’t you harvest another? Mushroom hunting is a fun way to get out into the wilderness and connect with nature. If you’ve never gone mushroom hunting before, you’re missing out on a rewarding adventure. But there are a few things you should know before getting started. Most importantly, it’s important that you understand that consuming wild mushrooms has its risks. If you aren’t familiar with the types of mushrooms that are native to your area, you should avoid touching or eating them, as there are some which are poisonous that look very similar to edible mushrooms. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most common mushrooms and how to identify them. 

Common Edible Mushrooms

Mushroom hunting is fun, but it can also be very dangerous. Again, many mushrooms look similar, and if you don’t know anything about mushroom identification, it’s easy to accidentally collect toxic mushrooms instead of those that are edible, which could have terrible consequences. There are many different edible mushrooms in the United States—here are some of the most common: 

Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms are the most popular to forage for in America and are considered very delicious when cooked. They have a very distinct yellow-gray honeycomb-shaped cap with a hollow interior. Morel mushroom season lasts for only a short time in the spring. They are very widespread and can be found across much of the United States.

morel mushroom

Chanterelle
Chanterelle mushrooms are a white to yellowish-gold color, have a funnel shape, and are incredibly meaty, making them a very popular mushroom to forage for. If you look under the cap, you will see gills running down the stem. Most people describe chanterelles as smelling earthy or woody. They are found all across North America in the late summer through the beginning of winter. Keep an eye out for chanterelles that appear orange in color rather than yellow, as these aren’t actually chanterelles, but a bad-tasting lookalike that can cause an upset stomach. 

Sulfur Shelf
Also known as “Chicken of the Woods” for their rich and meaty flavor, sulfur shelf mushrooms are another popular favorite. They are yellow to orange in color and are often found growing on the base or up on the side of trees, such as oak, in the middle to late summer to fall. When it comes to sulfur shelf mushrooms, proper identification is key. Be extra cautious when foraging for these meat-like mushrooms, as they can be dangerous if they’re found growing on certain tree species. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and skip it. 

Western Giant Puffball
The western giant puffball looks exactly as its name suggestions—like a big, white puffed-up ball. It’s round in shape and can grow up to 10 inches or more in diameter. You’ll find them throughout North America in the summer and fall, most often in open areas like fields and hillsides, on rotting wood, and along roadways. Avoid them if they appear yellow or green in color, as this could cause an upset stomach when eaten. 

Toxic Mushrooms

There are thousands of cases every year of people getting poisoned by wild mushrooms or becoming very sick after eating one. The reason for this is almost always that a person accidentally consumed a dangerous lookalike, which is why mushroom identification is so important. As a reminder, if you find a mushroom but aren’t sure whether it’s toxic or safe to eat, be cautious and avoid it altogether. Here are a few of the most common toxic mushrooms you might encounter while foraging:

False Morels
False morel mushrooms look dangerously similar to Morel mushrooms. Mistaking these imposters for the real thing will lead to nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and vomiting. The easiest way to tell false morels apart from the real thing is to look at their cap. Morel mushrooms have a honeycomb-shaped cap, whereas false morels have a wrinkled cap. 

Jack-o-Lantern
Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are most often mistaken for chanterelle mushrooms, thanks to their similarities in appearance and taste. While not life-threatening, eating a jack-o-lantern mushroom can lead to an upset stomach.

jack-o-lantern mushroom

Amanitas
Amanitas are some of the most dangerous mushrooms found in nature. They are commonly found on the ground in wooded areas during the summer and fall. You can identify them by their white gills and parasol-shaped cap. Some amanita mushroom species are edible; however, unless you’re an expert in mushroom identification, we don’t recommend you eat amanitas, even if you think you’ve found one that’s not toxic. 

Little Brown Mushroom
Little brown mushrooms isn’t exactly a scientific term for a specific species of mushrooms. It’s an umbrella term used to categorize small-to-medium brown mushrooms that are difficult to identify. There are hundreds of species that fall into this category, and they can be found throughout the world in many different seasons and a variety of different habitats. Some are harmless, while others like the galerina species are considered extremely deadly. Galerina mushrooms have brown-colored spores and grow on wood from spring to fall. 

Know Before You Go

If you’ve never hunted for mushrooms or other wild foods before, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. The best thing you can do is connect with a foraging expert who will be able to give you the ins and outs of mushroom identification. One thing’s for sure—there’s nothing quite like hunting for your own wild mushrooms. Sure, you can probably find mushrooms for sale at any farmer’s market, but freshly foraged mushrooms just pair so much better with wild turkey or venison, and we think you would agree! 

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