05/13/2016

Mushrooms: On the Hunt for Edibles

13:32 minutes

A collection of morel mushrooms, Credit: Christie Taylor
A collection of morel mushrooms. Photo by Christie Taylor

Morel mushroom season is in full swing, with hunters looking beneath every promising tree, hoping no one else finds their secret spots. In some parts of the country, you can also find fruity chanterelle mushrooms or earthy porcinis. There may even be delicate shaggymanes growing on your lawn, or oyster mushrooms on a tree nearby.

If you’ve never dared to eat wild mushrooms before, you’re missing out on all these delicious flavors. Mycologist and author Gary Lincoff shares tips for finding some easy-to-identify edible mushrooms this spring and summer, wherever you may live. He also offers advice for foraging safely so you don’t accidentally consume a gourmet fungus’ toxic doppleganger.

You can listen to Christie’s audio postcard below.

Segment Guests

Gary Lincoff

Gary Lincoff is a mycologist and is author of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. He’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: For some people, spring is not about the birds and the bees– it’s about the mushrooms. That’s right, morel mushrooms are in season here in New York, and at similar latitudes. And that season is continuing to move northward as the weeks pass. And these wild mushrooms are considered such a delicacy that they can easily sell for more than $30 a pound.

They’re also hard to find. They grow in woods, and generally associated with only a few different kinds of trees. SciFri’s Christie Taylor joined a group of morel hunters last weekend on their quest for the elusive fungus, and she came back a little scratched up, but what a big bag of mushrooms for me to saute. And I can tell you now– they were delicious. Thanks for bringing them back.

Christie’s here in the studio right now. Hi, welcome.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, how’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about what happened. Give us a little– take us on a little tour of your trip.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. Well, first we drove for quite a while in a direction away from New York City. And we went into the woods, and we started looking for elm trees and apple trees, which are some of the trees that morels are associated with, at least in this part of the country. So there was a lot of scrambling over rocks, there was a lot of pushing through undergrowth, and I didn’t get any ticks, so that was great.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good news, yes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And we came back with some mushrooms.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, you put a little audio package together for us.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes, I did. So this is audio with some members of the New York Mycological Society– Tom Bigelow, Juniper Perlis, and Ethan Crenson. They were very kind to invite me along on their trip with them. Let’s listen.

JUNIPER PERLIS: Leaves, roots, moss covered stones. Brambles– lots of brambles.

TOM BIGELOW: Inside what looks to be an impenetrable thicket of brambles and brush. And we’re going to try to push through. Tom Bigelow, I’m the president of the New York Mycological Society, and I’ve been a member and hunting morels for eight years, I guess.

JUNIPER PERLIS: Ah, this is so stressful. My nervous system is cranked up.

TOM BIGELOW: The esculenta is the morel that everyone wants.

JUNIPER PERLIS: Oh, I see a morel– a big morel, right next to these entolomas.

ETHAN CRENSON: That’s just like a refrigerator magnet version of a morel. It’s so perfect.

TOM BIGELOW: There’s a meaty richness to it, that when you mix it with a little butter, a little cream, a little nutmeg and pepper, it’s just unlike anything.

ETHAN CRENSON: It’s a beauty. It really is a worthy find.

TOM BIGELOW: There’s that rush, that thrill of seeing one. And then, suddenly, you start seeing them everywhere.

JUNIPER PERLIS: You found one?

ETHAN CRENSON: Yeah, they’re small.

JUNIPER PERLIS: Hooray!

ETHAN CRENSON: Two.

JUNIPER PERLIS: Yay. They’re here. Tom, they’re wide and far, and lots of them. Oh my God, it’s so big. Hooray!

TOM BIGELOW: It’s hit or miss, though, so it’s kind of an insanity looking for them in places like this. Their existence is fleeting, they’re elusive, and it’s exciting when you have a big bag of them, like this. And I’m always relieved when morel season is over, because I don’t have to subject myself to this anymore.

IRA FLATOW: Christie, it sounds like just terrible torture.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It was a lot of fun, I will say. But it was an entire day of looking for mushrooms. And we only came back with one meal’s worth, a piece, basically. So it was a lot of work for a small number of mushrooms.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I feel very fortunate that you gave me some of those mushrooms. I sauteed them up in a little bit of butter, and some onions, and whatever, and they were just delicious. I’ve never had anything like that.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s why it was such a secret where exactly I went.

IRA FLATOW: So you are sworn to secrecy?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes, basically. That is Tom and Juniper’s spot– at least as far as anyone who knows them is concerned. If I wanted to go back, I would have to ask their permission every single time I went, probably. And that’s etiquette. They’re very hard to find, so it’s really great when you find that perfect spot.

IRA FLATOW: Are they all spread out? Is it a wide area, or are they all under a clump of trees, or brush in one spot?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So they’re associated with the roots of the tree, so the farthest away from a tree we found one would be maybe 30 or 40 feet. So it was really about that one tree, and then finding sort of where they had spread around that tree.

IRA FLATOW: That good hunting, Chris. Thank you for going out and finding those mushrooms for us.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: My pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Christie Taylor, our Science Friday producer, out there in the wilds. Well, maybe morels aren’t your cup of tea, or just sound like too much trouble. Well, luckily, there are other edible mushrooms you can go in search of right now– or soon, depending on where you live. Just make sure you do it safely.

So how do you know a good mushroom from a poisonous one? For advice on safe and fruitful mushroom hunting, we turn to Gary Lincoff, a mycologist. A mushroom hunter, and author of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. He joins us in our studios here in New York. Welcome to Science Friday.

GARY LINCOFF: Thank you. Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Is it dangerous to go out and pick mushrooms?

GARY LINCOFF: For beginners, it’s just a matter of learning a few of the basic rules of the road, as it were. And you look for the ones that you either cannot mistake, or that are so conspicuous that if you see them, you sort of know them on site. So we look for the easy ones, and especially the ones that are large and flashy and edible.

So if you find a really rare mushroom that happens to be edible but is really small, it’s worthless, whereas if you can find oyster mushrooms or chicken of the woods mushrooms, you’re talking about 20 or 30 pounds for a given mushroom on a given tree. That is quite a haul.

IRA FLATOW: That is. So how do you know that your mushrooms that you’re seeing are the safe ones to eat? Do you look through your catalog?

GARY LINCOFF: Well, I wrote the Complete Mushroom Hunter, which is a book really for beginners. And I through something like, say, Central Park in New York City, which I used as an indicator park. If the mushroom is growing there, it’s growing everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve heard that song, that’s right.

GARY LINCOFF: Right. So if you see the oyster mushrooms, they’re growing up a tree– let’s say a beech tree, or a willow– you know it’s going to be just about everywhere you go. And the oyster mushroom and chicken of the woods grow all across North America. It’s not like you have to– just in one small area. These are widespread mushrooms that come up, especially in the spring.

So that’s why we’re out. And those of us who are disappointed at not finding morels, the compensation is we often find oyster mushrooms or chicken of the woods. And pound for pound, we get a lot more meals from those mushrooms then the morel.

IRA FLATOW: Do the poisonous ones have anything in common that you could stay away from? That you can notice about them?

GARY LINCOFF: Yeah. It’s better to know the mushroom you’re looking for, then to just pick mushrooms and hope you can identify it. So you learn them one at a time. And so what we recommend everywhere is that people join mushroom clubs. And there are clubs in every state of the United States. And there are regular walks, and they’re usually posted on websites, so there’s all kinds of ways for people to connect with people who are going out looking for mushrooms. And it’s better to go in a group then go by yourself.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Go online, and find a group that may be near you. Do have a website you might suggest to us?

GARY LINCOFF: Well, sure. My website, which is garylincoff.com. And I post walks that are going to be held, both in the local area, and around the country.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Gary Lincoff, a mycologist. A mycologist, by definition, is a mushroom expert?

GARY LINCOFF: A person that studies mushrooms and fungi, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Is it true that most of the mushrooms– speaking now about the biology of a mushroom– that the mushroom is sort of the flower of the fungus that’s underground?

GARY LINCOFF: Well, the– yeah, the fruiting body.

IRA FLATOW: The fruiting body?

GARY LINCOFF: The fruiting body of what is usually not visible. It’s in a tree, or it’s underground, or it’s in mulch, for example– wood mulch.

IRA FLATOW: And so it’s a huge object, technically?

GARY LINCOFF: Right, technically, the vegetative part can spread out for 100 yards, perhaps. But the actual mushroom is going to be relatively small– the fruiting body.

IRA FLATOW: How easy is it to grow your own mushrooms?

GARY LINCOFF: Different mushrooms have different requirements. Some are as simple as drilling a hole in an oak log, and filling it with what’s called the mycelium of a particular– like a shiitake mushrooms. And then nature takes over, and it fruits for you.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s terrific. Let’s see if I can go to the phones, and get a phone call or two in here. Let’s go to Dan in Davis, California. Hi, Dan.

DAN: Hi. I just have a little comment about seeing mushrooms. I go for morels quite a bit in the foothills of California, here. And often, I’m surrounded by them, but I don’t see them until I see one. And when I see one– I think it’s something in my pattern recognition– and I suddenly see them everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Gary is nodding his head about that one.

GARY LINCOFF: That’s right, right.

IRA FLATOW: That’s how it works?

GARY LINCOFF: You have to find the first one, that’s right. It’s also true for other things, like black trumpets around here. Very hard to see, but once you see one, you simply stop. And you get down– literally, you start poking and looking, staring at the ground. And you see others.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve seen– we’ve heard advice before about avoiding gilled mushrooms.

GARY LINCOFF: Right.

IRA FLATOW: Talk about that.

GARY LINCOFF: Oh, even though the common mushrooms sold in the market, which is called the white button mushroom, or the portobello, or the cremini. Those have gills– they have these knife blades underneath the cap. Those are edible– the group of those kinds of mushrooms include many that are really poisonous, even deadly. So, non-gilled mushrooms are much safer for the beginner.

So things like the morel, or the chicken mushroom, for example– the chicken mushroom is a bracket, or a shelf fungus– is just way safer than trying to say, well, I think I know what this is. I’m pretty sure– I’m going to feed it to my family. And that would be a really big mistake.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: So that’s interesting, because you’re right. When we buy those button mushrooms in the store, they all have the gills on them. And we say, well, we’ll find one that’s not open because it’s fresher. But out, wild, stay away from those.

GARY LINCOFF: Until you really are familiar with the whole life cycle of each of these mushrooms. And again, doing it with a group is safer than doing it by yourself.

IRA FLATOW: And this is the season? Go out now?

GARY LINCOFF: Right now. This is the real beginning of the regular mushroom season, which runs, generally in the east, from May until the end of October. And then usually begins out in California with the rains in November, and runs until March or April. I just came back from Yosemite, and morels were fruiting in Yosemite.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

GARY LINCOFF: I mean, come on. Whoa.

IRA FLATOW: Doesn’t get better than that. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us, Gary.

GARY LINCOFF: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Gary Lincoff, a mycologist, mushroom hunter, and author of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. If you want to know your mushrooms– there it is, he’s holding up a copy for me.

GARY LINCOFF: The complete mushroom–

IRA FLATOW: The Complete Mushroom Hunter. All right, that’s one we’re going to look for. And if you need more mushrooms, you want to collect them all, we made some fungus trading cards, including the Jack-o-lantern mushrooms, whose bioluminescent gills glow in the dark. And you can get them at sciencefriday.com/mushroomcards if you want to see that, too.

One last note– a few weeks ago we said that the FDA had approved fecal transplants for C. diff infections. We’ve got a note from listener Rachel Sachs at Harvard saying it’s not technically approved, but the FDA doesn’t go after companies or doctors who perform the fecal transplant. Thank you, Rachel, for that correction.

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Meet the Producer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they happen to have an audio recording of their research findings.

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