A mushroom is a fleshy, spore-bearing fungus. The term is applied to stemmed varieties like the commonly cultivated white button mushroom found in grocery stores. Other types of mushrooms grow without stems or even in a wooden, leathery pattern on trees and logs. Since some mushrooms can make you violently ill when ingested, or prove fatal, those interested in using them in cooking are advised to be able to make proper field identification. When in doubt, throw it out! Learn to identify edible mushrooms.
One of the tastiest mushrooms in North America is the morel. The three main varieties grow for a few weeks a year, in the spring, just after the first flowers bloom. Morels are identified by pits or cavities that cover the entire cap at the top of the stem. There are also spring mushrooms that exhibit a brainy, spongy cap. These are called false morels and should never be eaten since they can cause illness and death.
Some say this distinctive bright-yellow mushroom smells like apricot and tastes like a flower. It is found in the wilds from Alaska to Florida. Look for this mushroom to bloom at the end of winter. The cap of the golden chanterelle will be orange to yellow in color, smooth, hairless, and wavy at the edges when mature. There are two types of similar mushrooms that might fool you (and make you sick), so find a pictorial field guide to make sure you have the right one before eating it.
This summer mushroom is easy to find and identify. Look beneath oak trees primarily, but it doesn’t grow on wood. If you find one, chances are there will be many more nearby. The cap spreads outward from the stem and is hollow inside, so identifying it is like looking down into a trumpet. The coloring runs the gamut from salmon to gray to black. Black trumpets work well powdered and used as flavoring.
Referred to simply as “the king” in the United States, this mushroom can grow up to ten inches across its red-tinged dome cap, the underneath of which is spongy with no obvious gill structure. The prime harvesting season is late summer through early fall. Expect to find one by itself or in groups. The stalk is thick and white or yellowish in color. French and Italian recipes make widespread use of dried porcini.
Towards the end of the mushrooming season, lucky hunters might stumble across a 40- or 50-pound fruiting hen-of-the-woods beneath an oak tree. The hen is identified by leaf-like fronds growing in overlapping patterns in a bushy structure, sort of like the tail feathers of a chicken. The fronds may be darker at the edges and the sprouting surface can be several feet across. Harvest the mushroom, chop it into whatever size pieces you like to cook with, and freeze the rest in a freezer bag for later use.
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