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Guide to Wild Mushrooms

The Martha Stewart Show, October 2009

Mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of microscopic organisms that live in the soil or in wood, are found all over the world, and mycologists like Gary Lincoff pick hundreds of them every year. Gary shares a few of his favorite varieties.

A fall mushroom found across northern North America, the Matsutake grows under or near conifers and has a distinctive spicy aroma that makes it recognizable even when blindfolded.

Cooking uses:
Best when cooked in soups or grilled and eaten with dipping sauces, Matsutake are not meant to be prepared in butter or cream.

Maitake (Hen of the Woods)
One of the most treasured edible mushrooms of autumn, the maitake is a polypore, meaning that its underside has a surface made up of tiny pores or holes. Found growing at the base of oak trees throughout northeastern North America, a single maitake can be as large as 2 feet across and more than a foot high. The average maitake, however, is about 1 foot high and weighs 2 to 5 pounds.

Cooking uses:
Maitake mushrooms dry easily and can be rehydrated for use in soups; they can also be sauteed and pickled for use as a condiment.

Honey Mushroom
One of the most popular wild mushrooms, this species can be found just about anywhere on the planet where there are trees. Honey mushrooms grow as a clone, and are known to cover hundreds of acres underground, sometimes causing root rot that can spread from tree to tree if not properly controlled.

Blewits are fall mushrooms that usually grow under oak leaves in late September and October in eastern parks and woods.

Cooking uses:
Especially tasty when grilled, blewit caps are solid enough to be stuffed and cooked for an attractive dish.

Silvery Violet Cort
This deceptive mushroom is a poisonous look-alike to the blewit; it has similar coloring and is common in the same oak-populated woods. Look for a cobwebby veil under the cap of a silvery violet cort to distinguish between the two species. While the silvery violet cort does not cause acute poisoning, it can cause kidney damage or failure after continued consumption.

Mushroom Hunting
When it comes to mushroom hunting, there are different rules that apply to different public lands. It is illegal to pick anything in America's National Parks, and our National Forests often require permits and limit the amount to be collected. California does not allow collecting in state parks; however, New York does. There is no general rule, and county and city parks vary their regulations. If in doubt, always ask a park ranger.

To ensure you do not pick poisonous mushrooms, use a mushroom field guide, check mushroom websites, or join a mushroom club for safe and enjoyable collecting.

Top tools for mushroom hunting:
1. "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms" -- to help you identify what you collect and show you where to hunt.

2. Flat-bottomed basket -- to put your mushrooms in.

3. Knife -- for digging up entire mushrooms so they can be identified correctly.

4. Wax paper -- the preferred medium for wrapping up mushrooms. Plastic is the worst, as mushrooms will sweat in plastic.

5. Empty egg carton -- for collecting very small mushrooms so they can be brought home intact and studied later.

6. Paper lunch bags -- for collecting lots of the same kind of mushrooms. Different bags can be used for different mushrooms.

7. Hand lens magnifying glass -- for observing features not easily seen otherwise, such as tiny scales or hairs on mushroom caps.

8. Note cards -- for keeping notes about each collection. The note cards can go with the mushroom into a waxed paper wrap.

9. Sharpie -- for writing in the rain or in cold weather without smearing.

10. Camera -- to photograph what you find. This will help you identify mushrooms, either later by themselves, or by sending the photographs to people in a local mushroom club who can help identify.

11. Mints -- in case you do need to taste a mushroom to identify it, you will want to cleanse your palate after.

Mycologist Gary Lincoff recommends several sources for more information about mushrooms.

For general information:

For information about cooking with mushrooms:

For information about medicinal mushrooms:

For information about mycoremediation (the use of mushrooms to remove contaminants from soil), check out "Mycelium Running," by Paul Stamets.

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