Eating Wild Mushrooms Safely
There are many different wild mushrooms growing in the Pacific NW. Edible gilled mushrooms are trickier to ID than most of the common non-gilled mushrooms people gather such as chanterelles, hedgehogs, and boletes. Mushrooms growing in the ground are more dangerous than mushrooms growing on living trees. Mushrooms on the ground in forests are usually more dangerous to people than mushrooms on lawns, but there are exceptions.
You can learn to find and identify them, which is better than relying on others for your safety. Learning to prepare and eat wild mushrooms is satisfying on many levels, but you must use caution, because there are many species that can cause various levels of discomfort. Some contain such potent toxins that they can cause permanent organ damage or even death.
Beginners should stick to one or two species of edible wild mushrooms. Learn everything you can about them such as: what they look like at each stage of their development, what they smell like, where they are found, what trees are present where they grow, what the elevation is, what the soil is like, etc.
Always follow these guidelines and remember, When in Doubt, Throw it Out!
- It is important to learn the local poisonous mushrooms, and certainly the deadly ones, and be able to distinguish them from the edible look-alikes. You must ID each and every wild mushroom you collect if you plan on eating it. I just can’t stress this enough. Many poisonous mushrooms simply cause stomach upset, while others accumulate their toxins in one or another of your internal organs, doing their damage over time.
- Select only mushrooms in excellent condition. Leave the decaying and insect-ridden ones to spread spores for future crops. If you pick insect infested mushrooms you might find little mushroom tissue left by the time you get them home.
- Cut and clean the mushrooms in the field and then put them in your basket or container where they should be wrapped in paper bags or wax paper; never put them in plastic bags or the mushrooms will not stay in their best condition for long. Keep the mushrooms cool and refrigerate as soon as possible. You could even have an ice chest handy in the car.
- Improper collection and storage in plastic bags or plastic containers can result in poisonings. If the weather is warm or hot and you carry your edibles in plastics for more than 2-3 hours you are just asking for problems. Once you get home, don’t let your mushrooms sit around for days before cooking them. You need to use proper drying and storage methods as well.
- If you are planning on eating a mushroom species, you need to have 100% confidence in your ID. One of the best ways to learn a mushroom well is to collect it often before you ever consider eating it. Know all of the identifying characteristics for that species and never rely solely on photographs.
- When eating a mushroom species for the first time, eat only a couple of tablespoons of one thoroughly cooked species, and wait at least 24 hours before eating any more of it or trying another new species. Individual people can have allergies to a particular mushroom, similar to being allergic to nuts, wheat, or other foods. It may not be an allergy, but you can still have an intolerance to a particular mushroom resulting in GI symptoms. Even some wild mushrooms classified as safe edibles can cause temporary, but stomach upset in some people, but not others.
- Don’t eat any “edible” wild mushrooms RAW, because many are poisonous raw. Thoroughly cook them to improve digestibility, flavor, and safety. Once cooked they are perfectly safe to eat by most people. Remember, there are individual sensitivities even to the most popular wild mushrooms. Morels are very toxic when eaten raw and will sicken almost everybody, but most people can eat them cooked without any problems. Dehydrating or freezing them is not a substitute for cooking them.
- Although certain cooking methods can eliminate some toxins, cooking will NOT make many poisonous mushrooms safe to eat. These mushrooms will still be poisonous. You must be able to positively ID your mushrooms to be sure.
- It is also important to protect your pets and children from poisonous mushrooms. Even those that are usually considered edible, such as morels, can kill a dog that eats them raw. Many raw mushrooms are also poisonous for a small child, but an adult might not develop any symptoms. If you do decide to eat a wild mushroom, it is important to keep at least one in its fresh, original state in your refrigerator just in case its ID needs to be confirmed later if someone is poisoned.
- Do not consume any alcohol when trying a mushroom for the first time. Wait until you are sure you are not allergic or intolerant to a particular species before having it with any form of alcohol. You also need to know which mushrooms become toxic when consumed within 72 hours of ingesting alcohol.
- Be aware of where you are collecting your edibles. Mushrooms can and do concentrate toxic chemicals from the environment as well as heavy metals. Avoid picking along busy roads or in lawns or parks where fertilizers or pesticides are likely to be used or where there is run-off from the road where oil, gasoline, antifreeze, etc., can soak into the soil where the mushrooms are growing. Do not eat fungi growing on ornamental non-native trees.
- You just can’t tell for sure if a mushroom is poisonous by its color, smell, taste, where is grows, if other animals consume it, etc. You must know how to absolutely identify it. There are many folk traditions concerning how to ID poisonous mushrooms, but the use of the following folk traditions is a frequent cause of mushroom poisonings. Examples include:
- Poisonous mushrooms are brightly colored.
- If an insect/animal has nibbled on the mushroom you can eat it.
- Poisonous mushrooms blacken silverware.
- All mushrooms are safe if cooked/parboiled/dried/pickled, etc.
- Poisonous mushrooms will turn red when boiled.
- Poisonous mushrooms have a pointed cap.
- All mushrooms that have pores on the underside are safe to eat.
- Poisonous mushrooms taste awful. Unfortunately, some of the most poisonous wild mushrooms are reported to taste quite good.
- Join your local mushroom club. There are usually many people available that can help you with mushroom identification. It can be fun to go on mushroom forays with other people in the club plus other activities that will be available to you.