An Illustrated Guide to Mushroom Foraging (& 10 Earthy, Savory Recipes)

November  6, 2017

There are around 10,000 species of fungi which produce fleshy mushrooms—only 15 to 30 of which are edible.

Some general tips:

  • The best time to forage for 'shrooms is after a heavy rain.

  • When you find a mushroom, cut the fleshy top off about an inch from the base—this allows the mushroom to regenerate, meaning more fungi for all.

  • If you want to be a true mycological master, guard your foraging spots carefully. Fungi hunters are notoriously secretive about their hunting grounds, because chanterelles or hen-of-the-woods are rare, precious, and damn delicious.

  • Do not—I repeat, DO NOT, consume any mushrooms unless you are totally, 100% certain that they are edible (read: not poisonous). If you have any doubts, seeks out your local mycological society; most of them will happily look through your finds and approve them for consumption.

Once you've found your mushrooms, make sure prep them correctly before you cook them. Sauté your fungi finds with butter, wine, or pickle brine. Don't waste the stems, either..

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Most mushrooms flourish in late summer to early fall, but as much of the U.S. has been experiencing an unusually hot summer, I thought I'd provide a guide to help you nab the last of these fungi before they're gone for the year. If it's too late in your area, read up to prepare yourself for when the weather warms again—then seek out some hen-of-the-woods or porcinis at the grocery store and make the recipes below, anyway.

On the lookout for a more extensive list of foraging resources and books? Check out this intro post to the world of wild mushrooms. If you want a fun, illustrated guide to some of the most common mushrooms you'll find in the woods (or your backyard) this fall, and a few of our favorite recipes to make with them, read on!

Puffball: The Odd 'Shroom You'll Soon Love

Giant puffball on the left, brown puffballs on the right. Photo by Catherine Lamb

With their spongy, almost marshmallow-like texture, puffballs are an acquired taste. They're also one of the easiest wild mushrooms to identify. Giant puffballs, which can range in size from four inches up to a foot (!), are easy to find and i.d. because of their large size. They are typically white or off-white and rounded, with no visible stem or gills. (You'll want to cut them open to make sure they're not an immature Amanita mushroom, a deadly varietal, which can look like a puffball in its infancy until you reveal the gills inside.) There are several other varieties of puffball mushrooms, such as the gem-studded puffball, which looks as if it's covered in tiny white spikes which rub off when touched, or the purple-spored puffball, which is a light brown, purple-y color.

Puffballs have a pronounced earthy flavor and are versatile in the kitchen. Bread and fry them like you would for eggplant parmesan, toss cubes into scrambled eggs, or use them to bulk up a stir-fry.

Chanterelles: Foraging Gold

Chanterelles Photo by Catherine Lamb

One of the most popular wild mushrooms (and deservedly so), chanterelles are a good target for a beginning forager. Their bright color, which ranges from pale orange-yellow to bright gold, makes them easy to spot, and they're quite easy to distinguish from their poisonous look-alike, the jack o'lantern mushroom. True chanterelles have false gills, which seem to almost melt into the 'shroom and are not easily separable, as they are with a portobello or button mushroom. They are also said to smell of apricots, which I have found to be true-ish; mostly I find that they smell slightly sweet and fresh. Look for these fungi in fallen leaves under oak trees, but know that if the mushroom is growing on fallen wood, it is not a chanterelle. If you see one, look around; there will likely be more hiding nearby.

With their rich flavor, chanterelles go well in a risotto or on couscous, add bulk to creamy pastas, and stand up next to wintery braises.

Oyster Mushrooms: The Prolific Tree-Climber

Oyster mushrooms Photo by Catherine Lamb

Oyster mushrooms are another good varietal for beginning foragers. They are typically found growing on wood, either stacked vertically along tree trunks or on rotting logs. Ranging from white to pale brown to light pink in color, they are identifiable by their pure white gills, short, slightly off-center stem, and their growing pattern: in clumps, on dying or dead trees. They also have a much longer season than most wild mushrooms, so you can stumble across them in fall, spring, and even into winter.

Oyster mushrooms have a delicate, mild flavor and a velvety texture, making them one of the most coveted fungi around. They're especially delicious when thrown into a miso soup or noodle salad, or just braised in butter. Fun fact—they're carniverous!

Chicken of the Woods: The Meaty Mushroom

Chicken of the Woods Photo by Catherine Lamb

Occasionally dubbed the "sulphur shelf," these odd-looking fungi are more commonly known as "chicken mushrooms" or "chicken of the woods," because they purportedly taste like—you guessed it—chicken. Often found growing in a tightly-layered formation on trees, this mushroom is identifiable by its bright orange-red color and lack of gills. These mushrooms often grow in groups, so if you find one, you'll likely be going home with a full bag.

Some use this 'shroom as a vegetarian substitute for chicken, but cook it however you would a meaty mushroom; it works well in omelets, tacos, or on toast (preferably topped with a poached egg).

Maitake: The Edible All-Star

Hen of the woods Photo by Catherine Lamb

Known in Japan as maitake (the dancing mushroom), this fungi also goes under the moniker of hen of the woods, fried chicken, or ram's head mushroom. Whatever you call it, it is one of the most coveted edible fungi around. Originally from China and said to have medicinal properties, this mushroom typically grows on or around the base of trees and will pop up to the same spot year after year. Maitake is identifiable by its overlapping, lacy fronds, as well as its large size and brownish-black color. If you find a hen of the woods foraging spot, guard it closely!

This prolific mushroom has a firm texture and lovely flavor that lends itself well to almost any preparation. However, true mushroom fanatics agree that the simplest preparation is the best: cut off the hard stem and pull apart the "fronds," then sauté the hen of the woods in butter, garlic, and a little white wine.

Lobster Mushroom: The Parasite We Love

Lobster mushroom Photo by Catherine Lamb

Lobster mushrooms aren't really mushrooms at all; they're parasitic fungi that prey on other mushrooms, eventually enveloping them and taking them over completely. They take on the shape of whatever mushroom they attack, so the shapes of these fungi vary widely. The only true way to identify them is by their coloring, which is also how the fungi earned its name; with its bright red exterior and white interior, it does indeed resemble a lobster.

These mushrooms hold their shape well after cooking, making them a good candidate to add to baked pastas (double lobster mac & cheese, maybe?) or a mushroom bourgignon.

Porcinis: The Hard-To-Grow Fungi

Porcini mushroom Photo by Catherine Lamb

Porcini mushrooms, also known as the king bolete, are coveted for their earthy, rich flavor and versatility in the kitchen. Identifiable by its dark brown/reddish sticky cap and fat, spongy stem, they are typically found growing on the ground of hardwood forests. They're notoriously difficult to cultivate and thus fetch a high price when sold commercially, making them all the more satisfying to find for free.

If you see porcini in stores they're typically dried. You can try dehydrating your haul to use in later cooking endeavors (just rehydrate them in hot stock or water before using), or use the fresh ones in risottos, as pizza toppings, or turn them into the most gourmet steak topper conceivable to (wo)man.

Lion's Mane: Yes, It's a Mushroom

Lion's mane mushroom Photo by Catherine Lamb

Lion's mane mushrooms are odd-looking fungi; in lieu of fleshy caps and stems, they sport tooth-like spikes which cascade, waterfall-like, down logs, stumps, and hardwood trees. (It's also called the pom-pom mushroom, because it looks like a cheerleader could wield it to amp up team spirit.) These mushrooms have no look-alikes, and all forms are edible, delicious, and are said to have medicinal properties.

Many liken the flavor of lion's mane mushrooms to shellfish like crab or lobster, so why not use it in lieu of these crustaceans in an egg-topped hash, spicy pasta, or just as-is with a little butter on the top.

How to cook your haul

Once you've foraged your mushrooms (or picked them up at your local farmer's market), turn them into a masterpiece! Braise them, roast them, pair them with pasta, put them on a piece of toast with a runny egg, or just eat them all by their lonesome—they'll taste even better if you foraged them yourself, but, honestly, they're pretty excellent regardless.

Are you a mushroom forager? Which types do you find, and how do you prepare them? Tell us below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Oliver Carlin
    Oliver Carlin
  • HalfPint
  • Stephanie B.
    Stephanie B.
  • mondogrowkits
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Oliver C. March 10, 2020
Great article on describing these edible mushrooms. My favorite one is the Lion's Mane mushroom. I like to chop it up and saute with with a little oil until it is golden brown. Taste's sooo Amazing!!

I noticed you mentioned that it has medicinal benefits as well. Here is an article online that talks about those benefits:

My second favorite is the Chicken of Woods mushroom. Me and my Dad have a secret spot on the golf course that grows that one, and it is amazing. It really does taste like chicken.
mondogrowkits September 22, 2021
HalfPint November 8, 2017
Also check foraging laws/regulations in your area to know where you can forage, what you can forage, and how much. In California, you are allowed to take 1 grocery bag of mushrooms from any Univ of CA land. Not sure that State Parks have the same allowance.

So if you are keen on fungi-gathering, join the local mycology club. They often have classes on fungi identification/safety and regular field trips to hunt.

I once went mushroom gathering with a Russian friend whose mother use to gather mushrooms back in the Mother Land. Olga had the sharpest eyes for good edible stuff. And I learned that if you can see a fungus in plainsight, it was poisonous. The edible stuff was really hard to see and often under leaves or brush. But it was so much fun. Alas, they moved to Georgia and I haven't done it since.
Stephanie B. November 6, 2017
I would add that while lots of mycological societies love to identify mushrooms, they don't love people asking them to identify mushrooms just based on a picture and it's a risk for everyone involved. Try joining your local mycological society - mine was an incredibly affordable $20/year and I learned sooooo much.
Catherine L. November 6, 2017
Oh yes, definitely! If you're serious about mushroom hunting I'd definitely recommend joining a local society, both as a safety measure against eating poisonous specimens and for fun! Lots of cool events and great people :)