Though humans have been eating mushrooms for thousands of years, these fungi still maintain an air of mystery. Some familiar-looking species have poisonous doppelgangers, while other edible varieties trigger hallucinations. In the wild, certain mushrooms grow in circles known as “fairy rings,” while others grow underground, on trees, on decaying plant matter or in manicured grassy fields. And even trained foragers aren’t entirely sure where they’ll turn up from one year to the next.
Separate from plants, animals, insects and many bacteria, mushrooms belong to the fungi kingdom alongside the yeasts we use to make bread and the molds that spoil our food. Although most grocery stores carry commercially grown mushrooms, they remain one of the few ingredients that people regularly forage for in the wild. The wet Pacific Northwest woods or Italy’s truffle-rich Piedmont come to mind, but edible mushrooms can be found just about anywhere, including New York City.
The history of mushroom societies dates back to the Victorian Era obsession with the natural world. Amateurs began hunting, collecting and studying specimens that they meticulously catalogued for public scientific record.
Paul Sadowsky — known as the “Woody Allen” of mycology according to Bone — is the secretary of the NYMS and has been a member for about twenty years. One of his projects has been to classify edible mushrooms throughout the city park system. He’s found morels in Van Cortlandt Park, blewits in Central Park and just about every edible fungi in between. (In case you’re wondering, Staten Island has the most mushroom-foraging potential out of the five boroughs.)
Experienced and beginning foragers alike need to be adept at edible mushroom identification for their own good — some can actually kill. “If it’s red, it doesn’t mean it’s a strawberry,” says Bone. So, as a strict rule, if not completely sure of a mushroom’s identity, don’t eat it. Ever.
The NYMS recommends that beginners learn identification by joining forays or mushroom hunts. “Books are great but a snapshot in a book is just a moment in time,” Bone says. “Identifying a mushroom from a book is like you trying to find me in a crowd having seen only a photo of me at age fourteen.” Mushrooms look different depending on their maturity, the time of year and even the environment where they grow.
While most grocery stores carry the usual portobello and crimini mushrooms (which are actually the same thing — portobellos are just the mature version), it takes a special place to have an ample selection of wild fungi. There are plenty of places in the city that sell interesting varieties of edible fungi and Bone recommends shops in Chelsea Market that usually have well-priced bins of wild mushrooms as well as cultivated varieties. Another option is Mario Batali’s specialty foods powerhouse, Eataly, as well as Foragers and several Greenmarket vendors including Blue Oyster Cultivation.
The main challenge of cooking mushrooms is extracting all of their flavor. Though the fungi may seem more like a plant than an animal, preparing them like a leafy green is most often off the mark. “Cooking a mushroom like a protein is much more flavorful than cooking a mushroom like a vegetable” says Bone. A mushroom’s flavor can get lost if cooked with another food. If you chuck them into a pasta sauce with all that tomato and onion, for example, you’re not adding mushroom flavor so much as a chewy texture.
Instead, try cooking them separately with butter and salt. Roasting and grilling are two of Bone’s favorite methods. “The stems of mushrooms make a wonderful stock and quite quickly too,” she adds. She likes to cut the stems and woody parts, add them to a stock pot with onion and a bay leaf and let the mixture boil. “It doesn’t take as long as a protein, but about as long as a vegetable stock.”
Below is a list of edible mushroom varieties known to grow in New York City. It’s not exhaustive and can be read alongside Ava Chin’s Urban Forager blog for The New York Times and Marie Viljoen’s stories for both Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. Though foraging in the city parks has gained popularity in recent years, it’s illegal and getting caught can technically carry fines of up to $250.
Latin Name: Pleurotus ostreatus
Identifying Features: These stemless mushrooms have a fan-shaped cap and can range in color from white to pale brown. Thin gills that run down from the cap’s edge to the base of the stem cover the underside of the mushroom. They also have a distinctive sweet smell.
In the wild: The Latin name for this mushroom roughly translates to “sideways oyster” — a description that makes perfect sense once you find this mushroom in its natural habitat. They like to grow on dead or standing wood. Though oyster mushroom season technically runs from late fall to winter in our climate, they can be found year-round.
Latin Name: Stropharia rugosoannulata
Identifying Features: This mushroom get its named from its reddish-brown colored cap, although older mushrooms tops can fade to an ecru white. Its white stem has a wrinkled ring — resembling one of those Victorian collars — just before it meets the gills that range from lilac to dark purple in color.
In the wild: Wine caps grow in woodchips or similar debris and are relatively easy to find. They’re a cool weather mushroom that’s most frequently found in the springtime.
Chicken of the Woods
Latin Name: Laetiporus sulphureus
Identifying Features: This mushroom has bright orange caps and lemon yellow undersides that grow in “shelves” on the sides of trees. The mushroom is known as a “polypore,” meaning that rather than having gills on its undersides like a wine cap, it has a porous flesh similar to a particularly intricate sponge. The mushroom’s name comes from its meaty texture and taste that are said to compare to, you guessed it, chicken.
In the wild: Because this mushroom causes a form of wood rot, its appearance on a living tree means that the tree’s lifespan is at an end. This mushroom is one of the easiest edibles to identify due to its color and it’s most often found during the summer.
Hen of the Woods (Maitake)
Latin Name: Grifola frondosa
Identifying Features: Another polypore, this one gets its name because it looks like it has feathers. The edges of the mushroom are wavy to the point of almost looking like frills. The upper part of the mushroom tends to be a drab brown while the stalk is creamy white.
In the wild: The hen of the woods mushroom grows mainly on the dead rootstalks of oak trees. It can be found starting in September and usually lasts until early winter.
Latin Name: Lepista nuda
Identifying Features: The most striking feature of this mushroom is its lavender-white color. Even more dull-colored blewits will have a telltale purple on their stems and gills. Blewits have a thick, gilled-cap with a stout rounded stem. They have a distinctive smell that some people compare to orange juice.
How to find it: These mushrooms are most likely to be found in late-autumn in spots where there’s a lot of leaf litter or plant waste.
Latin Name: Flammulina velutipes
Identifying Features: Though the cultivated enoki mushrooms popular in Asian cooking are white with long thin stems, wild enoki are a rich tan and often shorter and thicker in appearance. They have a gilled cap and an almost velvety stem.
In the wild: This mushroom grows year-round in clumps at the bottom of tree stumps. It’s a cool-weather fungus and lucky foragers might even find enoki mushrooms deep in the winter months.
Latin Name: Morchella esculenta
Identifying Features: The morel mushroom has a distinctive sea creature-like appearance that makes it easy to identify. Ripe morels will have a short stem and a spongy upper that resembles an abstract honeycomb. They’re most commonly brown in color and can be hard to find among the leaves and spring detritus on the ground.
In the wild: The beloved morel mushroom is often the first one to come up each spring. As soon as the ground (where it grows) temperature hangs at around 50 degrees, there’s a good chance they’re out.
Latin Name: Craterellus cornucopioides
Identifying Features: Sometimes known as a “black chanterelle,” this mushroom will look familiar to anyone who has foraged for its popular orange lookalike. They’re shaped like a funnel that ranges in grey-brown to black in color. Unlike other mushrooms, they’re smooth overall, without discernible markings like gills or pores.
In the wild: Though black trumpets have occasionally been spotted in our region, they’re a rare find. They don’t often fruit directly at the base of trees, but can be found close to wooded areas. They usually appear between late summer and November.
Illustrations by Rebecca Clarke