From deadly zombie-making cordyceps in the fictional world of “The Last of Us” to psilocybin decriminalization efforts in the real world, mushroom mania is in bloom. But not every mushroom is mind-altering. Foragers take to the woods in search of delicious morels and porcinis to add to anything from soups to grilled cheese sandwiches, for three distinct reasons — foraging is eco-friendly, economical, and delicious. Local mushroom hunting cuts down on the emissions required for packaging and transporting food, and, aside from the minimal cost of equipment, it’s free. For Tony Mastracci, a Massachusetts mushroom forager of six years who has found over 40 species, it’s also about “the thrill of the hunt.”
This rise in mushroom foraging comes a decade after the millennial obsession with putting truffles on everything which morphed into wild mushrooms appearing more on menus in major cities. But consumer interest in foraging has been steadily rising over the last five years, gaining more attention in part from the COVID-19 pandemic which forced many people outside in search of hobbies. Since then, wild mushrooms have entered mainstream conversations about potential health benefits as well as the advantages of eating forest (or front lawn)-to-table. They’ve also been spotted in style and decor trends.
While Mastracci was an early adopter of the foraging hobby, he stressed that they’re not all friendly. “There are a couple that will, within six hours, start breaking down your kidneys and your liver,” Mastracci said. That’s why being an informed forager is crucial to staying safe. Nowhere else does the adage “when in doubt, throw it out” apply better than foraging. And even edible varieties of mushrooms will be safer to eat when properly cooked. Because of this, Mastracci emphasized the need to invest in a regional field guide to help parse the tasty from the toxic.
The good news is that toxic mushrooms are only poisonous when ingested. Picking up a mushroom and bringing it to a more experienced forager is perfectly safe (though proper handwashing is well advised). Mastracci cited a few he knows to be careful around. Amanita is a species of mushrooms that includes many poisonous mushrooms, including the aptly named Death Cap and Destroying Angel. Another type of mushroom that can be mistaken for edible Chanterelles is the poisonous Jack-o-Lantern.
The Essential Mushroom Foraging Tools At a Glance
What the Expert Says
To find mushrooms, stay safe, and make friends, Mastracci encouraged joining a group. He’s a member of various mushroom-hunting Facebook groups but plenty of regional mycological societies also welcome new members. These groups can help new foragers identify mushrooms and keep them up-to-date with relevant rules and restrictions in their area.
As for which mushroom foraging equipment is needed, Mastracci recommended a few key things, including brushes, bags, and mushroom foraging knives, along with some extras that can keep foragers comfortable and make it easier to identify different mushrooms.
He added that even if a mushroom hunt is unsuccessful, it can still be fun. “Nothing beats being out in the fresh air, whether you’re alone or with somebody else. The fresh air that you get, you know, it’s just, you can’t beat it.”
Opinel No.08 Carbon Steel Folding Pocket Knife
Expert Advice: For mushrooms “like chanterelles or morels, a 2 or 3-inch knife is ideal,” Mastracci said.
Hot Take: Opinel’s No. 8 is one of the most beloved blades, and with good reason. Opinel’s knives have attractive wood handles with a rotating collar that securely locks the blade in place. The knife has a 3.25-inch blade. Opinel also makes a specific mushroom foraging knife.
Also Consider: “They do make a knife that has a brush on one end and the blade on the other.” Mastracci noted that minimalists might prefer the Opinel mushroom knife — a 2-in-1 tool with a curved blade.
Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest
Expert Advice: Given the dangers presented when mushroom foraging, Mastracci said it behooves new foragers to read up about their local fungi. “Anybody who’s going to start should have some kind of a field guide.”
Hot Take: The Pacific Northwest is known for its rich mycological biodiversity, and this is a well-regarded guide for foragers in Washington and Oregon. Many regions have their own field guides, which is the first thing to consider when locally foraging for mushrooms. For a larger scope, Mastracci likes the National Audobon Society’s Fied Guide to Mushrooms.
Kershaw Folding Fillet K-Texture Knife
Expert Advice: “If I get to, let’s say, a hen of the woods, which could be the size of a basketball, using a knife with a 3-inch blade and trying to get under it is not gonna work very well, so I carry a 6 to 7-inch foldable fillet knife,” Mastracci said.
Hot Take: Kershaw is a trusted knife brand, and this folding fillet knife has a 6.5-inch blade that’s great for cutting under larger mushrooms like hen of the woods. It folds for secure storage, and the glass-filled nylon handle is sturdy and easy to handle.
Reusable Mesh Grocery Bag
Expert Advice: “You don’t want to put them inside a plastic bag. What they’ll do is they’ll start sweating. So to retain the solidity of the mushroom, you really want to let it breathe,” Mastracci said.
Hot Take: Intended for the Trader Joe’s produce section, this mesh grocery bag from Public Goods is also one of the best mushroom foraging bags, according to the expert’s criteria. The bag is 11 by 13. inches and made from 100% organic cotton. The bags are also machine washable, and they come in a pack of two.
Barebones Foraging Bag
Expert Advice: When pocket space is limited, Mastracci said a carry-all foraging bag should “should have a mesh bag or a wicker-type basket” to ensure proper ventilation.
Hot Take: Yes, there’s even cool mushroom gear now. This foraging bag from Barebones has a solid canvas exterior with replaceable interior inserts, depending on what’s being hauled. The mesh insert is ideal for giving foraged mushrooms airflow. It can be worn as a crossbody for easy hands-free carrying.
Chef’n ShroomBroom Mushroom Cleaning Brush and Corer
Expert Advice: “Before you put them in your basket, you want to clean the stem, then you wanna clean the dust, the dirt off of it. That makes it easier to clean when you get home,” Mastracci explained.
Hot Take: This brush is designed for cleaning mushrooms and it has a loop on the end for removing the stems. A set of paint brushes can also work, but a regular vegetable brush may be too hard for delicate mushrooms.
REI Co-op Traverse Trekking Poles
Expert Advice: “I do a lot of off-trail climbing over rocks and climbing over trees that are down. So a good walking stick goes a long way,” Mastracci said.
Hot Take: These poles from REI have padded wrist straps and natural cork grips, which are comfortable and moisture-resistant. The telescoping design makes them easy to stash when not in use. Mastracci explained that foragers might find using a single pole useful for both walking and moving brush aside.
Frequently Asked Questions About Mushroom Foraging
Are mushrooms vegetables?
Not a vegetable but a fungus, a mushroom is the fruiting body of a mycelium, a network that grows underground, the largest known of which is in Oregon and measures nearly four square miles. Mastracci likens a mushroom to an apple.
“They’re not the plant, but the fruit from the plant. Much like you could walk up to an apple tree and pick an apple. If the tree is the plant, and the fruit is the apple, the mushroom would be the fruit and the mycelium is the plant.”
What are the best mushrooms to eat?
First of all, poisonous mushrooms represent a small percentage of mycological diversity. There are also inedible but harmless mushrooms (i.e., they don’t taste good) as well as “choice edible” mushrooms, which are the particularly delicious ones. Popular choice edibles, according to Mastracci, include maitake (hen-of-the-woods), morels, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, and porcinis.
Where do mushrooms grow?
To find mushrooms, it’s important to note both the region and the season. “Each mushroom has its own season,” Mastracci said. He noted that morels typically kick off the season in New England, where he lives. To find mushrooms he recommends looking near trees like elm, oak, maple, hemlock, and pine. Even though mushrooms are known to grow in damp areas under trees, they can pop up in unusual places.
“Right after the first rain started in California, I saw that a couple of people posting pictures of Morel mushrooms that were coming out of a rocky driveway.”
Is it bad to pluck mushrooms?
Many foragers, especially in Europe, pluck the mushrooms instead of cutting them. Mastracci says that cutting vs. plucking is “the big debate.”
“Will it hurt to pluck? Can it potentially, possibly, maybe? Yes. But for the most part, I don’t believe that it will, as long as you cover the mycelia back up.” He notes that covering the mycelia will allow it to continue to grow.