Mushroom hunting is an increasingly popular way to spend time in the woods, with the prospect of a good meal to follow. The forager’s Golden Rule, however, restricts harvesting and eating to only those edible species that can be identified with 100 percent certainty. The best way to learn about mushrooms and how to find them is to join your local mycological society.
Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum)
An outlandish orange color unmatched by any other local. Contorted and pockmarked, it can look like a funnel or an egg, but rarely like a classic mushroom. The reason for that color and shape? The lobster is a fungus that parasitizes another species of fungus, transforming a rather bland gilled mushroom into a colorful — and appetizing — freak of the forest floor. Rain-soaked specimens will exhibit a deeper red color and a strong fishy odor; throw those out.
King bolete (Boletus edulis)
A broad, rounded cap suggesting a hamburger bun, with whitish to yellowish pores underneath (instead of gills), and a stout, sometimes bulbous stem. Coloration is variable, though our Pacific Northwest variety is most often tan on top. Look for troops near conifers in the mountains or along the coast after a good rain in late summer or fall. Russians call the king beliy grib — the white mushroom — because a healthy specimen will be pure white inside when cut in half. Italians call them porcini — little pigs. Cooked fresh, they have a nuttiness that makes a wonderful sauce for pasta; dried, the aroma intensifies to evoke the earthiness of the woods themselves.
Blue chanterelle (Polyozellus multiplex)
A deep blue complexion with ruffles and ridge-like gills. Sometimes it looks like a spot of slate-gray lichen on the ground. Found in older woods high on the spine of the Cascades, especially near our volcanoes where the mushroom seems to prefer soils mixed with ash. Most years it’s a rare find, but occasionally there are blue chanterelle eruptions that surprise and delight mushroom fanciers. Some like its mild flavor and chewy texture, though it lacks a true chanterelle’s complexity and hints of stone fruit.
Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare)
A white, gilled mushroom with a veil covering the gills in immaturity. A dense, tapering stipe or stem. Found among old-growth Douglas firs in Washington state. Matsutake means “pine mushroom” in Japanese. Ninety percent of our matsutake is exported to the Far East, though Americans are lately discovering its singular charms. One mycologist has likened its flavor to a “provocative compromise between Red Hots and dirty socks.” While that might not be a selling point for everyone, the mushroom’s spicy, slightly cinnamony flavor is heavenly in traditional Japanese dishes such as sukiyaki.
Bear’s head (Hericium abietis)
Like a frozen waterfall, this fungus seems to drip off snags and fallen logs. Its white, icicle-like appendages hang tightly together to form what can sometimes be a very large individual (bigger than a basketball). Old-growth hemlock forests are a good place to look. Sautéed, its taste and texture resemble cooked crabmeat.