What makes a honey mushroom a honey mushroom? Lots of things, but there are two important markers to look for beyond the three easy ones (where it's growing, is it in a cluster, and does it have the ring?). The first important marker is whether the cap has five o'clock shadow (left)
Holly A. Heyser
These little hairs, or speckly fuzzy things on the cap, are a hallmark of a honey mushroom—which, incidentally, is so named for the range of colors it can have on the cap rather than its flavor. Look for these markings.
A second telltale marker is the mushroom's gills: They run down the bottom of the cap and onto the top of the stalk, down to the mushroom's faint ring.
A final test is a spore print. It's like a fingerprint for a mushroom, and will often confirm your best guesses after keying the thing out. To make a spore print, you slice off the stem of a mushroom and lay the cap, gills down, on paper. Ideally, you do a couple of prints: One on white paper, another on a darker paper. This is because a lot of mushrooms have white spores, which won't show up on a piece of white paper.
Honey mushrooms have white spores.
I was 95 percent certain I had honey mushrooms before the spore print, but still, I let a cap sit on a piece of yellow legal paper for several hours. I lifted the cap and booyah! A white print of the gills was on the yellow paper. Score.
Almost. You see, mushrooms are largely unknown in their interactions with the human body. Some, like the turkey tail, trametes versicolor, have known medicinal properties. Others give you hallucinations. Many we perceive as just tasty. But some of those tasty ones affect different people differently.
For example, Elise cannot eat candy caps, lactarius fragilis; she gets nauseous. Yet most people can eat bushels—once dried, candy caps smell and taste like maple syrup. So before I horked down a huge plate of these honey mushrooms (or gave them to Holly), I sautéed a couple and ate them. I reckoned that if I had no ill effects the next day, I'd make something with the rest of them.
I awoke the next morning to no gastric distress. Finally! After all this careful testing I knew I had several pounds of bona fide armillaria mellea to cook with. What to do with them?
Apparently honey mushrooms are not well thought of in the mushroom world. Mediocre was the universal report. Slimy, remarked another. Then I read that the Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians love these things, and that there is a traditional pierogi made in Ukraine with honey mushrooms. There was my dish!
Holly A. Heyser
Cooked honey mushrooms have a special characteristic. Most sources say to cook them for at least 15 minutes, which seemed like no problem for a pierogi filling. So I dry sautéed them in a pan until they began releasing their water, then added butter, chopped onions, and a little stock. Then a funny thing happened: Everything in the pan became thick and soupy.