Stayin' Alive: Identifying a New Wild Mushroom

An intro to "keying out" edible mushrooms, checking a shroom's "fingerprint," and steering clear of fatal fungi


Elise Bauer

Some of you know I work with Elise at Simply Recipes a couple days a week, working on new recipes that are more mainstream than those I create for my site. Several Tuesdays ago, I walked into her kitchen, as I always do, and Elise began telling me about her weekend. I listened intently, until, behind her, out in her back yard, I caught a glimpse of something: Mushrooms! Lots of mushrooms!

I found myself struggling to keep my attention with Elise. My eyes kept focusing on these beguiling mushrooms. I could almost feel them calling me: "Come hither, Hank, we're yummy mushrooms ... Eat us, eat us!" That's what it sounded like in my warped little brain. Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but close enough.

As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters—but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

"I'm sorry, Elise. But I've just noticed those mushrooms behind you...."

Elise shrieked in delight. "They're here!" Elise, few people know, is as crazy about wild mushrooms as I am. She'd seen these mushrooms flush the previous year and her brother, also a mushroom hunter, had pronounced them fried chicken mushrooms, lyophyllum decastes. Edible. She let me pick as many as I wanted.

"Fried chicken mushrooms, eh? You sure?" Elise hemmed. She didn't eat them last year because she was most definitely not sure. Both of us are wise enough to not take the eating of an unknown mushroom lightly. As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters—but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

Still, these shrooms were calling me. This happens from time to time, as, I think, it does to many mushroom hunters. I often feel when I am out looking for mushrooms that the Force guides me to the good ones.

It happened to me twice, just recently: I spotted some pine spikes, chroogomphus vinicolor, while out looking for slippery caps, suillus pungens. I picked the ruddy mushrooms without totally knowing what sort they were but with a gut feeling that they were edible. I didn't positively ID them as pine spikes until I got home and consulted the bible, David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified.

The second time it happened, however, I ignored the Force. I saw some mushrooms with a silky brown cap and slightly lilac-colored gills. Something sorta told me these were good to eat, but they looked so much like the inedible russulas and lactarias I'd been seeing all over that I passed them by. Apparently, I blewit—that's what they were, lepista nuda. Blewits. Sigh.


Holly A. Heyser

Mercifully, I did not ignore the Force with the mushrooms from Elise's back yard. But that does not mean I simply popped a few into my mouth and began chewing. I wanted to be damn sure about what variety of mushroom this was before I'd go eating it. So I began keying them out, thinking they were fried chicken mushrooms.

To "key out" a mushroom is to use a book like Arora's, which contains long "keys" consisting of scores of "if-then" statements. For example, if the mushroom has a ring on the stalk, go to No. 12. If not, go to No. 18, and so on. You start with guidebook pictures to get you in the ballpark, then move on to the more detailed key to confirm your guess. This is absolutely necessary when you are trying to see if a mushroom that is new to you will taste good, be boring—or will dissolve your liver.

Here's how I keyed out these shrooms. First, they were beige-tan, growing in a clump on a rotted stump. They had a dark patch in the center of the cap. Fried chicken mushrooms have this trait.

Then I cut a bunch and set them in a sheet pan.

Huh. These mushrooms all had a ring on the stalk. Fried chicken mushrooms don't. In most other respects, these mushrooms look like lyophyllum decastes, but this ring disqualifies them. That's a problem. Now I needed to figure out what in fact they were.

A little more reading led me to the honey mushroom, armillaria mellea. Similar in a lot of respects to the fried chicken mushroom, and also edible. At this point I began feeling that mycological siren song that traps many a mushroom hunter: I wanted these to be honey mushrooms, so I could eat them. It is a common—and potentially lethal—mistake to make a square peg fit into a round hole, mentally downplaying one aspect of a mushroom so it can fit into the edible hole you want it to be in. Dangerous. So I took a closer look at these mushrooms.

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.

Apparently, honey mushrooms act as a kind of mycological okra. The "slime" that comes out of them when cooking would indeed be nasty if you tried to eat them like shiitake mushrooms, which they look like, superficially. But this thickening effect is perfect when the mushrooms are part of a filling. Spasibo, Russians!

You may notice that the pierogi themselves are brown. That's because I added a little acorn flour into the dough; I like rustic foods to have an equally rustic flour, and the acorn flour added some nuttiness to the mix. You could use whole-wheat flour for a similar effect.

I served my mushroom pierogi simply, with onions sautéed in butter, sour cream, and a little dill. They were chewy, hearty, and filling, as you might expect with so much dough and butter. The honey mushrooms were not terribly distinctive, but tasted fine and, as part of a filling, were not slimy at all.

In case you are wondering, yes, all this work was worth the effort. Too many foragers shy away from mushrooms because they are scary. And those who do typically stick with the traditionals—morels, porcini, chanterelles. But scores of edible mushrooms live among us, and, if you are careful about identifying them, they can enrich your cooking in ways few other ingredients can. Many, like the honey mushroom, have special traits that you can take advantage of—if you know how to tap into them.

Who would have known that ground, dried honey mushrooms would act exactly like okra or filé powder? But now I do, and you do, too.

More on honey mushrooms:

• My Honey Mushroom Pierogi recipe
    • Wild Mushroom Bisque, with honey mushrooms—from The Savory Notebook
    • More info on Armillaria mellea—from Mykoweb