How do I identify wild edible mushrooms?
I would say that identification of wild mushroom edibility is not as difficult as it may seem. It just requires knowledge of some basic rules and principles. Usually I identify wild mushrooms BEFORE I pick them which means that when I come to the forest I have already my homework done and know what I am looking for. So, I would recommend to get familiar with mushroom species descriptions before going for mushroom hunting. To make this task easier I can say that in general, based on spore-bearing surface under cap, mushrooms are divided into two types: pore and gill fungi.
Pore fungi have the spore-bearing surface within tubes or pores; the fruiting bodies (in this case, fruiting body is a mushroom cap) are usually woody at maturity and persistent. If you look at the spore-bearing surface under the cap you will see spongy surface (formed by little tubes) which is firm and persistent (if we talk about Boletus or Suillus species) or a bit elastic and soft (if we talk about Leccinum species) when you touch it (check photos below). However with age spongy surface becomes softer for all pore fungi species.
Gill fungi have a lamellar hymenophore—radially distributed bladelike processes with a hymenium—on the surface under the cap. The fruiting bodies of most gill fungi are annual and fleshy; less frequently, they are leathery (check photos below). Some species are edible, although for now in my posts I will concentrate on pore fungi.
More information on the wild edible mushroom types and the list with images of edible mushrooms I prefer to pick is in my post “Wild edible mushroom types“.
It make sense to get familiar at least with the parts of mushrooms and cap morphology (as shown on pictures below).
Then, I would advise to concentrate on one type of edible mushrooms, for example Boletus species and study them (their morphology and habitat) carefully BEFORE going to the forest (details on forest types in “Where do I find wild edible mushrooms?“).
So, how do I identify wild edible mushrooms? Usually, as I walk down the forest all I can see from the top is wild mushroom caps and their surroundings (trees, leaves, grass, soil, etc.) . Therefore, it is logical to start identification from these two criteria – the wild mushroom cap shape and the environment (particular trees make symbiosis with particular type of mushrooms – more details in “How do I pick wild edible mushrooms?”)
Whenever I see the wild mushroom I take a look around me to check the trees. It gives me a hint what type of mushroom I may see in front of me. Then, I look at the mushroom cap shape. If it is convex shape I continue to look for other characteristics. If not – I leave it alone and continue my search. I pick mostly pore fungi – all pore fungi (they have most edible species) have convex cap. Sometimes, if I have left free space in my mushroom basket after hunting for pore fungi, I pick few edible gill fungi species (like Lactarius and Russula species) for preservation.
Secondly, I look at the cap color. If it is white convex shaped cap (especially if mushroom stalk is red), there is no need to continue identification and better to leave the mushroom without any touching as it is most likely poisonous.
If the cap color is something from light brown to dark brown most likely it is pore fungi and I should look for further characteristics.
Next, I check for the mushroom stalk size and color. If it is about 5 mm in diameter and color is white or brownish then most likely mushroom is gill fungi and might be poisonous. It is better to leave it without touching. If you touched it, make sure that you do not touch your face and/or if you have a bottle of water with you I would recommend to wash your hands. If the stalk is bigger than 5 mm in diameter I would look under the cap to make sure that it is pore fungi. For that I need to pick the mushroom.
In case it is pore fungi I look carefully at the pore surface color and on the trees growing around. If the pore surface is red (and the mushroom cap color is dark brown-greenish) and when you press if by thumb it becomes blue most likely the wild mushroom is Boletus luridus (see photo below), which is edible only if you cook it thoroughly for 30 minutes, otherwise it is poisonous. I, personally, pick this mushroom although you may not want to take it with you.
If the pore surface has normal color (something from white, light yellow to light brown) it is one of edible Boletus species which will be tasty in your dishes (see examples below).
Note that all those pore fungi have thick and fleshy stalks (which in fact are very tasty)!
In case I would like to pick edible gill fungi I look for flat and/or depressed mushroom cap shape looking for the edible Lactarius and Russula species. The identification of gill fungi very much depends on the shape and color of cap, on the color of gills, size and color of stalk as well as presence of ring(s). I will cover this topic in my posts later.
In case you feel that you need help with learning the pored mushrooms I can refer you to the book by Alexander Schwab “The Mushrooming without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious mushrooms” is actually the simplest to start with. It’s explains easy the types of mushrooms I describe here. So, I would recommend this book for the beginners who would like to get involved in wild edible mushroom hunting :)
More advanced mushroom hunters might like the book by Gary Lincoff “The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms” because of its quality of photographs and interesting information on wild mushroom uses. It includes more mushroom species descriptions than the book by Alexander, so it’s good to extend your knowledge on other mushroom types and species.
Some people like the book by David Arora “All that the rain promises and more: A hipe pocket guide to Western Mushrooms” which describes the most commonly known on internet edible mushrooms. However, I do not find the quality of book is high and valuable, I disagree with approach taken by the book author to explain the mushrooms and list this book just because sometimes on some forums I meet reference to this book.