Woman picking mushroom in the forest with a basket

A Beginner’s Guide to Mushroom Foraging

Photo: pikselstock

An expert forager shares her top 5 tips for finding wild mushrooms.

Maybe you appreciate hyper-local food. Maybe you love the idea of foraging for your own wild-grown ingredients. Or maybe you’re simply the type of person who notices mushrooms poking up from the forest floor, takes a closer look, and wonders, Hmm, could I eat that? Whatever your reason, mushroom foraging is a great way to turn hiking into a culinary adventure. Because yes, in many cases, you can eat the delectable fungus species you find. Not only that, but foraging gets you outdoors, connects you more closely to the Earth and what you eat—and it’s incredibly fun, too.

Of course, mushroom foraging takes know-how. Fungi can be hallucinogenic, vomit-inducing, or deadly, so learning the difference between, say, Morchella esculenta (the morel; delicious fried in butter) and Amanita virosa (the destroying angel; will kill you) is crucial. But that’s not the only skill that will help make your foraging excursions successful. We tapped mushroom forager Maria Pinto, 37, for her top five tips on mushroom hunting for beginners. When she’s not working as a creative writing teacher, Pinto leads private foraging trips in the Boston area.

“It’s one of the best reality checks you can have, to get out and see what the land is doing,” Pinto says. And the mushrooms themselves captivate her, too. “Often folks don’t realize that a mushroom can taste like maple syrup. It can taste like citrus. A truffle has all of these volatile organic compounds that drive you crazy and make you obsessed. These organisms have an incredible range of chemical reactions. They’re so fascinating, and so little is known about them. I find that so incredible and inspiring.”

Pinto is a fungi fan in general, but she’s developed a few favorites. Top of her list is the black trumpet. “They’re so fragrant and weird and beautiful to look at,” she says. “You’ll be walking and not see any, then you’ll see one and get close to the ground and realize you’ve been trampling on hundreds. And they fry so well.” She also loves the matsutake, which mycologist David Arora described as smelling like gym socks and Red Hots. “Somehow that’s fantastic,” she says. “Those are great in a Japanese-style miso soup. Roasting them is a great idea.”

Inspired to find your own favorites? Read this first.

Study Up

First step: Get your hands on a regional mushroom guide, Pinto says. “Get to know which are the deadly and supertoxic species in your area really well, and give those a wide berth,” she adds. The guide will also clue you into when particular species are in season near you and help you figure out where to look. 

Black trumpet mushrooms found in the forest Photo: Mushy

Connect With Experts

“Get really chummy with someone who knows what they’re talking about,” Pinto advises. That might mean joining your local mycological society and/or signing up for guided hikes and workshops like the ones she leads. But you can also learn a lot from online mushroom groups. “The only reason I keep Facebook is because it’s my mushroom education clearinghouse,” she says. “There’s no better way to learn than to see photograph after photograph of different mushrooms, and the same mushroom over and over again.” She recommends joining The Mushroom Identification Group and The Fungus Identification Group on Facebook, searching for local mushroom forums, checking out the Mushroom Observer site, and using the iNaturalist app

Many foragers upload detailed photos of their finds to such online groups for identification help. “Hazarding a guess to show that you’ve done your homework will often get an immediate response,” Pinto says. “People love to correct.”

Get Equipped

Besides everything you’d need for a regular day hike (like snacks, water, map, and bug spray), foragers need something to tote their mushrooms. Pinto favors a basket and small paper bags for sorting different species (“You want something that will let the mushroom breathe—they’re mostly water and will rot very quickly if allowed to steep in their own juices”), but some people prefer a tackle box with its many compartments. One more smart tool: a good camera with a macro lens for taking photos to help with mushroom identification.

Find Your Hunting Grounds

Mushroom foragers tend to be tight-lipped about their favorite spots, but it doesn’t take much to suss out your own locations. “Once you start getting more education about what grows where and when, you can study tree maps,” Pinto advises. “Mushrooms like to associate with specific trees and specific terrain. Getting out and getting to know the green spaces in your area will go a long way toward finding your own spot.” Pinto suggests looking at tree maps from a local arboretum or botanic garden to find potentially fruitful mushroom zones. 

Slow Down

“If you don’t get low and close to the ground, nine times out of 10 you’ll walk right by what you’re looking for,” Pinto says. “Slow down, and don’t be afraid to double back on a trail and go over land that you’ve already walked. That little change in perspective can work wonders.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.