On the hunt for tasty fungi

North Americans are fungal phobic. We're less likely than Asians and Eastern Europeans to take a walk in the woods to forage for fungi.

North Americans are fungal phobic.

We’re less likely than Asians and Eastern Europeans to take a walk in the woods to forage for fungi.

It could be because they’re related to mould or that they’re sometimes slippery and squishy to touch.

But Yukon biologist Sam Skinner offers another reason. Poison.

A lot of people are frightened they’re going to get sick from picking mushrooms, he said.

Yukoners only need to think of the five reality-show contestants who accidentally ate the poisonous false hellebore plant while hiking the Chilkoot Trail last month.

After being found at their camp by a park ranger vomiting and sick, the hikers were quickly airlifted to the hospital in Whitehorse for treatment.

“The hikers that poisoned themselves – that was ignorant,” said Skinner.

With care and diligence people can learn which types of fungi are safe to eat, he said.

“But a certain degree of fear might be healthy,” he said.

Lots of wild mushrooms have “look-alikes” that may smell and appear the same as an edible mushroom.

The Yukon has 500 different types of mushrooms. Only 10 to 12 of them are actually edible.

It can be a discouraging number for beginner mushroom hunters who feel like they’re playing a game of mushroom roulette.

Tuesday evening, Skinner hosted a mushroom walk through the Wolf Creek campground. Almost 100 people showed up to learn about edible mushrooms in the Yukon.

For neophyte mushroom hunters, Skinner recommends a couple of sure-fire fungi. Those include the stemless dusty white oyster mushrooms and the orange-capped aspen bolete that grow in the Yukon

“Orange delicious” mushrooms are also recommended for the beginning picker.

While hiking Skinner plucked a medium-sized brown mushroom from the ground with a distinct dimple in the centre of the cap.

He broke the mushroom in half to show off the orange, milky liquid oozing out of the flesh of the mushroom.

It’s called Lactarius deliciosus because of the way it “lactates,” said Skinner. But it’s better known as orange delicious to avid pickers, he said.

Mushroom hunters have come up with a bevy of terms to describe the fungus they find in the woods.

The hawk’s wing mushroom is often referred to as a “hedgehog” because of its spiny gills and furry underside.

And mushroom spore sacs are better known as “puff balls.”

During the hike, Skinner pointed to a handful of puff balls hidden in a clump of dried grasses and dirt.

When the delicate, papery sac is stepped on it shoots a spray of mushroom spores into the air like a perfume bottle. The tiny spores will eventually seed new mushrooms.

Although strange to look at, the puff balls, when they’re young and white, taste just like tofu when cooked up.

But not all the fungus on Skinner’s hike was edible.

Midway through the walk, Skinner bent down to pick a russula mushroom with a bright red top and white stem that snapped off like a piece of chalk.

I think this might be inedible but I’m going to taste a bit of it, he said.

He ripped a small portion of the cap off and put it in his mouth. He swished it around before immediately spitting it out on the ground.

“It has a peppery, radish taste,” he said.

“And that’s a bad thing?” said one woman standing close to him.

“Well, unless you want to throw up,” said Skinner.

That variety of russula is one you want to stay away from, he said.

Skinner has been mushroom hunting for the last eight years and has yet to get sick from any of the mushrooms he’s picked.

His degrees in botany and mycology help, but they haven’t prevented friends of his with similar backgrounds from poisoning themselves accidentally.

“You want people to take mushroom picking seriously – you can have major problems otherwise.”

Eating the wrong mushroom can mean suffering from bouts of sweating, stomach pains, vomiting and hallucinations.

Severe cases of mushroom poisoning can require liver transplants. Sometimes it will kill you.

If trying to figure out whether the mushroom in your hand matches the edible one in your guidebook isn’t enough stress, people also need to worry about food poisoning from mushrooms that have gone bad, said Skinner.

When you cut open a mushroom sometimes there will be maggots inside.

“The worms aren’t appetizing, but they won’t hurt you,” he said.

“It’s the rot that happens after the maggots crawl through the mushroom that you need to worry about.”

But amateur mushroom hunters need not close their guidebooks altogether.

Skinner encourages people to be safe but keep an open mind.

A haul of tasty, fresh mushrooms will encourage people to go back into the woods to pick.

Skinner’s favourite way to cook up fungi is in a risotto. That way the flavour of the mushrooms really comes out.

But sauteeing them with garlic and butter always makes for a good side dish, he said.

For those still worried about picking the wrong mushroom, Skinner dishes out some tips.

There are certain signs mushroom hunters can look for before cooking up a batch of potentially poisonous fungus, he said.

People can see how the flesh of the mushroom bruises when it’s touched to better identify what kind of mushroom it is.

They can also examine the colour of the spore powder that is released from the mushroom.

A more visceral test is to sniff the mushroom because edible mushrooms often smell appetizing. Or you can pop a small piece of the mushroom in your mouth. If the taste is acrid or bitter, chances or it’s probably poisonous.

But the best advice probably is when in doubt, leave the mushroom alone.

Contact Vivian Belik at