Is it safe to eat this wild mushroom?
September 28, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

With all the rain we have had lately, there are a lot of mushrooms growing in the woods. I started reading about mushroom hunting and some mycologists claim that Chicken Mushrooms are reasonably safe to pick & eat. I recalled that there was an oak tree nearby that had been felled by Hurricane Irene, so I walk out to it and look. Sure enough, what I am fairly certain is a Laetiporus Sulphureus growing from the snapped trunk.

The mushroom I found looks exactly like what is depicted in the photos on that site. I have never in my life eaten a wild mushroom, and like most people that grew up in the U.S., Mom/Dad/School taught me to never eat a wild mushroom and only eat mushrooms from a grocery store.

I would like to try it, it seems reasonably safe. However about 10% of the population are allergic to Chicken Mushrooms and eating enough of one can make you very nauseous.

I will go outside and snap some photos of the mushroom in question, are there any wild mushroom hunters or mycologists in the house? I am 99% certain that this is Laetiporus Sulphureus.

Some more info on the Chicken Mushroom - Laetiporus Sulphureus.

Rogers Mushrooms


For what it's worth, the mushroom in question is located in Bethesda Maryland. I think it's fairly fresh, I examined part of it and all of the fungus is still pretty soft and even a little bit juicy.
posted by smoothvirus to Science & Nature (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want to eat this mushroom? The first site you linked to says it doesn't have a distinctive taste, so I'm not sure what the goal is here. Is the potential risk worth the possible reward?
posted by k8lin at 9:38 AM on September 28, 2011

Eating randomly-picked mushrooms while not being in the company of a mycologist is unwise. The risks are opaque and occasionally lethal.

You seem to be correct, but I am not a mycologist and this is not a risk worth taking.
posted by aramaic at 9:39 AM on September 28, 2011

I took a mycology class once, and our professor (who liked to go out wild-mushroom picking) warned against anyone doing it who isn't a professional. He said there are poisonous/halucinagetic mushrooms that can look deceptively similar to edible ones, especially to the untrained observer. It may be perfectly safe, but it's up to you to decide how much you're willing to bet on its safety.

If you do decide to eat it, save a sample in case you get ill so the ER will be better able to diagnose what's in the mushroom.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:39 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're asking whether to eat a mushroom you found growing on a tree in the woods on Metafilter. That's a good indicator that you aren't qualified ascertain whether that mushroom is safe to eat.
posted by ellF at 9:42 AM on September 28, 2011 [9 favorites]

Many mushrooms have very similar looking counterparts. Listen to the advice here, don't eat it without a trained, professional mycologist.
posted by handbanana at 9:49 AM on September 28, 2011

We've had a bunch of rain here in the mid-Atlantic, too. A lot of mushrooms have sprouted, and we've had several cases of mushroom-related poisoning as a result.

The final paragraph of the linked Washington Post article kind of says all I need to know:
There is no federally approved treatment for mushroom poisoning. All four are being given an experimental drug used to treat poisoning. The intravenous drug made from milk thistle, is called Silibinin, and is being offered through the Georgetown University Medical Center research arm of the Georgetown Transplant Institute.
posted by OmieWise at 9:52 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are getting into mushroom identification & foraging -- start spore printing.

Make a spore print & if after spore printing, you are confident about identification -- ask a friend for a second opinion (or befriend a seasoned mushroom hunter). And if you're confident about the ID and the mushroom is confirmed as edible, then yes, I would eat it.

If there is any uncertainty about the accuracy OR upon extra careful research there are similar poisonous mushrooms -- then I would tend to not want to eat it.

But learning what grows, learning to ID mushrooms, figuring out how to spore print -- all of these are steps toward being an effective (and safe) 'shroom forager.

I am not a mushroom expert. I am not a doctor. I am sometimes a nutty forager and food risk taker when the risks can be reasonably evaluated.
posted by countrymod at 10:04 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get why you want to try wild mushrooms. What I don't get is why you want to try this particular mushroom from this particular tree. Given that the risk of death is non-trivial, it might be better idea to wait until a mushroom expert can be 100% sure that it is in fact what you think it is.

Chicken of the woods isn't that rare. It's not like you aren't going to get the chance to eat it at some point in the future. Take an expert with you and make sure. We cannot reliably tell from pictures on the internet any more than you can, and nor can any mycologist worth listening to. It's not tasty enough to warrant the risk.
posted by Solomon at 10:22 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: The only reason I'd even fathom trying this is that, according to what I've read, there are no toxic mushrooms that look similar to Chicken Mushrooms. Also, they're supposed to taste pretty damn good.

And the reason I'm asking on MeFi is that with all the science types that hang around here, the odds of finding someone on this site with some training in mycology are fairly high.

here's the fungus in question:

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

photo 4

I knew someone was going to bring up the story from the Post. Here's the thing, every one of those people who were poisoned ate mushrooms from the genus Amanita. The really bad ones have white caps with white gills. No way am I even touching a mushroom around here with white caps and white gills.

I have not decided to attempt this but I want to make sure to do my homework if I do. :)
posted by smoothvirus at 10:24 AM on September 28, 2011

In the last town I lived in there was a professor from the local university who would identify mushrooms for you. He had a regularly scheduled time and place (Tuesday evenings at a coffee shop), and was happy to talk your ear off about mushrooms. Perhaps look for something like that?
posted by cjemmott at 10:25 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: No particular reason I have to try this mushroom, and I'd say you're correct in that it's not hard to find because it took me all of five minutes. Then again I knew where to look.
posted by smoothvirus at 10:27 AM on September 28, 2011

Exactly what cjemmott says. Here in Sweden, they sometimes have experts in the pharmacies during the mushroom months. Find a local expert to support your findings. Do it within the day, or your shrooms will be inedible for other reasons.

In general, people here above are dead (hah) right pointing out that it is Not. At. All. worth taking risks with not 100% positively identified wild mushrooms. On the other hand, identification is possible, and within certain groups, even easy. In fact, you do have a point saying "according to what I've read, no toxic mushrooms that look similar to Chicken Mushrooms."
Irrational fears often do little to encourage learning that type of discrimination, so you're good being interested. Be interested some more, and, in the meantime, stick to chanterelles and porcini, if you can find them.

Great flavor, sad to say, is no guarantee for 'edible', but we know that, don't we.
posted by Namlit at 10:37 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Before I say anything else about the Sulphur Shelf or Chicken Mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus, see photos above and below), I need to emphasize that it is very important to know what kind of tree it is growing on! Since the tree is often dead, this can be a bit tricky—but it's important because when the Chicken Mushroom or Sulphur Shelf grows on certain kinds of trees, it should be avoided! (There are actually distinct species, such as L. gilbertsonii which found on various hardwoods, primarily in California; L. conifericola, which grows on various conifers; and L. huronensis, which grows primarily on Eastern hemlock and is especially common during springtime.) Fortunately, the Chicken Mushroom or Sulphur Shelf is usually found on trunks, stumps and logs that still bear some bark, which can be the vital clue to identifying the tree—IF you can identify trees on this basis. The bottom line is that if you cannot tell the bark of a black cherry tree from that of an Eastern hemlock tree, for example, you ought to steer clear of the Chicken Mushroom or Sulphur Shelf unless it is growing on a living tree that you can identify.

posted by empath at 10:42 AM on September 28, 2011

If you decide to eat it, you can increase your safety margin by eating an absolutely tiny nibble and waiting 24 hours. If all goes well, eat a slightly larger bite and wait another 24 hours. If you're still good, it's very likely safe to eat.
posted by zug at 10:44 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: This mushroom is growing on a felled Oak tree. I read the thing about not eating ones from pines already.
posted by smoothvirus at 10:45 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: WRT the chanterelle, there's a toxic lookalike, the Jack O Lantern. I think I'll leave that one alone.
posted by smoothvirus at 10:47 AM on September 28, 2011

I took mycology as part of my undergrad degree in biology and I'm used to identifying living things using field guides and dicotomous keys. That said, I'm not a mycologist. BUT the mycologist that taught me said something very similar to what DoubleLune's prof said - leave the mushroom picking to professionals and if you want to learn, learn in person with a professional.

Basically, taking mycology made me so much more cautious about picking mushrooms such that I would never ever do 'shrooms now, knowing what I know.

I've decided to get into mushroom id'ing and I have a hefty field guide that's excellent but to identify mushrooms properly you need a spore print and you need to be familiar with a lot of weird terminology. There's no way I'd attempt to id your mushroom without seeing it in person. And even then I wouldn't let you eat it because what if I was wrong? There's no fund to cover mushroom misidentification results. Then there are those weird cautions like "Delicious mushroom but 10% of the population are allergic". How do you know you're not in that 10%?
posted by hydrobatidae at 10:52 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you decide to eat it, you can increase your safety margin by eating an absolutely tiny nibble and waiting 24 hours. If all goes well, eat a slightly larger bite and wait another 24 hours. If you're still good, it's very likely safe to eat.

This is no good advice.
posted by Namlit at 10:56 AM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you're just curious about trying Chicken of the Woods - which I too have heard is delicious, and versatile in cooking - consider growing your own. Many mushroom outfits offer Chicken of the Woods growing kits.

Fungi Perfecti has them, for a reasonable price. It's a great company, very well-respected. (Not affiliated, just a happy customer.)
posted by ErikaB at 11:54 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father, who is an avid (but limited in range) mushroom hunter always says in justifying his self-limitations, "you never meet an old mycologist."
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:02 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Stop wasting your time on the internet and call these guys.
posted by TedW at 1:06 PM on September 28, 2011

It certainly looks a lot like chicken of the woods, but I'd die before eating a brand new mushroom that An Expert hadn't okayed IN PERSON!!!! Why don't you google mushroom societies in your area? They will be more than happy to identify it for you.

WRT Chanterelles--all similar mushrooms will have gills while the real chant has 'false' gills. They are very easy to identify. Other easy ones: morels, lobsters.
posted by 200burritos at 2:21 PM on September 28, 2011

Wow, a lot of very, very careful advice in here. That's prudent, for sure. I'll go the other way.

I've hunted and eaten chanterelles, morels, cinnabars, and chicken mushrooms in western KY and southern IL. I am not extensively trained. I, of course, did identification research both before and after picking. I made especially certain i was aware of the visible differences between the species I was hunting and their lookalikes. And I wouldn't hunt something that had a dangerous lookalike that couldn't be discerned by visual indicators alone (some need a spore print).

I've never had any trouble, and I know a lot of others in this area who do the same. My favorites are chanterelles and morels, but chicken mushrooms are good too, and big enough to make a meal of. I suggest battering and frying them just as you would chicken. The flavor is a bit bland, but the texture is excellent... rather like chicken, natch.

If you're confident you've done your due diligence, and have made sure you're aware of lookalikes, I'd say pick that sucker, wash it, batter it, and fry it up!
posted by gilrain at 3:35 PM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

What a good opportunity to find and get to know local experts. Call the Cooperative Extension Service, local colleges, university, community college, the town office, or even post to Craigslist, looking for mushroom experts. Wild mushrooms are delicious, and everybody has to start somewhere to become an expert.
posted by theora55 at 4:52 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've foraged for mushrooms for a few years. There are a lot of mushrooms that I avoid, but I've found and eaten morels, chanterelles, oysters, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods (in NY, FL, NC, WV, VA) often enough that I'll continue to do so with reasonable confidence. I'd second all of gilrain's precautions. Personally, I would eat the mushroom that you show in your photographs without much hesitation (unless it was buggy or tough or too pale). I've eaten chicken of the woods as tamale filling, fried it in butter and turned it into gravy served over toast, and shredded it and cooked it for wontons. I rather like the flavor, provided the mushroom is tender enough.

I would recommend that you find a buddy who has experience in foraging for mushrooms and double check your identification with as many different pictures, guidebooks, and experienced mushroom hunters as possible. Like gilrain, I stay away from mushrooms with lookalikes that are dangerous. If you're going to make a habit of foraging for mushrooms, it's a good idea to keep a mushroom guide on you and identify as many non-edibles as you can so that you get a better idea of the variations between types.

Good luck!
posted by ajarbaday at 5:20 PM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

my mom loves finding wild mushrooms in the woods by her cottage - she will carefully check everything she picks against a set of mushroom guides that she has - the best guides will warn you about lookalike poisonous species, and how to tell them apart. last fall we found a huge growth of the same ones you are looking at, and they were delicious. really amazing - they do have a chickeny texture. we pan fried them in butter with sauteed onions. mmmm.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:27 PM on September 28, 2011

Best answer: First and foremost: smoothvirus, "Chicken Mushrooms" is not even the correct common name, but you should rely on Linnaean names instead. It's "chicken of the woods", a name which can be confused with "hen of the woods". One is gray, the other orange, so visual confusion isn't possible... The name you want to be sure to include is Laetiporus sulphureus.

k8lin: The first site you linked to says it doesn't have a distinctive taste,

FYI, the "Odor and taste not distinctive" from his link is a reference for field identification, and refers to the raw taste. It's safe to taste-and-spit any mushroom on earth, so field tasting presents another ID variable to assure you. THAT BEING SAID, Chicken of the Woods has a very, very distinctive (mild) flavor when cooked. It's delicious. One of the best. THAT is why the OP wants to try it.

Furthermore, although usually I would agree with all the conservative "don't go it alone" voices in this crowd on mushroom, in the case of the sulfur shelf/chicken of the woods/Laetiporus... Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America actually lists this amongst the "four unmistakeable mushrooms". (I actually disagree with their assessment of the morel - the false morel Gyromitra is fatally poisonous - but they're correct here.)

Now, on to your mushroom. It's not Laetiporus sulphureus. It's a kissing cousin, Laetiporus cincinnatus - the difference is the white underside, instead of yellow. Good news: L. cincinnatus is much better-flavored than L. sulphureus. The photos are unmistakeable (as Peterson alludes to).

Whenever I taste a new mushroom, I start with a single bite test - cooked fully in oil or the microwave, of course. (Both species of Laetiporous will give you indigestion if eaten raw, BTW.) Some mushroom poisons may take a day or two to enact, but most of them will cause an effect (often stomach cramps or diarrhea) within 12 hrs. It's seldom a bad idea to follow caution, even if only for good practice!


Finally, I like chicken of the woods in a "cotw parmesan sandwich". Fry it, toast bread, slather warm pizza sauce on one slice and sliced mozzarella on the other, put in the mushroom sliced thin and eat. Yum...
posted by IAmBroom at 8:00 PM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

"The name you want to be sure to include is Laetiporus sulphureus", as you did in fact mention.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:01 PM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: IAmBroom, I'm guessing that about 10% of the population is allergic to L. cincinnatus, just like L. sulphureus?

I read that if you're allergic it can make your lips numb. Would that suffice as a litmus test?

Did not pick it yet - but it's still there as far as I know. Nothing preventing me from picking it and just keeping it in the fridge and have someone from the Mycological Association check it out. Thanks to the link TedW posted I know they're having a tasting event next week.

Or I could find another one, there's mushrooms everywhere here right now with all the rain.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:41 PM on September 28, 2011

I've never heard of a specific allergy to Laetiporous at all, and have served it* to ~10-12 people with no one upset so far... but it certainly could be true. (* Both L. sulphureus and L. cincinnatus, at various times.)

Certainly, exposing a thin membrane like your lips or mouth to an allergen will be a fast route to a reaction! However, given that this reaction isn't mentioned in any of my guides... I wouldn't worry too much, beyond the one-mouthful cooked sample I advocated above.

And, by all means: refrigerate and ask for on-the-spot identification. Much preferable to internet opinions - even as sure as I am on this one.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:31 PM on September 28, 2011

I lived in the Colorado Rockies for 11 years and gathered wild mushrooms all the time. With the helpful advice of a good friend from Poland, I was taught ten basic mushrooms that are impossible to confuse with anything poisonous if a person has only half a wit. I started there and discovered that there are some wild mushrooms that have better flavor than steak. I bought field guides, took spore prints, kept each variety I picked separate from the others, took notes for each group - were they growing on wood or grass or on a rocky slope, etc - made sure I dug the whole mushroom out of the ground, not just cut it off at the ground level, etc. etc. etc. There are lessons in how to do it right if you're really interested. And doing it right will make it a hobby that's safer than driving your car down the block - but you must learn what you're doing.

First thing to do is check in your local area for a mushroom club - a mycology/fungus club - they might use the word "foray" also. Call the Extension Service at the university nearest you. If you live in the same town, you can take the mushroom there for identification, or e-mail them a photo of it and they'll identify it for you. Alternatively, ask them to recommend a local mushroom expert or direct you to a mushroom club. These people know their mushrooms, believe me.

The pictures you're showing are almost without doubt the Chicken of the Woods Mushroom - but you shouldn't take my word for it - get a legitimate expert to tell you so. The only thing remotely similar that's poisonous would be the Jack O'Lantern mushroom which also grows in a shelf-like arrangement and is some shade of orange, but it has "gills" and individual stalks for each cap, though the stalks can be short. But each cap you pop off will have slits/gills on the underside or on the stalk - the Chicken of the Woods has pores - no gills or slits anywhere. The Jack O'Lantern can be confused with a Chanterelle, but even that would be hard to do.

Amanitas come in a great variety, but all have white gills and give white spore prints - some varieties are absolutely deadly, others not so much, but there's no reason on earth to eat an Amanita - just consider them all deadly. There are other deadly mushrooms, though, and many poisonous kinds that will make you vomit until you want to die, but my guesstimate would be 10% deadly, 20% sickening, 50% bland and boring, 20% superb. And obviously, any you eat should be in good condition and relatively fresh. With wild mushrooms, it's always wise to err on the side of caution, but that doesn't mean you should avoid gathering these delicious tidbits, either. If you have a brain and can learn and are willing to get it right, it can become a great and lifelong hobby.

The Chicken of the Woods will keep pretty well, so you have that on your side. Keep it in the fridge and find an expert and then eat it and enjoy it. Don't, however, let that go to your head - before you use any others, you must get "educated" a bit about wild mushrooms. A mushroom club is an excellent place to start.

Only one other point I'd make about gathering the wild ones - don't pick any that grow alongside roadways where there is traffic or where the local Roads Department sprays - even to clean the streets. There's danger from car exhaust and chemicals and you don't need that. If you see a nice delectable alongside the road, just hike back in behind it a good distance and look for others that haven't been exposed to man's mess.

May you enjoy nature's little delights as much as I have.
posted by aryma at 11:42 PM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

« Older Strength training for a sleepy new dad   |   What's the best way to save for retirement as a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.