Oh, lovely, lovely mushrooms. Chanterelles are some of the most coveted mushrooms by chefs, along with truffles and morels. Did you know that all chanterelles in the world are harvested from the wild? We haven’t figured out a way to farm these kinds of mushrooms. Unlike portobellos, which can be grown industrially with manure and organic debris, chanterelles are more difficult. This kind of mushroom grows in harmony with the roots of various living plants.
The chanterelle has different host plant preferences depending on the location it grows. In the western U.S., they are associated with coniferous forests of Douglas fir and various pines. However, chanterelles more commonly occur in hardwood forests in the east, rather than coniferous forests. In the east, they like oaks, birch, maple, beech, and poplar. This mushroom also grows in woods of Eurasia and Africa. As far as we understand, in order to have chanterelles, we need a forest. There is a sort of beauty to eating something we don’t completely understand, something we can’t tame.
How Can I Find Chanterelles?
Well, that’s sort of a tricky question. By far, the best way to learn how to forage is to go out with an experienced mushroom picker. You can read all you want, but the best learning is out there in the field. Something you must know before foraging is that some people are very protective of certain mushroom patches. In Oregon, where the wild mushroom trade is worth millions of dollars, foragers have claimed parts of the forest as their own foraging grounds. Because their livelihood is tied up in picking mushrooms from that land, they could get very mad if they saw a stranger pillaging their harvest. While it might all be public land, it’s wisest to know the area before going there in order to avoid stepping on toes.
Assuming you know a piece of forest that you can legally and safely forage in, here are some tips for finding chanterelles.
In the East:
Chanterelles can appear anywhere from late spring to early fall, with the heaviest bloom during the heat of summer. The mushrooms come out in full force if heavy rainfall is followed by a few days of sweltering heat. The bright yellow of chanterelles should light up against the green of summer. However, with dense ground cover, it’s important to check beneath plants. Older woods with some leaf litter, but few pine needles, are the best place to find mushrooms. As mentioned above, the fungus grows well with oak, beech, birch, poplar, and maple.
In the West:
The best foraging time is in the fall after a few days of rain. The mushrooms prefer older forests with a nearly closed canopy. They tend to grow best on north slopes around 2,000 feet in Oregon but will grow at much lower altitudes in wet conditions. The mushrooms fruit best in moist places, so check anywhere that water may drain during a rainfall event. It’s important to learn the plants associated with chanterelle habitat, such as Oregon grapevine, vine maple, and ferns. Grasses tend to indicate areas with too much sun for chanterelles, so avoid grasslands. Walking on a side slope gives you a way to see underneath the plants uphill, which can be helpful in spotting the little buggers.
Identification of Chanterelles
Fortunately, chanterelles don’t have too many poisonous look-a-likes. The Jack-O-Lantern mushroom can look similar, but it only grows on wood, whereas chanterelles grow in soil. The piece of wood the Jack-O-Lantern grows on could be underground, and that’s when identification between the two gets tough. Chanterelles have fake gills that branch and fork. These gills run down the stem and removing them will damage the mushroom. Jack-O-Lanterns have true, fine gills, and each gill is a single line. These gills don’t run down the stem and are delicate and easy to remove. Chanterelles are cream-colored on the inside, whereas Jack-O-Lanterns are orange. There are many other look-a-likes to chanterelles, but they tend to be edible, just not as tasty. Also, fresh-picked chanterelles smell like apricots!
I’ve Found Them! Now What?
Travel lightly. Use soft, calculated footsteps in order to keep the fungus network under your feet intact. Don’t step on the fruiting bodies of any mushrooms. Only harvest ripe looking mushrooms. Generally, don’t cut a chanterelle if the head is smaller than a nickel. If they are smaller than this, they haven’t had a chance to release any spores. Spores are to mushrooms as seeds are to plants. With no new spores in the forest, there are no new patches of mushrooms. Similarly, don’t harvest mushrooms that are beginning to show signs of rot. By the time you get back to your house, it will look much worse. These kinds of mushrooms also won’t taste as good. It is difficult to remove a lot of dirt from chanterelles, so only pick specimens that are relatively clean.
If you have a good specimen, cut the mushroom at the base with a sharp blade. Don’t pick it out of the ground. This may damage the fungus network, making it more difficult for the chanterelles to reappear.
Once cut, put the mushroom in a container with holes. Closed containers or plastic bags will make the mushrooms slimy. Containers with holes also allow the spores to disperse as you wander around the woods. This dispersal could create new colonies of tasty treats in the future. Take half of the mushrooms you see, at most. It’s important to leave some for other foragers, and for the future of the mushroom patch. Don’t get carried away and pick more than you can eat. That’s wasteful and not respectful towards the mighty chanterelle. Remember where you picked the mushrooms and return to the area after the next big rain. Sometimes a single patch of mushrooms will bloom many times within a single season.
In the Kitchen
So you’ve successfully harvested your mushrooms. Congrats! Now what?
If you plan to use them within the next week (up to 10 days is okay) store them in the fridge in a paper bag. When you want to use them, gently brush away any dirt between the gills or on the cap with a toothbrush. If you need to use water to wash away the dirt, use as little as possible. Sometimes you have to cut open the fungus to get the dirt from tricky places. It’s best to clean the mushrooms just before cooking because they don’t store as well once they’ve gotten wet.
Most people prefer eating mushrooms fresh, but it’s possible to preserve them, too. The best way is to sauté them in butter and freeze them. This keeps in the most flavor. Chanterelles can also be dehydrated and reconstituted in warm water for use. For best results, use the mushroom water in the dish to keep the most flavor. But really, they are better frozen rather than dried. They just don’t come back with the same flavor.
If bought in the store, chanterelles should be golden in color, smell fragrant like apricots, and have no slime or anything resembling bruising or rotting. The gills should be intact. If you’re going to pay top dollar for the mushroom, make sure it’s a good one!
These mushrooms have a wonderful, yet subtle taste. It’s important to avoid overpowering the fruity, peppery flavor of the chanterelle. This mushroom has a delightful shape and texture, so dishes that highlight these attributes are best. Much of the time, chanterelles are best done simply- sautéed in butter and added on top of something. That something can be pizza, pasta, risotto, bread, or an omelet. Some people make a creamy soup with the mushroom. An adventurous challenge is to use the sweetness of the mushroom in a desert, like ice cream. Remember, keep it simple with this delicate ingredient!