Canopies of brilliant orange, red and yellow may steal the autumn show in Michigan’s forests, but for mushroom hunters, the true treasures of the season are at ground level. There, snugged up against tree trunks and tucked amid the rich compost of decomposing logs are culinary delights free for the picking.
While most Michiganders are familiar with the delectable, sponge-capped morel mushrooms that poke a few inches above the soil in early spring, few realize that fall offers up a greater variety and a much larger number of tasty fungi.
“If I find 40 morels in the spring, I’m happy with myself, but when I walk through the woods in the fall, every single little area has mushrooms, and some of them stand up in quality to morels any day,” says lifelong mushroom hunter Zach Schroeder, who is the executive director at the at Les Cheneaux Culinary School and executive chef of its restaurant in the U.P. town of Hessel near Drummond Island.
Size-wise, fall mushrooms beat their spring counterparts. As an example, Schroeder notes one of his favorites: the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus). With an up-to-12-inch-diameter, cream-hued cap, this variety typically grows in clusters.
“I’ll load up the family, hop in my truck and we can spot oyster mushrooms from a couple of hundred yards away,” he says. “We fill huge coolers with oyster mushrooms and use them in the restaurant.” Schroeder characterizes oyster mushrooms as having a milder flavor than some other wild varieties, “but it’s a delicious mushroom that’s easy to find, and our customers really like it.”
The king of the autumn mushrooms, however, is the hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), according to Phil Tedeschi of the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club. “That’s the one we’re all looking for. It’s a large mushroom that averages 3 to 5 pounds, but they can get as large as 30 to 40 pounds,” he describes. “They’re versatile mushrooms with a firm texture and a very good strong flavor that stands up to all kinds of dishes. I’ve even used them in a curry and could still taste the mushroom despite the curry powder.”
Other fall favorites include the small, round-capped honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea); the vivid orange chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) that tastes like chicken; the meaty chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), which many consider the premier mushroom for gourmet cooking; and the striking, funnel-shaped black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). The experts caution, however, mushroom hunters should be certain about identification, as some mushrooms are not only inedible but also poisonous.
Prepare and store
With bounty in hand, the next step is to prepare them. Dirt-free mushrooms need no cleaning at all, according to Schroeder. Those with a bit of dirt get a quick dunk and swirl in cool water (about 45 degrees), lasting no longer than 10 seconds. Soaking dilutes the flavor and makes it impossible to get a crusty sear on a mushroom, Schroeder explained.
Storing mushrooms also is a simple affair: Lay them out on a paper towel, cover them with a sheet of damp paper towel and put them in the refrigerator where they will last for at least a few days. Schroeder also dries mushrooms, runs them through a high-speed blender to make flour, and then adds it to recipes for mushroom-flavored bread, pasta, dumplings and “amazing spaetzle.”
Another way to store mushrooms is by freezing, suggests Chris Wright, executive director of Midwest American Mycological Information, a nonprofit dedicated to providing information and training to folks who want to be legally certified to commercially gather and sell wild mushrooms in Michigan. Wright starts by lightly sautéing the mushrooms, then pats them dry with paper towel, slides them into a plastic storage bag, sucks out the air with a straw to form a quasi-vacuum seal, and tosses them in the freezer. The mushrooms can keep for months.
By far, however, the best thing to do with wild mushrooms is to immediately sauté them for eating, Schroeder says. The trick is don’t fiddle. “Just let them sear until they’re nice and caramelized, flip them over once, let them sear on the other side, add salt and pepper, and a little whole butter to finish them,” he says, noting the milk solids in the butter bring out the flavor of the mushrooms. Occasionally, he may add a little garlic and some chopped thyme, but “I really don’t try to mess with them much. It just doesn’t make any sense to cover up the very delicious flavor of that mushroom that you’ve spent time finding and harvesting.”
The Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club offers public hunts throughout the state from spring through fall to help teach people proper mushroom identification.
For more information, visit michiganmushroomhunters.org.
Leslie Mertz is a freelance science and nature writer. She lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.
Fall Mushroom Soup Recipe
2 tablespoons grapeseed or other high smoke point oil
2 pounds wild mushrooms (chanterelles, oysters, honey mushrooms, black trumpets, etc.) cleaned and roughly chopped
4 tablespoons whole butter
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup white wine
1 quart chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon good quality soy sauce
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 pinch cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped chives for garnish
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil for garnish
Heat oil in large pot over high heat. Toss in mushrooms and let sear without agitation until well-caramelized. Stir and continue to caramelize mushrooms. Turn heat to medium. Add butter, onions, garlic and a splash of salt and pepper. Sweat until onions are translucent.
Add wine and cook until reduced by half. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Add cream and bring back to a simmer. Fold in parmesan a little at a time while continually stirring. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, sherry vinegar, lemon, cayenne, salt and pepper. Puree using a blender or immersion blender. Season to taste. Cool to reheat and serve later or serve immediately. Garnish with chopped chives, parmesan cheese and olive oil.
— Zach Schroeder, Les Cheneaux Culinary School