This last weekend Daniel, the dogs, and I spent a day foraging in the San Juan Mountains on the hunt for wild mushrooms. It was a family affair, my Aunt, Uncle, Mom, and all the family pups too. I think it was the most fun any of us had had in a good long while. We were in search of the elusive Morel Mushroom, and hopeful the delicately nutty Chanterelle. But, they were not to be had. What we did find in abundance was King Bolete or Porcini, and Coral mushrooms. And, I do mean abundance. We got about 20 lbs of each!
This article was previously published on an older blog of mine, I have edited it for placement here because I felt it was valuable, educational, and entertaining content.
If you know how and where to look, and take time for proper preservation, you can keep your pantry stocked through the season. In our region of Southwest Colorado, almost all of our mushrooms grow above 10,000′ in elevation. So, hunting them takes a bit of determination. We have endless mountain terrain, but it can be a challenge to find the areas these fungi call home. A 4WD is almost always necessary as you’ll be heading up into the high country. You’ll also want a good pair of hiking boots, and a walking stick wouldn’t go amiss. Unless you are familiar with edible mushrooms it’s also best to have a guide. Some species if eaten will make for a really bad day, but others can outright kill you. Never take a chance on an unknown fungus. If you’re not 100% sure leave it where it lies.
Mushrooms Require Specific Habitats
The areas we roamed on the hunt this weekend had a few things in common. For one, you won’t often find these shy little guys out in the open sunshine. Every area we searched was densely wooded with decomposing deadfall, leaves, and pine needles, (translate to slippery slopes.) We climbed some rather treacherous inclines, even the poor dogs struggled on certain slopes, so be prepared for an intense hike. None of the sites we searched was easy to get to. The other thing to look for when mushroom hunting is signs of moisture. Begin your search in mossy areas that have dense wild ferns. During our all-day hunt, we covered a lot of terrains, traveling up Hotel Draw and Bolam Pass.
King Boletes (AKA Porcini)
The first treasures we found were the King Boletes. This species can usually be found beginning in mid to late July and weather dependent, on into September. Since monsoon season came late this year, our hunting day (early August) was perfect timing.
Colorado offers a lot of different types of boletes, but only a few that you’ll want to eat. The first step to identifying them is to look under their caps. All Boletes have pores instead of gills. Modern Forager says, “The most common porcini look-alike is the Aspen Orange Cap (Leccinum insigne).” In their article about Colorado Mushrooms they note that if cut, the Aspen Orange Cap will stain a brilliant blue. The other tell-tell sign is the small black scabers on the stems. My Uncle actually refers to these as Crazy Bolete and told us a tale of another family member who had a bad day after eating them.
Our second find of the day was the exotic-looking Coral Mushroom. They’re by far one of the most visually attractive wild mushrooms you can find. They're in season anywhere from June to September and they can only be gotten as foraged fungi. These beautiful fungi are a soft yellow-tan, becoming a deeper shade or even pink-tinged as they age. Only the white, beige, or yellow corals are edible. Avoid any brightly colored corals. A sure sign for identification is that these shrooms only grow on decomposing wood. Though, on your average forest floor, you may not be able to see the wood beneath the other leaf debris. While coral mushrooms are safe to eat cooked or raw, too many can cause an upset stomach. It’s best to enjoy them in smaller quantities if you’re not used to them.
We Found Mushrooms! Now What?
After a long and thrilling day on the hunt, the real work began when we returned home with our bounty. Most wild mushrooms are of course best when eaten fresh, but who can eat 40 lbs of them? For the Boletes, we washed and cleaned them in a saltwater rinse removing dirt and debris with a small brush. Then I set them to dry on a paper towel. Once dry, some were packaged in paper bags to hand out to friends and co-workers. Others we cooked right then, lightly sautéing them in butter and garlic. The rest we sliced up thin, sprinkled lightly with sea salt, and set them to dehydrate. We’ll be eating wild mushroom soup all winter long, and I couldn’t be happier about it!
The Corals, however, were a different story. These lovely fungi are definitely in the ‘best when fresh category.’ They don’t respond well to dehydration, but they can be frozen. Washing them is a bit of a tedious task. The same shape that makes them beautiful, makes them delicate as well as prone to holding debris. I broke the corals into smaller segments and then lightly swirled them in salted water to dislodge pine needles and other sediments. Most of the lower stem base I simply cut off. Again I set them on paper towels to dry before packing them. They’ll store for a few days in the fridge if placed in paper bags. Some of them I put in the freezer for later use in the aforementioned soups. And then we feasted on a pile of them breaded and fried using my grandmother's age-old recipe.
Crispy Coral Mushrooms
Fine Bread Crumbs (We used crushed Ritz Crackers)
1 Egg, Beaten
Dash of Herbes de Provence
Salt & Peper to Taste
Tablespoon Olive Oil
Tablespoon of Butter
Mix breadcrumbs, herbs, salt & pepper thoroughly in a shallow dish
Heat olive oil & butter in a skillet
Dip cleaned mushroom in egg then in breading mix
Fry mushrooms 3- 4 minutes per side until golden brown
Serve and eat immediately