what mushrooms are safe to eat

What Mushrooms Are Safe to Eat? Here’s What to Know

Steve Russell - February 16, 2023

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There’s a lot to learn once you decide to start foraging. It’s a beautiful and sustainable practice that helps you connect with nature, but it can also be deadly if you pick up the wrong berry or fungi. So what mushrooms are safe to eat?

Here is a look at a few of the edible toadstools and some dangerous lookalikes they may have. These vital distinctions could save you from a hurt stomach or worse. Learn about some essential mushroom-foraging facts you should know.

How Do You Tell if a Mushroom Is Poisonous?

Some people will tell you there are a few standard rules to recognize what mushrooms are safe to eat. If they grow on wood, are easy to peel, and other animals eat them, they should be fine, right? No — this is absolutely not true.

Death caps are notoriously easy to peel, while the jack-o’-lantern mushroom finds its home on logs. Both of those fungi also look almost identical to their edible counterparts. Additionally, many animals can feed on poisonous fungi without a problem because they’ve adapted to do so.

While there aren’t totally definite ways to tell which toadstools are poisonous, there are a couple of tips that can help you avoid the ones you don’t want to eat.

You should never forage those with white gills, a ring around the stem, or a volva. The volva — a cup-shaped structure covering the base of some mushrooms — are often underground, so you have to dig to find it. Any with a red cap or stem are often poisonous as well.

The reason these aren’t universal rules is because some safe fungi share these characteristics. While you might skip some yummy mushrooms, you’ll also miss the ones that could lead to indigestion, hallucinations, or death. This is an example of the most crucial rule of foraging — do not eat something if you can’t verify which species it is.

Where it’s growing can also affect its edibility as well. Hen and chicken of the woods mushrooms are safe, but they can be toxic if they grow on eucalyptus, cedar, or conifer trees. Poisonous toadstools also often have an acrid smell, so put on some gloves, cut off a piece, and give it a sniff to verify its safety.

What Are Some Safe-to-eat Mushrooms You Can Forage

When you’re ready to get out and forage, you’ll need to know what mushrooms are safe to eat and which ones are poisonous duplicates. Here are some edible toadstools and how you can identify them.

1. Puffball

The puffball mushroom can remain small or grow as big as a foot in diameter. To identify them, look for round fungi sitting close to the ground. These have a barely detectable stem.

The best way to find a safe puffball is to cut it completely in half and see what the inside looks like. If it’s completely white with no signs of gills, you have a fungus that’s likely safe to eat. However, they can spoil quickly, so use them as a meat or tofu alternative quickly after foraging.

Puffballs do have some toxic cousins. If there are any markings or other colors inside the toadstool when you cut it open, leave it alone. Make incredibly sure there are no signs of gills on the interior. Even one of its own — the warted puffball — is only consumable when it’s young.

2. Lion’s Mane 

Lion’s mane mushrooms are fascinating-looking specimens. True to their name, they look like a lion’s mane was made of thin white tendrils. These have a seafood-like flavor and absorb seasonings well. Researchers are currently analyzing its healing properties as well.

Luckily, there are no toxic lion’s mane mushroom twins. When you find one growing on a maple, beech, or oak tree, you’re good to forage them. You can verify it’s a lion’s mane by those little white dangling bits. The mushroom itself doesn’t have much of a body.

3. King Bolete

This mushroom is often a rare find because of how delicious it is. You might also know it by a few other names — porcini or penny bun. Foragers and chefs seek these toadstools worldwide because they are very tough for humans to grow. People eat over 100,000 metric tons of King Boletes every year.

There are a few ways to identify a safe porcini. These mushrooms have brown caps, sometimes with white spots that turn yellow. Their stems are also quite thick with a net-like pattern. The inside should be white when you cut it in half.

While none of the bolete family are deadly, they can make your stomach feel horrible. You can easily avoid some by skipping the red ones. Others will turn blue or black when you damage the flesh. These will also taste bitter — you’ll be safe if you cut a bit off and taste it, but don’t swallow. Avoid foraging these in polluted areas as well, since they will soak up the toxins.

4. Chicken or Hen of the Woods

Though their names are similar, they’re two different fungi. Many say chicken of the woods actually tastes like chicken, which is why it’s such a popular foraging item. Hen of the woods also has a meaty flavor, but some varieties can be a bit spicy as well.

These mushrooms are reasonably easy to spot. Both grow in large frilly clusters towards the bottom of oaks and other hardwood trees. While the hen is a brownish gray, the chicken is orange and yellow.

Hens have a few lookalikes, but none of them are dangerous. On the other hand, chicken of the woods has one to stay away from — the jack-o’-lantern mushroom. While the chicken has small pores under the caps, the jack-o’-lantern has gills. It also glows in the dark, which is a pretty easy way to determine it’s toxic.

Chicken of the woods also has a delicious duplicate. The chanterelle has more tube-like growths, but forms in the same kinds of clusters chickens do. You could also mistake the velvet top fungus for a chicken, but these will have a soft brownish top. These aren’t poisonous, but they’re too tough to eat.

5. Oyster

Oyster mushrooms are renowned for how nutritious they are. They have a protein content equivalent to meat and a great taste people everywhere love to include in their meals. Many chefs use these incredible fungi in their cooking all around the world.

To positively identify these toadstools, look for a wide cap. As its name suggests, these often look like oysters and can be white or gray, but some other varieties are gold, pink, or blue. One of the most important features is the lack of a stem and gills that continue throughout the mushroom. They also smell sweet, like licorice or anise.

Like chicken of the woods, an important twin to avoid is the jack-o’-lantern mushroom. One that looks remarkably close to the oyster is the ghost fungus — these also glow in the dark, so rule them out if they have this property. Funnel mushrooms are other poisonous lookalikes, but unlike oyster mushrooms, their gills stop at the top of the stem.

Find Out What Mushrooms Are Safe to Eat

Forging edible fungi is a fun and exciting way to get sustainable food. However, making an identification mistake can lead to sickness or deadly poisoning.

Once you learn how to find the edible mushrooms, you’ll be more able to rule out their toxic lookalikes. Always remember — if you can’t positively identify something, do not eat it.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.