Chicken of the woods. Puffball. Black trumpet. Yellow-footed chanterelle. The names of wild edible mushrooms that are found in the woods throughout the peninsula are as unique as the breed of hunters that harvest them in secret. They dot the wet forests, hiding under dead leaves and fallen trees, like nature’s treasure hunt.
There are just a few rules.
Know what you’re eating before gorging on every fungus that you come across during your hunt. Keep an eye on the forecast and pray for rain. Finally, should the day come when your mesh bag is overflowing with the forest floor’s fruits, don’t tell anyone where you found them.
“When we found our 16 pounds of morels, someone asked us where we found them,” remembers Charlotte Lukes, a naturalist and mushroom expert. “[My husband] Roy said, ‘It was in the woods between Sheboygan and Gills Rock!’ Mushroom enthusiasts who collect for the table are very private about their sources.”
There are only so many mushrooms to go around and they like to grow in the same spots every year. If you tell someone where you found a jackpot of chanterelles, they may all be picked the next time you go hunting after a summer rainfall.
Lukes did broadly disclose her favorite hunting spots, such as Newport State Park and Whitefish Dunes. But the conversation didn’t further narrow down those hundreds of wild acres.
So, you don’t know the difference between a white-capped amanita and a sulfur shelf, and the vigorous mushroom hunters that you do know want none of your company. Here, we will look into the petri dish of mushroom hunting culture to learn how these edible fungi thrive in the earth and taste delicious on your plate.
The morel is the black and brown jewel of edible wild mushroom hunting. After bringing home a haul, it takes little more than a hot pan and some butter to satisfy the spring craving.
According to Lukes, the two most common types of morels, black and brown, prefer different growing environments.
“The black morels can grow with pines and evergreens,” said Lukes. “The brown ones tend to be more in a mixed woods or hardwoods.”
But black or brown, morels love to be wet.
“Mushrooms are 80 to 90 percent water,” said Lukes. “If we have a really snowy winter and a wet spring, wow! That’s great for morels.”
Fallen trees, dead leaves, streams and small ponds that can hold more moisture than the open air tend to be hosts for these mushrooms that can spring up overnight. But the part that we eat is like the apple of the tree — it’s the mycelium in the soil that gives the mushroom what it needs to grow.
The mycelium is the starting point for all mushrooms. While hunters eat the apple, the mycelium is the branches and the roots. Like anything growing organically, morels prefer a specific environment to thrive and that doesn’t mean rain alone.
Morels like to pop up in spring as soon as the ground temperature gets around 40 degrees. Freezing temperatures won’t kill the mycelium, but will make it go dormant. The longer it is dormant, the longer it will take to wake up and produce a mushroom. A particularly dry spell or below-freezing week in the late spring and summer can shut off mushroom growth for the entire year.
“The longer it’s dormant and the more dried it becomes, the more consistent big rains you need to bring it out of dormancy and produce mushrooms,” said Lukes. “I’ve seen that in some years where we’ve had a really dry summer and you expect to find certain mushrooms by the end of August. Mushrooms will withstand a light frost as long as it warms up the next day. The thing that really kills them is when it’s freezing at night and all day for a number of days. That pretty much shuts off the growth.”
While morels rarely grow in dense clusters, like shaggy manes or sulfur shelf mushrooms, they do grow nearby one another thanks to their reproductive process. When the sunlight hits the edible part of a morel above ground, the mushroom releases spores that are carried in the wind to land in nearby soil. Given the right growing conditions, the spores create a new mycelium and, in time, a new morel.
Since the mycelium and a mushroom’s spores rarely die, but rather go dormant, many hunters believe that mushroom plots will repopulate year after year. There is little science to support this idea, but it’s fair to assume that a place with lots of morels also has lots of spores being produced and released, making this repopulation theory believable.
Besides, if cultivating morels were fully realized, we would simply grow the morel in our backyard or under lamps in the basement and enjoy them drenched in butter all year. But their elusive nature is what makes them so attractive.
There are a few morel mushroom growing kits available online, but none can guarantee success. Mycologist Gary Mills was able to pull it off for a PBS documentary, but it took 26 steps including everything from mixing your own fruiting substrate mix to a lab outfitted with a laminar flow hood and “a fruiting room where temperature, humidity, light and fresh, filtered air can be precisely controlled.”
Even if you have all of that, you still have to find the spores of a Morel, which are still lying quietly under the dead trees and leaves of a wet forest floor.
After the excitement of a spring morel hunt has faded and temperatures reach higher than the 82 degrees that kills good morel growth, chanterelles become the new fungi of choice in Door County.
“Some years I’ve found them by the middle of June or the second week in July, given a good wet spring and a wet June,” said Lukes, who remembers the faint apricot smell of the first chanterelle she found.
Just like morels, chanterelles have certain growing conditions that they thrive in.
“Chanterelles tend to like to be in hardwoods, deciduous trees. You’re not going to find them in a pine woods,” said Lukes.
With the later growing season for chanterelles, they have a better chance of making up for a winter without snow. Spring and summer rains can help this mushroom show up well into the fall. It’s not enough to have just one strong rainfall. To saturate the soil and quench the thirsty mycelium, consistent rains are more important than one downpour.
Chanterelles are known for their abundance of loose spores that fall off if disturbed. If you want to find more mushrooms the next time you hunt, it’s good to let these spores fall to the forest floor by collecting them in a mesh bag or basket rather than a closed bucket or backpack.
Though properly termed sulfur shelf, these tree-hugging mushrooms are more frequently referred to by their common names, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods. Though more common in southern Wisconsin, they have been found in the woods of Door County.
“The sulfur shelf grows in these layered shelves on trees and it’s orange with a kind of yellowish-brownish border,” said Lukes, who has found them from June through the fall. “The only part of them that’s edible is that outer inch, that yellow border.”
Unlike the guessing game of where morels and chanterelles will repopulate, the sulfur shelf mushrooms are easier to find year after year for an educated hunter. By cutting off only the yellow border and leaving the larger orange base, sulfur shelf mushrooms can regrow their edible border within one season.
After seeing a bright sulfur shelf in the woods leading toward Whitefish Dunes one day, Lukes was disappointed to see the entire thing torn off the next week. That is one less sulfur shelf in the Northern Door woods, where they are hard to find in the first place.
Other Funny Fungi
Although more common, morels, chanterelles and sulfur shelf mushrooms aren’t the only edibles found in the county. Lukes has recorded 613 types of mushrooms in her 45 years of searching. Although not all edible, the number is always growing.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” said Lukes of her mushroom identification classes at The Clearing Folk School, where she started teaching in 1976 along with workshops at The Ridges Sanctuary. “A woman who lives way down south of Brussels sent me a photo and wanted to know what this mushroom was. It was a new one that I had never ever seen in Door County. I suspect there are mushrooms that grow in Southern Door that don’t grow in Northern Door. The soil types are different, there’s much deeper clay soil there as opposed to shallow rocky soil in Northern Door.”
Some of this variety includes the puffball mushroom, which resembles a soccer ball and offers little in the way of flavor.
“One of my students said, ‘I made some giant puffball slices and I beat egg and milk together and then crushed soda cracker crumbs and I dipped them in that and then fried them,’ and I asked how they tasted and she said, ‘Like fried soda cracker crumbs.’”
The shaggy manes like to grow on roadsides or in manicured lawns. Although safe and tasty when they are young, fresh and plain white, with age they turn an inky black. The shaggy manes reproduce when their black liquid containing spores drips off of the mushroom in a process called deliquescence. According to Lukes, this black liquid was used in fountain pens during medieval times.
Different types of mushrooms don’t have much in common, but they do all contain a compound call chitin. Chitin is tough to digest in an uncooked mushroom and it’s the reason why Lukes avoids the raw mushrooms at a salad bar.
“When it’s cooked well, you can digest them. But even then, eating too many of them…” Lukes recites a practiced story of her mushroom hunting career. “One year, way back in the early ’80s a couple from across the bay came with us and we found 16 pounds of morels and they took their eight pounds and we took our eight pounds. I washed them, cut them in half, took any bugs out, dried them and put them in my dehydrator and stored them in a glass jar. They went home and gorged themselves on a meal of morels and they got sick.”
A cooked mushroom isn’t just a way of making it safe, it’s also a way to bring the flavor of the forest onto your plate.
Britt Unkefer is the owner of Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille in Fish Creek and Bier Zot in Sister Bay. During the warmer months, mushroom pickers show up with heavy brown bags labeled “Chanterelle,” “Chicken of the Woods,” and other obscure names. While often using them on pizza, Unkefer has his own ideas on what is best to do with a basket of locally foraged wild mushrooms.
“That’s a spring mushroom,” said Unkefer of morels. “So, to me, I immediately think of things like asparagus. It goes perfectly with halibut, even a lighter fish like a trout or anything like that. It has this earthiness to it but there’s more fragrance to it as well.”
Unkefer explained that the market on wild mushrooms is changing with the expansion of internet sales.
“It’s just changed the true wild mushroom market completely because there’s more direct access for consumers who obviously don’t need to make a profit on whatever they’re making at home so it’s driven the price up and it makes more sense for people to sell direct to consumers,” said Unkefer. Morels, which can often reach more than $20 per pound, are the hardest to justify in the restaurant kitchen.
“For me, the market on morels is just stupid. I don’t think there’s many places, even fine dining, that can justify the price that people are asking for it,” said Unkefer.
So Unkefer looked elsewhere and came upon one of his favorites, the chanterelle.
“It’s like walking into a nice fresh forest that just is really fragrant. That’s what I always get from chanterelles,” said Unkefer, who uses them almost exclusively in risotto when there is not enough to go around two-dozen pizzas.
At Wild Tomato he has used lobster mushrooms to make a lobster roll pizza after the famous northeast sandwich.
“It’s the first time I’ve had lobster mushrooms and I thought, ‘Wow, that actually hits the notes of it.’ I’ve never had that experience.”
The earthy black trumpets, which pickers have found in Door County, pair nicely in a salad with leeks, pine nuts and light citrus vinaigrette.
“I’ll do a really hot pan and then just flash sauté them because it takes like a minute to cook them all the way and you get all that huge flavor of the earth but not the texture because it’s not overpowering anything in your mouth,” said Unkefer.
Mushrooms can take on the flavor not only of what they are cooked with, but also the environment in which they grow. A chanterelle found along Mink River in Ellison Bay will taste different than one found in Hood River, Oregon, a haven for competitive mushroom hunters.
Those variables make for infinite possibilities on your plate. But it also means we can kneel down in the rocky soil, snip these jewels of brilliant orange, green, blue and brown, and learn what the peninsula tastes like. After a quick identification check, of course.