When he’s not in the kitchen at his restaurant, White Pillars, you might find Chef Austin Sumrall climbing trees – or even doing acrobatics, throwing a friend up on his shoulders – in the middle of forested farmland two hours north of his home in Biloxi, Mississippi. He’s not in training for the next Mountain Man, however; it’s all in the name of gathering mushrooms. Sumrall’s been a forager for a long time, venturing through vines and thickets, trudging through trees and often donning snake gaiters to hunt down prized mushrooms like chanterelles, lion’s mane and chicken of the woods. (The latter two grow high in trees, hence the acrobatics.)
Mushroom foraging is hard work, and it’s rare to find enough of them to be able to add them to the menu for his guests. However, if Sumrall comes across a 20-pound chicken of the woods or gathers a bounty of chanterelles in season (summer), he’ll make something special.
“We’re not using those as the mushroom blended into a burger,” he says. That might be a dish that’s extra fancy, like French Veloute Agnes Sorel (a creamy white soup with chicken, mushrooms and ham), or something a bit more approachable, like chanterelle-stuffed tortellini or mushroom risotto. “This kind of goes back to the diversity of the product,” Sumrall says. “There are so many different things you can do with it.” To supplement his foraged mushrooms, he relies on mushrooms grown by local Shroomdom Inc. – usually about 15 pounds a week.
Mushrooms as Meat
Sumrall isn’t the only chef in America having fun with fungi. Three reasons the humble mushroom is heating up as an ingredient? Umami, umami, umami. The fungi’s texture and flavor, which closely mimics meat when properly prepared, is showing up on menus more frequently to satisfy the growing number of Americans following or experimenting with a plant-based diet.
“I love to treat mushrooms as the ‘meat’ of the woods,” says Ryan McQuillan, executive chef at Plough and The Exchange at Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Instead of adding steak or ham to a grilled cheese, for instance, he’ll stuff the sandwich with roasted mushrooms. Sumrall relies on chicken of the woods mushrooms as a stand-in for white meat, such as an Indian-inspired vegan butter “chicken” dish cooked in a butter curry sauce.
Tips for Beginning Foragers
First, don’t bury your face in your phone. “There’s an overreliance on apps among novice foragers,” says Rob Connoley, chef and owner of Bulrush in St. Louis. Instead, find a mentor and learn from experience. “A photo on an app or in a book is never as clear as an experienced forager who can talk about the myriad differences caused by weather, time and the environment,” Connoley adds. Try looking for a mentor by joining a local mycological society to find the “mushroom geeks,” he suggests. Facebook groups are another smart way to connect with like-minded foragers.
Second, get outside (but steer clear of state and national parks, where foraging is mostly prohibited, although this varies from state to state). While there are plenty of great books on foraging (like Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora), being able to identify other flora is equally important.
“Take a walk in a park with a good [number] of oak trees,” says McQuillan. “Know how to identify an oak tree and look for dead trees near the live ones; this is usually an indication of mushroom growth nearby.” He adds that he typically only forages for mushrooms that don’t have caps (like morels or hen of the woods), as capped mushrooms can often be misidentified with poisonous ones. It’s a good idea to take an experienced forager with you or at least bring a book along.
Third, bring along a basket and foraging knife for cutting off the mushroom at its base. You can pick up a good knife for about $30. Sumrall has a model from Opinel that has a coarse brush opposite the blade for brushing off dirt. In general, you don’t want to wash mushrooms before cooking, because they act like a sponge. “If you soak in water, you’ll have to cook it back out,” Sumrall says. Aim to brush off as much dirt as you can before adding mushrooms to your basket to keep them as clean as possible.
When to Go Foraging
It greatly depends on where you live, but generally, autumn is a prime time to hunt mushrooms.
“By far my favorite time to forage is fall,” says Rob Shaner, chef and owner of Robert Et Fils restaurant in Chicago, who counts chicken of the woods (which grow on dead trees) as his favorite mushroom. The season lasts until the first freeze, and a bonus is that fall mushrooms tend to be “pretty clear cut,” Shaner adds, “so there’s not much chance of confusing edible mushrooms with poisonous ones.” (That said, always be sure you research your finds before eating, to be safe.)
How to Cook Foraged Mushrooms
You probably don’t want to attempt that fancy French soup like Sumrall with your first haul. Instead, prepare your foraged mushrooms in a way that lets their extreme freshness shine. Connoley suggests lightly brushing foraged mushrooms with oil and salt and pepper and grilling over a hot fire. If you’re cooking indoors, don’t underestimate the prime pairing of mushrooms and butter.
Michael Gottlieb, executive chef at Tchefuncte’s Restaurant and The Anchor in Madisonville, Louisiana, suggests cooking mushrooms in butter and vegetable oil (don’t crowd the pan!) then finishing with chopped garlic, shallot and fresh herbs. “Add a touch of cream if you like and you have a really great accompaniment to just about any dish,” Gottlieb says.