There are about 20-30 well known mushrooms, which everybody agrees are edible, even though some of them have "must cook" warnings with them. There are about a couple hundred other moderately well known mushrooms, and then a host of little known edibles.
Trying to discover what is edible and what is not, can be harder than it sounds. This is because with those little known edibles, there may be some confusion about edibility. With the moderately well knowns, there may be a lot that people simply do not want to take some kind of risk with. So we end up with a series of terms that are used to describe the edibility status of mushrooms, and they don't always mean what you think they mean.
Edible - This means that the writer is certain it can be eaten without harm, or that the risks of doing so are not high. Some edibles will have warnings, that they have to be cooked, or that they should not be combined with alcohol, or that they may cause reactions in some people.
Non-Edibles - A label of "not edible", can be confusing. It can mean a lot of different things.
- Not poisonous, but tough, or not tasty, or otherwise unpalatable.
- Not known to be edible. It may mean the writer of the description simply does not know.
- Known or suspected to have caused reactions. Again, this does not actually mean it is not edible, it just means the author did not feel comfortable listing it as edible in cases where the reactions are controllable by cooking or other means.
- Known or suspected to have caused illness. Same as with reactions, it may actually BE edible if handled correctly, or not.
- Similar to a deadly, so the author labels it as non-edible to avoid liability. This is more common than it should be.
- Often mistaken in ID, or confusing to ID, so it is impossible to tell whether it causes reactions or not. Many mushrooms with a long history of being used in cultures around the world get labeled "not edible" by current authors because of confusion about ID.
This is the most ambiguous of labels, because it SOUNDS like everything labeled this way is poisonous, and that is simply not the case. But you have to keep digging and researching to find the reason for the label.
Edible With Caution - This means that it is a fairly commonly consumed mushroom, but that there is a particular reason why you need to be careful. Reasons may include:
- Must be cooked to remove toxins.
- Must be parboiled to remove toxins.
- Should not be consumed with alcohol.
- Caps only should be eaten.
- Should avoid the species when found on some kinds of wood (principally conifer).
- May have confusing ID.
- Should not be eaten in large quantities, or multiple meals in a row.
- Should not be eaten by people with specific medical conditions (typically involving kidney or liver).
Edible with caution means you need to pay attention to the rules that go with that mushroom. Generally, if you do, they are safe to eat.
Not Recommended - This label parallels "Not Edible". It can be a confusing label, and may mean anything from the Not Edible or Edible with Caution labels, or it can actually mean that it causes digestive upset. Often it simply means that the author thinks you are too likely to confuse the mushroom with one that IS harmful.
Suspect, or Questionable - This is a catch-all for those mushrooms that have one or two reports of reactions or illness, or a report of death, but which also has a long history of being used as a safe culinary mushroom. USUALLY, you can find a reason why the reaction or illness occurred. Most commonly, insufficient cooking.
Poisonous - A more descriptive label, which indicates that the mushroom is more likely to harm you than not. Poisonous mushrooms have reactions ranging from temporary illness, to deadly, with some overlap between the two. Sometimes mushrooms are labeled as Poisonous which should have been labeled as Edible With Caution, but unless you know for certain this is the case, and what the precaution is, don't take chances with these.
Deadly - They get put here if they are known to cause death more often than not. Unfortunately, even very cautious authors who are willing to label safe mushrooms as questionable, are often reluctant to give a deadly mushroom the name it deserves. It would be much better if they did, so that readers would know that this is one you never take chances with.
I have eaten many mushrooms that are labeled by many sources as "inedible", "not recommended", "suspect", and two that were labeled as "Poisonous" (but not deadly!), and I have consumed many that were labeled as "edible with caution". I am NOT a careless consumer of mushrooms. I ate those labeled as "poisonous" only after extensive research, and after knowing for certain from older mycological sources, that the mushroom required specific handling. I made sure my ID was solid as well. I then CAREFULLY followed the instructions for safely eating them. I WON'T take risks unless I am certain that I know how to eliminate the risk!
In a sense, you can never eat any mushroom without taking a risk. But by following a few specific rules, you can reduce the risks that you'll experience reactions from mushrooms you have not eaten before.
- Gather them yourself. Make sure of where they are coming from, and when growing location is a key identifier, make sure you keep look-alikes gathered from different environments in separate corners of the basket.
- Be sure of your ID. If you are not sure of the mushroom ID, don't eat it. Bring samples home - various ages if possible, and always with the ENTIRE mushroom, including root base. Do the spore print, bruising test, smell test. I do not recommend taste tests except with Russula, where it is an indicator of edibility, and the acrid flavor of the ones that are harder to prepare (for safety) will inspire you to spit it out - the toxin is not strong enough to harm you from a taste test, and this is not the case with all toxic mushrooms. Whether or not you use KOH, or other solutions to test, or buy a microscope is up to you, but if you don't, then stick to mushrooms that can be ID'd or edibility checked without those items.
- If it is questionable, find out WHY, to see if you can reduce the risks.
- Eat caps only on any suspect or new to you mushroom.
- Cook the mushroom well. With any new mushroom, cook it well.
- Avoid alcohol with wild mushrooms. It conflicts with too many.
- Consume a small portion the first time. Wait a day or two before having more, and try a larger portion if you did not experience any problems from the first meal.
- If you prepare a mushroom that is toxic ONLY WITH ALCOHOL, then DO NOT SERVE IT TO GUESTS. Even if you warn them, don't serve it! Because closet alcoholics won't be honest about when they last drank, and won't have the courage to avoid eating it either. Since some can have effects for 2-3 days after consumption, you don't want to send your guests home with a time bomb in case they forget and accidentally take a drink, or start chugging the cough syrup.
- It helps to keep a piece of it on hand, or another specimen on hand, just in case you made a mistake. But if you follow the first few rules, you AREN'T GOING TO MAKE DEADLY MISTAKES.
- Please write about your experience. It helps other people learn more about how to safely eat what is available to them.
Be cautious because some things ARE confusing. But when you know for certain, it is ok to be confident.
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