The Ozarks may truly be at their finest in the fall.
The trees are, of course, stunning. The weather is stubbornly perfect. And, though the cultivated summer crops are waning, delectable dining opportunities abound in the woods, for those who know where to look!
Of course, the deer & turkey hunting and bass & crappie fishing are staples for omnivores seeking to cheaply (and healthily!) stock their freezers for the coming winter. But there’s another, humbler, more mysterious delicacy that arrives with autumn’s cool rains… mushrooms!
Missouri mushroom hunting can be incredibly rewarding, particularly in the fall. A refreshing jaunt along an autumnal woodland trail is its own balm for a sunburned soul, but when that jaunt produces food for the table, it’s a win-win. Below are some of our absolute favorite Missouri mushrooms to hunt in the fall.
*Caution! As the saying goes: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” Make sure you can positively identify a mushroom before consuming it. Check the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Edible Mushrooms page for more tips. And when in doubt, throw it out!
Ozark Autumn Mushrooming Favorites:
Hen-of-the-Woods, or Sheepshead, or Maitake
I’ve found two of these this fall already — both in the last couple of weeks, after all the heavy rains. The grow at the base of trees, particularly oaks. They can range from whitish-tan to grey in color. They’re “polypores,” which means they don’t have gills on the bottom, but rather, have a bunch of tiny pores (hence the name).
These are arguably the best fall mushroom you can find in the Ozarks. They smell absolutely incredible… sort of “meaty” and “crisp.” They’ll make your whole kitchen smell lovely even before you start cooking them!
A word of caution: because these mushrooms are so large and complicated, lots of little bugs will have made their home among the folds. You might want to cut this one up on the back porch (oh, and throw out the tough edges, keeping only the fresh-looking inner parts). Then soak the pieces in salt water for an hour or so, to make sure the little buggies abandon ship!
Check out this recipe for Wild Creamy Mushroom Soup using Hen of the Woods. It’s fantastic, and super easy!
These are probably my favorite. They’re absolutely beautiful, they can be fairly abundant, and they are scrumptious in an Asian dish! Try this recipe.
They grow on dead logs, stumps and trees, with a short stalk and long gills. We have a log in our pasture that predictably grows oysters twice a year: in the early spring and late fall. They seem to want to wait until the weather really starts getting brisk. We’ve found a few small ones on another log this fall, but expect our main ones to arrive in mid-November.
Oysters are considered a choice edible mushroom. Again, make sure you can identify them well, but once you see them, you will likely not have any trouble mistaking anything else for oysters in the future!
Puffballs are those mushrooms you used to play with when you were a kid, that you didn’t know were even mushrooms: you’d squeeze them, and tan powder would puff out. Well, that was once the puffballs were done… dead… But a fresh puffball? Delicioso!
Puffballs are of three (or so) different sorts, and you can find them all in the Ozarks.
The Giant Puffball is found in open lawns, pastures, and fields. It looks like a softball (or golf ball, if you’re not so lucky) sitting on the grass. It is white, firm (if fresh), and round. It will have no stalk, and is connected by a thin “strand” to the ground. Make sure with this and all puffballs that you are not accidentally harvesting a white amanita mushroom that has not yet “opened” up. Those can be deadly! The way to tell is to make sure there’s no stalk forming and that you’re not mistaking a mushroom cap on a short stalk for a totally round ball. If it has a stalk, don’t eat it!
The Pear-Shaped Puffball grows in clusters on dead wood. It won’t get very big, but the nice thing is, there are usually lots of them! I like to tap the old ones, to make sure the spores really spread around and keep the log producing… and because it’s kind of fun.
The Gem-Studded Puffball is smaller than the Giant Puffball, and will tend to develop a “pore” on the top. Or call it a “gem” if you want it to sound nicer! Same thing with them: no stalk, though they might be less round than their giant cousins, and they can have an “elongated base” (according to the Missouri Dept. of Conservation)… like the ones pictured above. But definitely not a “stalk and cap” configuration.
Puffballs will have no gills (if there are gills, throw it out: it’s not a puffball!), and, if fresh, will have a consistent “meat” all the way through. They’re very much like a marshmallow. They’re firm, and almost make a squeaky sound as you cut through them, because the interior is so firm and solid.
The way we love to eat these is to simply sautée them in butter and garlic. Throw them on a burger, or just put them on a plate by themselves and enjoy! They’re so easy and so yummy!
Turkey Tail mushrooms are probably the most abundant mushroom in the woods. And they’re also the most impossible to mistake for anything else, in my opinion. The problem is, you don’t really want to eat them. Oh you can eat them, but they’re like chewing on leather.
However, Turkey Tails are being researched for their immune-boosting properties. It’s thought that they can help boost the supply of “killer cells” (the good ones) that the human body produces, that kill other cells that have been overtaken by a virus. It’s thought that this trait could be very beneficial particularly to women with breast cancer who have been undergoing chemo (and therefore have weakened immune systems). So…
The Turkey Tail can very easily be dried in a dehydrator, ground (with a coffee grinder, perhaps), and used for an immune-boosting tea!
That should be enough to get you started. Remember not to eat until you can positively identify. Always cook your wild mushrooms. And use a yummy recipe!