Foraging: Oyster Mushrooms
One of the first mushrooms I learned to identify, and forage was the oyster mushroom. These tasty mushrooms are relatively easy to identify safely and are common throughout North America.
While we often think of mushrooms as vegetarians that feed on decaying plant matter, oyster mushrooms are carnivorous! These fantastic mushrooms feed on nematodes. This makes oyster mushrooms a good source of protein and vitamins for foragers.
Types of Oyster Mushrooms
There are many species of oyster mushrooms found in North America and throughout the world. Thankfully, all true oyster mushrooms are edible. Here are some of the species we commonly spot in Appalachia:
- Pearl Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
- Pheonix Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus pulmonarius)
- Aspen Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus populinus)
When to Forage Oyster Mushrooms
Here in West Virginia, we watch for oyster mushrooms throughout the year. You’re most likely to find them in the spring in summer, but you can also find them in the fall and winter. I spotted the mushrooms in the photo above in late December.
In the fall, winter, and early spring, I always look for oysters on warm days after it has rained. Oyster mushrooms will fruit with daytime temperatures in the 40°s and 50°s.
In the summer, cool, damp rainy periods are when I’m typically able to find oyster mushrooms. Generally, the day or two following a good summer rain is a great time to be in the woods! You’re more likely to find all sorts of tasty mushrooms, including oysters, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, and more.
You can also purchase plugs and inoculate logs to grow oyster mushrooms. We have friends that do this, and they recommend oysters as an easy mushroom to begin cultivating.
How to Identify Oyster Mushrooms
Never consume a wild mushroom if you aren’t 100% certain of its identity.
One key feature that will help you identify oyster mushrooms is that they always grow on dead wood. We’ve found them growing on logs fallen across the creek down in our dark hollers and standing dead trees on our ridge. The location may vary, but they’ll always grow from wood, never from the soil.
You’ll typically spot oyster mushrooms growing in shelf-like clusters with individual mushrooms overlapping. Individual caps are oyster or fan-shaped and grow as wide as 10 inches across.
The tops of the mushrooms should be smooth white, tan, or light brown. They should be free from warts or scales.
You should also take a close look at the gills. Oysters have what’s known as decurrent gills. This means that the gills are attached to and run down the stem. Oyster mushrooms don’t have a ring around the stem.
When you slice into an oyster mushroom, the flesh should feel firm. The interior flesh is generally white.
Making a Spore Print
While it isn’t strictly necessary, you can also use a spore print to help you positively identify an oyster mushroom.
To make a spore print from an oyster mushroom, you’ll need:
- 1 Dark piece of paper
- 1 Oyster mushroom
- A container large enough to cover the mushroom
- A little water
Place your mushroom with the gills down on your dark piece of paper somewhere out of direct sunlight. You may want to trim the mushroom’s stem to sit flat if your goal is a nice-looking print. You can also use a partial mushroom if you don’t have many to waste.
Then place a drop of water on the back of the mushroom. This will encourage the release of spores.
Then, cover the mushroom with a container. The container keeps air currents from disturbing the delicate spores so that you get a clean print.
You’ll need to leave the mushrooms for 2-24 hours, depending on the humidity and age of the mushroom. An oyster mushroom spore print will be white to lilac-gray.
You find out more about making and preserving spore prints for different types of mushrooms by visiting the North American Mycological Association.
How to Prepare Oyster Mushrooms
I like to keep things pretty simple. I typically thinly slice my oyster mushrooms and sauté them in a bit of olive oil with finely diced onions and minced garlic. For best results, let the pan and oil get hot before you add the mushrooms. I use these in stir fries, on pizza, or in pasta sauce.
If you get a large harvest, they will keep in your refrigerator for 5 to 7 days as long as they are fresh when harvested. We have also had success drying them in our dehydrator.
Slice and dehydrate fresh mushrooms that are free from bruises and signs of decay. Dry them until they snap easily. Thin pieces will dry faster than larger chunks.
Store your dried mushrooms in airtight containers somewhere dark like a cabinet. For the first couple of weeks after dehydrating, watch the jars for any sign of moisture. If you see condensation remove them from the jar and dehydrate them for a longer period. Don’t eat any that look moldy or deteriorated.
Dried mushrooms aren’t quite as tasty as fresh. However, you can easily rehydrate them in soups, rice, and sauces.
Alternatively, they can be sautéed and then frozen. I find the texture of frozen mushrooms isn’t my favorite, but some people enjoy them this way, and you can easily add them to sauces or a meal like a lasagna.
Here are a few other recipes I’m hoping to try:
- Vegan Fried Oyster Mushrooms from From the Comfort of My Bowl
- Vegan Teriyaki Oyster Mushrooms and Broccoli from Vegan With Curves
- Mushroom Carnitas Tacos from Not Enough Cinnamon
Have you ever foraged for oyster mushrooms? What’s your favorite way to use them. Let us know in the comments!