Gearing Up for the Hunt: Q&A with the authors of “Untamed Mushrooms”

The newest guide to Midwest mushroom hunting, from proper attire to harvesting tips to recipes // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press

In culinary circles, mushroom hunting is a serious business. In Russia, it’s a favorite pastime; in France, it’s called la chasse aux champignons, and it’s something of a national mania. The appeal is simple: It’s a chance to harvest beautiful, delicious, commercially expensive gifts from nature, step up your cooking game, and commune with nature all at once. What’s not to love?

Plenty, it turns out—everything from stinging nettles, to overzealous police, to tumbles off of ledges, to Lyme Disease. A good mushroom hunter is a prepared mushroom hunter, and there are probably none better prepared than the authors of the recently released book “Untamed Mushrooms: From Field to Table.”

“Untamed Mushrooms” is a collection of recipes and species notes lushly illustrated with color photography, but it’s more than that—its authors also set up the kind of challenges would-be foragers face in the wilderness and how to prepare for them. We sat down with authors Michael Karns (a long-time forager, mushroom expert, and the purveyor of Found Foods) and Lisa Golden Schroeder (a food writer and food stylist who journals at Foodesigns.com) to ask them about how they kit out for a big hunt, and about their must-have pieces of gear.

The authors of “Untamed Mushrooms,” from L to R: Michael Karns, Lisa Golden Schroeder, and Dennis Becker // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press

GROWLER: Where do you start when it comes to gearing up for a mushroom hunt?

MICHAEL KARNS: Pants. A lot of people argue that mushroom hunting in shorts is fine. Clearly they’re not mushroom hunting like I do—they’re not getting in the thick of the woods. I run into nettle, and, yeah, you can survive that, but in the middle of July, you’re sweaty, you run into a patch of nettle, and now you’re irritated and bothered.

LISA GOLDEN SCHROEDER: I can attest to going out with Michael. You’re not walking on the trails. You’re often bushwhacking. Wearing appropriate clothes and footwear is key.

KARNS: Those pants also need to be treated very, very well for ticks. Ticks are becoming more and more [prevalent] every year. We’re learning more about tick-borne diseases. I have really good friends who have not just contracted Lyme [Disease], but contracted it and died. I’m really adamant about treating your clothes and making absolutely certain you don’t have any ticks on you whatsoever.

What should people bring to carry their mushrooms?

KARNS: It depends on how you forage. A lot of people just want to go for a walk in the woods, and if they find something, that’s great. Bring a basket. Bring a mesh bag, that’s fine. But make sure it’s a really, really, really fine mesh bag. These really [coarsely woven] mesh bags that I see a lot of people being enamored by are—especially for morels—horrible, because they act just like a cheese grater.

What do you use?

KARNS: I use a backpack, because I have to have both my hands free because I’m bustin’ the brush, I’m not just walking on the trail. I also climb up this hill and down that hill and two hands free is better to not fall and kill yourself. A bag, a backpack, a basket—something to collect your mushrooms into, because if you can’t get them home…

There’s also something to be said for being low-key about foraging, right?

KARNS: Yeah, the one downfall to having either a basket or a bag is visibility. I’m a guerrilla forager. Three Rivers Parks Dept. and Dakota County Parks, I have a fight with. They are haters. I was at Murphy-Hanrehan Park and I watched the cops just berate a guy with his two young daughters—they had, like, four morels in a little Walmart sack. This guy read him the riot act and his daughters were standing there like, “Oh my God, is this guy going to Tase and kill my father?”

I was stunned. What are you doing? You’re taking these two little kids who were having a great experience with their dad—it was an outdoor experience, it was fun finding natural food, you’re connecting them to nature… they wrote him the ticket! I don’t understand the legality of it, because it’s public land, and if it’s public land we own it. State Parks allow it—you can pick berries, you can pick nuts, you can pick mushrooms. Being incognito, a backpack, is really awesome [because then] you can get into the legality of: Are you searching me? Is this a search and seizure thing?

A variety of tools used for harvesting and cleaning wild mushrooms // Photo by Dennis Becker

How about for harvesting the mushrooms?

KARNS: You can pinch ’em, you can cut ’em—I like a knife because I like having really clean mushrooms when I get home. When I pull a mushroom, I’m cutting the butt off of it so no dirt gets into my bag.

SCHROEDER: I learned my harvest techniques from Michael, and as a cook I appreciate the clean harvesting technique because then it decreases the amount of work when you get back home and decide how to process your haul.

Michael’s got these cool knives with brushes, and he actually makes some special mush brushes, because some of the species like lobster have embedded dirt in them, so to be able to trim those or brush some of that dirt out before you put them into whatever you’re carrying them in is really nice.

What else comes with you when you hunt?

KARNS: I like a walking stick, but that’s just me. I’m 50 years old and rather than bend down and check out everything that might be a mushroom, I can push weeds and bushes and everything out of the way. And then going up and down hills, because I don’t like flat ground for picking mushrooms.

SCHROEDER: The one thing I always like to have is my phone. I use it as a camera, but I know Michael has field guides and he keeps a field journal on his phone, so he can go back and say, “On this year, at this time, we picked this mushroom in this amount,” so it was really wonderful as we pulled together content for the book.

Michael, you’ve got a shop, right? Tell us about it.

KARNS: It’s Foundfoods.com. I have brushes. I carry Opinel knives, they’re really nice knives. I make what I called a Mushbucket, which is just a five-gallon bucket that I drill holes through and I mount basically a tool-pouch from Home Depot kind of thing that I’ve sourced—I’ve found one that I really like. So you’ve got a breathable, tough structure. Not like a bag—with a bag, the weight of everything on top pushes down and creates a force on the sides so everything gets constricted into a mush in the middle.

An assortment of products available for purchase from Michael Karns’ shop, Found Foods // Photo by Dennis Becker

Once you get back home, is there any gear you rely on for prep and storage, Lisa?

SCHROEDER: We use dehydrators for drying mushrooms. There are specific dehydrators that work especially well that we talk about in the book—they have stacked racks and that kind of thing. And you might want a good spice meal or clean coffee grinder for pulverizing dried mushrooms. Maybe coarser brushes if you need to really clean out. I think about lobster mushrooms, because they always have a lot of stuff. I think of Michael, who cleans his mushrooms using a flashlight.

Michael really recommends you don’t dehydrate your mushrooms in an enclosed area like your kitchen. He likes to have his dehydrator out in the garage, just because the spores are being aerated in that drying process.

KARNS: The worst thing about it is that if you happen to be the kind of person who still collects wild oysters [mushrooms]—they’re so cultivated now—if you dry those and you push those spores out in your house, they’ll grow right out of your cabinet door without a second thought. “What? It’s a humid day? OK, boys, let’s get working!”

“Untamed Mushrooms: From Field to Table” is available for purchase at most bookstores, as well as online through Minnesota Historical Society and Found Foods.