Described by Mother Earth News as the No. 1 target of wild mushroom hunters across North America because of their earthy, nutty, steak-like flavor, morels are easy to identify from poisonous mushrooms with a similar appearance. Both morels and dangerous "false morels" have solid trunks with a spongy, mottled, conical cap. However, true morels are hollow inside their caps, so cutting a morel in half is the surest way to tell the safe morel from a poisonous morel. The other reason these are good basic mushrooms to hunt is that the consequences of making a mistake are not likely to be fatal if you cook the mushrooms thoroughly. The morel season is spring to early summer, and you'll find them in damp forests and along river banks, especially in areas with sandy soil.
These are three-season mushrooms, growing in clusters on trees and fallen logs from spring through autumn. They even grow during the winter months in places with warm winters and may sprout elsewhere during a period of abnormally warm winter weather. These mushrooms are two to eight inches wide, white or off-white with an ovoid, oyster shell-shaped cap. White gills run down its very short stem. This mushroom is one that novice hunters should seek because the consequences of making a mistake are not lethal, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. While there are plenty of undesirable mushrooms that look like oyster mushrooms, the look-alikes merely taste terrible and are not truly poisonous.
Hen of the Woods
So-named because its appearance vaguely resembles that of a ruffled chicken, the mushroom looks like a large mass of grey-brown spongy feathers. An alternative way to think of the mushroom's appearance is as a fungi lettuce head. Called "maitake" in Japan, hen of the woods mushrooms are often found under oak trees and can grow to gargantuan proportions. A hen of the woods weighing dozens of pounds is not uncommon; the Missouri Department of Conservation indicates they can grow up to 100 lbs. These mushrooms are treasured both for their hefty size and what the Forager Press describes as "firm texture" and "fabulous flavor." Furthermore, these are reliable mushrooms that grow back in the same spot every year. The hen of the woods has a growing season in the summer and autumn.
Caesar's mushrooms earned its English designation because Romans loved them. This mushroom has a bright orange cap and yellow gills and stem, sprouting out of a white cup, or volva. Caesar's mushrooms prefer dry forests of oak and pine and grow from mid-summer to mid-autumn. Hunting this fungus presents a more serious challenge because it has numerous extremely poisonous cousins that closely resemble it, such as the poisonous fly agaric. You can identify a safe Caesar's mushroom by the substantial white volva at its base. In a mature mushroom, the volva is roughly as large as the mushroom's cap. According to "A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America," identification by volva is "sufficient to distinguish between the two, for even the most incautious mushroom picker." While using the volva for a proper identification does mean excluding young and damaged mushrooms, it is better to be safe than sorry when making a mistake that could kill you.