It’s that time of year! The fruit trees are ready for harvest, the sun has begun to set a little earlier, the tourists are moving out, and the open window becomes a small crack at night. The cool fall air blows a gentle breeze through the mountains as thunderstorms come in, threatening a hint of snow.
Fall in Montana, relief with a hint of sadness as the short summer months come to an end and the impending silly season begins. But all is well, the changing weather always brings with it a bit of spirit and, surprisingly, a different kind of harvest. While many look to spring and summer here to get their prime mushroom hunting in, fall has its own treats to showcase.
Chanterelles, One of Many Edible Mushrooms in Montana
Despite popular belief, if Montana has just enough warmth and moisture throughout the season, mushroom hunting in the fall can be even better than in the spring. Oysters will continue to pop up in the river bottoms, Puffballs and Field Mushrooms grace the pastures, and the beautifully elusive Golden Chanterelle will make it's debut.
While Morels are usually the prized mushroom when springtime rolls around, Chanterelles are actually considered quite the delicacy around the world, and those beautifully yellow tinted trumpet mushrooms you see in grocery stores and at fine dining establishments know what they are talking about! A firm texture, incredible coloration, and a slightly sweet hint of apricot allow this mushroom to grace the tables of chefs worldwide, and possibly your plate as well!
Where to Look for Chanterelles in Montana
Firstly, the golden to orange color is a dead giveaway that you have stumbled upon a mushroom and the first thing to look out for when heading to the field. Usually covered in pine needles and other twigs and dirt as they grow directly out of the ground, they’ll be partially buried and messy, but easy to spot once you’ve seen a few.
In a mycorrhizal relationship with conifer trees, they grow from the submerged roots, meaning you'll have to look for them in conifer forests while digging up a little leaf litter. Though Chanterelles can be found just about anywhere the trees are, and even into the warmer summer months, eastern Montana and dry climates are not ideal, meaning you will most likely only find them on the western side of the state in choice conditions. If the rains that year haven’t been good, it may not even be worth the trouble. Join local Mushroom Foraging Groups on Facebook or elsewhere to get updates on who is finding what. In prime seasons, they sprout a few days after it rains, and then they’ll continue to pop up in that spot until it dries up or gets too cold. Growing in small clusters off the roots, mark the location, as they usually do come back. If you aren’t over that western way and plan to make a trip out of it, we’d recommend looking up other Montana mushrooms that might be popping then as well. (see our blog post) Holding a lot more moisture on that side of the Divide, you are very likely to stumble across some other delicacies on your travels too, even if you don’t find the Chanterelles.
Watch out for the Golden Chanterelle Lookalikes
While Montana isn’t as varietal as the rest of the nation when it comes to fungi, Chanterelles do still have some lookalikes that you won’t want to grab mistakenly. Thankfully, none of them are going to kill you before you catch something along the lines of food poisoning. Most Montana mushrooms, in fact, won’t kill you from accidentally ingesting a small amount, though it's better you don’t have to live through the next miserable hours contemplating your mistake.
Approximately 2-4 inches tall, Chanterelle colors range, while the bright Jack O’ Lanterns, their infamous lookalikes, remain orange like pumpkins. This coloration is the first clue that you need to double-check what you’ve found.
Another obvious, and almost instantaneous giveaway, is the smell. Chanterelles aren’t a top-shelf delicacy for nothing! Giving off a faint hint of fruitiness, the fragrance is often equivalent to that of an apricot, especially when pulled apart. Jack O’ Lantern smells range, but they won’t give off any apricotty undertones!
We do understand a lot of people’s noses aren’t that delicate though, which is why there are a few more indicators to watch out for. The gills versus ridges debate is the main one people identify by. False Chanterelles have very distinct and deep gills, like a normal mushroom you would buy from the store. On the other hand, Chanterelles have very smooth ridges running into their stem, almost as if molded out of clay.
The gill test can sometimes be difficult to identify for a newbie, unfortunately, especially if they are small, but the best and last examination is for everyone. Pull the mushroom apart from the top to the bottom of the stem, much like you would a stick of string cheese. This is quite rightly named the “string cheese test" because it should pull apart in strips as opposed to pieces, if it doesn’t, put it back where you found it and carry on your search. Nothing about that mushroom will remind you of cheese once you get done using it in a meal.
Storing Chanterelles for Future Use
While these are quite the culinary delicacy eaten fresh, they can be stored for later relatively easily. In the fridge in a paper bag, they should keep for around a week, but this depends on the climate and situation in which they were picked. Being in the dirt, they often are something of a burden to clean. True Chanterelle enthusiasts even take a mushroom brush out in the field with them to clean off the soil and debris before even laying them in their bag. Drying them for later use is the most popular method though, as they are easy to rehydrate and retain their texture. Some people will also sautee them in butter and herbs, along with their other veggie favorites, and freeze them. Personally, we prefer to eat them fresh!
A quick guide to identifying popular Montana Mushrooms: https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content/assets/fwp/montana-outdoors/2021/mushrooms2.pdf
Supplies and Gear for Mushroom Hunting
Mushroom hunting is a popular activity in Montana, but having the right gear is essential for a successful and safe foray. A mushroom knife is a must-have tool for harvesting mushrooms, with a curved blade that makes it easy to cut the stem without damaging the cap. A mesh bag is ideal for collecting mushrooms, allowing spores to spread and ensuring that they stay fresh.
Another important gear for mushroom hunting is the right pair of boots. Look for boots that are sturdy, waterproof, and can handle rugged terrain. A plain-toe boot with a full-grain leather upper and breathable GORE-TEX® waterproof construction will keep your feet dry and comfortable while you spend time outdoors. Opt for boots with extra padding and a removable footbed for added comfort during long hikes.
Don't forget to also bring along bear spray and a whistle for safety, as well as a map, compass, and GPS device for navigation. With the right gear and supplies, you'll be ready for a successful and enjoyable mushroom hunting adventure in Montana, and some tasty treats for dinner!