Oyster might seem like a strange descriptor for a mushroom.
If you think so, I couldn’t agree with you more, particularly if you’ve only seen these mushrooms in the supermarket. In the deciduous forest, where they’re pretty common, the name makes more sense. They cling to trees like bivalves to the ocean floor, and if you take the time to harvest them, you’ll reap the rewards like a boater working the coast.
You’ll almost always come across oyster mushrooms on dead trees. I turn to a very dead beech, which fell in a storm, again and again. Look up to the sky and down into creek beds. I’ve been known to come rushing back from the path to our cabin, where I often forage, to get a ladder, so I can slice the mushrooms down from positions higher than I can reach by myself. It’s a wonder I even spot them up there in the first place, but after hunting for a while, you train your eyes. The force that compels you to search when you’re in the woods feels like a superpower beyond your control.
For now, here’s what you need to know: An oyster mushroom is typically off-white. It doesn’t have much of a stem and will look like it’s fanning out from a trunk. The underside is like an accordion fan, creased with silky gills. The top should be smooth. Once you’ve harvested an oyster, you’ll always know another when you find it. Bend down or climb up and, before you cut the mushroom, breathe in. Here’s the real reason it’s called an oyster: You should smell the brininess of the ocean, of oysters. To harvest an oyster, make a confident cut near the base. Take only what you need.
I’ve been known to come rushing back from the path to our cabin, where I often forage, to get a ladder, so I can slice the mushrooms down from positions higher than I can reach by myself.
Oyster mushrooms are usually pretty clean. A fresh oyster should feel firm but not woody, tender but not mushy. Check its freshness by looking at the cross-section where you cut it. It should be flat and opaque, not translucent or holey.
Anytime you’re searching for food in the woods, you should expect to come across bugs. That’s nature. That’s part of it. A young oyster shouldn’t be too bug-ridden. If you see many small holes, you might be too late. Inspect the mushroom thoroughly, and if it’s salvageable, use it. You can cut away the less-than-perfect parts and go home with a good mushroom. Plenty of little critters are easy to brush away. If you find a mushroom that’s too soggy or buggy, crush it and rub it back into the tree and the ground nearby. Spreading the spore is never a bad thing. It may help you find more in the future. Just, whatever you do, don’t take it home and then decide to throw it away.
Preservation is important to me—especially preserving wild edibles. Before you try anything, clean your mushrooms. Brush off any dirt or critters. Then, choose one (or more) of these preservation techniques.
Drying 101: Slice the mushrooms thin, arrange them in a single layer on a dehydrator tray, and dry them at 160°F until crisp. Store them in an airtight container. They can then be made into a seasoning powder, used to flavor a stock, or rehydrated in a sauce, broth, or stew. You’ll be pleased with the umami flavor they bring to any dish, as if you’ve added a pinch of the dreaded MSG.
Drying 102: Cut them into thicker slices. Sauté in a little butter with salt, and any seasonings you want, along with a splash of something acidic. Then dehydrate at 160 until dry but still pliable. You’ll get a chewy “mushroom jerky” that you can store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You can snack on it as-is or rehydrate it in a little more butter and grill it for a taste of perfection to add to any dish or eat by itse;f.
I like to sauté them in a cast iron skillet with butter, season then with salt and cracked pepper, then deglaze with a fruit vinegar or another vinegar with a mild sugar content, like seasoned rice wine vinegar or savory fig balsamic, both of which you can find at stores, before drying. Remember that violet vinegar from the spring? That would be nice.
Drying 103: Slice the mushrooms thin, then deep-fry them in a neutral oil, like peanut or canola, at 350°F until golden brown and crispy. Transfer to a paper towel to absorb the oil, season with salt, then dry in a dehydrator tray over a paper towel until you don’t see or feel any excess oil. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Use these as a crispy umami-like topping on ramen, pasta, steak—anything, really.