In the summer months, a variety of wild, edible mushrooms spring from Minnesota’s forest floors and colorfully appear on trees and stumps.
Foraging brings unique, native foods to your table, but the benefits of the simplistic hobby go well beyond adding variety to your kitchen.
“It’s very therapeutic for a lot of people,” said Mike Kempenich, a Minnesota foraging expert.
“I spent a lot of years in the business world, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of the my life and I was spending a lot of time out in the woods,” Kempenich said.
Turning his passion into a new career, Kempenich founded the Gentleman Forager and the Forest to Fork wild-foods grocer in St. Paul.
When he’s not sourcing mushrooms for grocers and high-end restaurants, Kempenich is sharing the simple joys of foraging with others through his classes and forest adventures.
Foraging is an easy hobby to start, he said. While no equipment is truly needed, a simple basket and knife will equip the beginner and advanced forager alike.
“It’s really open to everybody,” he said, adding his classes sometimes draw new foragers in their 80s.
State forests and state parks in Minnesota are open to foragers collecting mushrooms and other wild foods for personal consumption. Foragers looking to sell wild mushrooms require a Certified Wild Mushroom Harvester’s license, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Kempenich cautioned Dakota County and Three Rivers Park District properties tend to have stricter foraging rules, or a ban on foraging altogether.
Otherwise, there’s plenty of mushrooms awaiting metro foragers, so no need to travel far from home in search of quality wild foods.
The mushrooms don’t know any difference between being city mushrooms and country mushrooms, Kempenich joked.
What’s in season Many mushroom enthusiasts begin by searching for morels in May. The spongey, easily-identifiable mushroom became Minnesota’s official state mushroom in 1984.
There are approximately 50 edible, native mushrooms to be found in Minnesota, but Kempenich said familiarizing yourself with a few goes a long way. And, learning as you go maximizes your time learning firsthand out in the woods.
“If you learn a couple a year, then you’re doing good,” Kempenich said.
Toxic look-a-likes present one reason to pace yourself, but some edible mushrooms don’t have a toxic twin to worry about. Kempenich said beginning your journey in search of relatively common, distinctive mushrooms offers a rewarding start.
Oyster mushrooms and chicken of the woods are among the mushrooms available in June.
Kempenich said summer mushrooms are highly sensitive to rain, and the best time to forage is four or five days after a period of heavy rain.
While mushroom foraging begins late spring, Kempenich said July marks the beginning of the “real mushroom season.”
These mid-summer weeks bring the brightly-colored chanterelles and lobster mushrooms.
The seasons normally continues through October until the ground freezes.
Learning to identify trees goes hand-in-hand with learning how to identify and find mushrooms. The type of tree species you encounter indicates which mushrooms might be found nearby.
A group of white oaks may indicate you’ll find chanterelles, for example.
A diverse food
Kempenich’s Forest to Fork grocer will reopen on June 19 when the Keg and Case market in St. Paul moves it operations outdoors.
Their outdoor market place will feature guests chefs, cooking tips and an opportunity to sample wild mushrooms.
People are often surprised by the diversity in flavor and texture found in mushrooms, Kempenich said. The more you explore beyond the common white button mushroom, the more likely those who don’t find mushrooms appealing with find something they like.
“They are almost universally surprised,” he said about his experiences with children sampling wild mushrooms.
Chanterelles, for example, have a light, fruity flavor and aroma similar to apricots. That might be surprising, but Kempenich said the rich diversity makes sense.
“If you think about vegetables, a carrot doesn’t taste like a potato and a potato doesn’t taste like broccoli,” he said.
Foraging offers exercise, but the health benefits of the hobby continue back in the kitchen.
“The mushrooms themselves contain a lot of micronutrients that we don’t get from a typical diet,” he said, adding some are able to boost your immune system and provider other health benefits.
This fall, depending on the pandemic restrictions, Kempenich hopes to continue sharing the joys of mushroom foraging with his identification classes offered through Forest to Fork.
To him, it’s the perfect hobby, he said.
“I think when people have the time right now, like they don’t normally, they should go out and give it a whirl.”