It is not just the briny bivalves that taste good in months with an r in them. Viewed where they are stored in the Cloud, my photographs of winter oyster mushrooms foraged from a log frosted with ice nestle beside images of neat packages of fresh taro leaf, steaming in our kitchen that night for dinner. The pictures were taken just hours apart on the same freezing day last January. The oyster mushrooms, I discovered as I traveled a couple of miles on foot across Prospect Park in Brooklyn en route to Labay Market, a Grenadian grocery that sells taro leaves, fresh roselle, and other West Indian produce (I visit for a midwinter, culinary staycation, a fix of sunshine, minus the airfare). The happenstance mushrooms, spotted well off the beaten path, were a surprise.
Winter oyster mushrooms are a prized find. Here’s why.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
I only saw the mushrooms that day because the usual, obscuring thicket of summer mugwort hiding the large log, mid-slope, had been stripped of leaves by the cold. The narrow stalks now stood brittle and bare. Winter grants a more penetrating, longer view. The oysters were perfect, arranged in tan layers, their caps’ texture disconcertingly alive and pliable in a frozen landscape.
Mature winter oyster mushrooms yield more than enough for a meal, with plenty left over for the basic stuffing that I cook, then freeze to deploy later in everything from picnic-favorite mushroom rolls to a heat-singing vegan mapo tofu.
Years before, on a frigid walk on Staten Island, a dead tree standing in shallow water at the edge of a pond bristled impossibly with golden oysters. Luckily, I was wearing tall rubber boots, and could reach them. I learned then that oysters mushrooms can fruit year-round.
Cold-weather oysters are choice, for two reasons. The first is all about texture: Winter oysters are dense, whereas the fast-growing mushrooms of a humid summer are flaccid. Second, oysters that appear in winter are delightfully bug-free, while in summer or early fall they come with guests: tiny larvae hatched from eggs deposited by small, black beetles. These are easily evicted by submerging the caps in a salt water bath, but I prefer to avoid them and to wait for winter’s gift.
Oyster mushrooms, which belong to the Pleurotus genus, recur on the same dead logs, and sometimes living trees (which they kill, slowly), year in, year out, often at the same time of year. Discovering them is about luck and timing—re-visiting a spot where they have appeared before.
The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of threadlike mycelia hidden in the woodsy substrate, which fruit in response to the mysterious alchemy of nutrition, temperature, and moisture.
Oyster mushrooms are easier to identify than some gilled mushrooms, because of their growth habit: shelving clusters on wood, never straight from soil or lawns. But all gilled mushrooms should give the novice hunter pause for thought: Unlike most polypores (like maitake or chicken of the woods), some gilled mushrooms are highly toxic. Like, kill-you-dead (but slowly).
What to look for: The size of oyster mushrooms can range from pinky-nail-small when very young, to around 12 inches across at maturity.
I find that oyster mushrooms that form after a freeze have a darker cap-color than their pale summer iterations, often with a darker part nearest the stipe (mushroom-speak for stem).
Sometime oysters have no stems at all, and when they do, they are generally off-center. And they have a white to lilac-grey spore print; taking a spore print is an essential discipline when identifying mushrooms. Their texture is also distinctive but that takes experience to learn. Feel up some store-bought oysters to get a sense of it.
Oyster mushroom lookalikes include dainty Crepidotus species; the incredibly bitter-tasting but possibly innocuous Lentinellus species (which fooled me, when I was first learning about oysters); and the more worrisome Pleurocybella porrigens, known as angel wings, and linked to fatalities in Japan. Slightly furry-looking but non-toxic Phyllotopsis nidulans could be mistaken for an oyster, too.
The best way to learn how to collect any mushroom safely is in the company of someone who knows them well. Join a local mycological society or experienced forager and walk with them. There is no substitute for seeing mushrooms in their habitat. Buy a good field guide, too, be zealous in your cross-referencing when doing research online, and choose reliable online sources.
And keep your eyes peeled: Awareness and observation are the keys to mushroom hunting success.
Creamy Mushroom Eggs
Makes 2 servings
This is a quick, easy, and comforting cold-weather meal. Salt-preserved anchovies melt in the mushrooms’ juices and cream—it’s all umami, and no hint of fishiness. Baby oyster mushrooms’ firm texture offers pleasing contrast for the just-cooked eggs, and a flurry of winter-available field garlic adds fresh pungency.
- 4 oz baby oyster mushrooms, sliced lengthways (or roughly chop larger mushrooms)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
- ½ cup cream
- 1 tablespoon finely-snipped field garlic (Allium vineale) or chives
- 4 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 400′ F.
Place two small oven-proof dishes on a baking sheet in the oven to warm while you work.
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a saucepan, and add the mushrooms. Cover and cook until they exude a lot of moisture—about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the lid, and add the anchovies to the bubbling, soupy mixture. Stir well and continue to cook uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the juices have concentrated and the mushrooms begin to sputter. Pour in the cream and allow to cook until it has reduced by about a third.
Remove the baking dishes from the oven and turn on the broiler. Divide half the mushroom-cream mixture between the two hot baking dishes. Break two eggs into each dish. Add the rest of the cream mixture. Return the dishes on their baking sheet to a shelf set below the broiler.
Cook beneath the broiler for 2 minutes, or until eggs are just set. Serve at once. (Toast soldiers would be a bonus…)
For more on foraged mushrooms, see:
- Wood Ear Mushrooms: A Delicate Treat
- Matsutake: The Sought-After Pine Mushroom (and Its Lookalikes)
- Maitake: The Expensive Mushroom You Can Forage for Free