In case you haven’t heard, it’s been a wet summer here in New England. The deluge is setting the stage for a major mushroom bloom and we are excited to be part of it! Among the wild, gourmet edible mushrooms like black trumpets, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods, foragers look forward to filling their baskets with those tiny golden treasures of shady forests; the chanterelles. This large group of closely related species are some of the most easily identifiable, delicious, and ecologically important mushrooms out there, so let’s get to know them a little better.
The Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) boasts an unmistakable appearance. Three to four inches tall and wide with an equal-length, wavy cap and trumpet-like shape, not to mention its vibrant yellow color and apricot-like aroma, distinguish this famed fungi from its muted forested surroundings. Texture-wise, you can peel a Chanterelle in strips from cap to stem like string cheese. Notable for its lack of true gills, Chanterelles possess intricate, forking folds that run partially down the stem. These descriptive details distinguish chanterelles from their main poisonous look-alike, the Jack O’Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens). "Jacks" as they are known have true gills that hang in neat rows under the cap and grow in clusters like oyster mushrooms from dead trees and stumps, while chanterelles grow singly or in loose associations directly from the forest floor. False Chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) are visually similar as well and tend to inhabit the same forests but are a deeper orange hue and possess true gills like Jacks rather than the intricate, lumpy folds of chanterelles. Scaly Vase Chanterelles (Turbinellus floccosus) are another look alike that will cause stomach upset, but are orange-pink above with large, brown scales topping a deeper, more exaggerated vase-shaped fruiting body.
Jacks have true gills (left) while Chanterelles posess forking, false gills (right)
Kantharos cups were used during rituals in Ancient Greece
Ecology & Distribution
Chanterelles are ectomycorrhizal, meaning they form symbiotic relationships with trees. Specifically, their mycelium naturally colonize the outside tips of pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, and oak tree roots, scavenging water and minerals from the soil in exchange for sugars produced during photosynthesis in the canopy. Chanterelles help create and sustain healthy forests wherever they grow, so look for them in the understory of their favorite trees hidden among moss and leaf litter, along woodland streams and in natural depressions where water lingers. It is not uncommon to find them near other edible mushroom species like Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax), Red Chanterelle (C. cinnabarinus) and Hedgehog Mushroom (Hydnum repandum). Chanterelles literally pepper the globe, with numerous species present across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. New England has several kinds including Smooth (C. lateritius), Yellowfoot (C. tubaeformis) and the Golden (C. cibarius) which serves as the “type species” and a known edible mushroom in Europe since at least 1581. In fact, the chanterelle genus Cantharellus comes from the Greek word Kantharos, which was a kind of cup used during rituals in ancient times and resembles the unique shape of the mushroom.
Due to their mycorrhizal habits, chanterelles are extremely challenging to cultivate and attempting to replicate their preferred growing conditions would be time consuming and costly. Thankfully, they are common and abundant where their symbiotic tree partners are found and annual harvests can be made from the same patches year after year during periods of hot, dry weather interspersed with soaking rains.
Chanterelles fruit from early July to October here in Maine and across the Northeast and Midwest, from August to November in California and into March in the Pacific Northwest. In Europe, August through November is the typical timeframe for harvest. While studies have shown that over-harvesting does not lead to local extinctions of the mushroom, individual states and countries occasionally impose harvest limits. The global market for chanterelles is estimated to be $1.4 Billion annually, with Germany and France the largest European importers of the mushroom and Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, and Latvia the biggest exporters.
When harvesting chanterelles, consider taking “better looking” mature mushrooms, leaving those smaller, younger specimens to mature and any older, insect damaged ones to release their spores. Simply use a knife or scissors to cut the fruiting bodies cleanly at the base rather than pulling or uprooting them and potentially causing disturbance to the surrounding ecosystem. Store chanterelles the way you would any store-bought mushrooms, taking care to minimize moisture uptake while promoting air flow inside the container.
We cannot stress enough the importance of accurate identification of wild mushrooms. The fungal kingdom is vast and while a minority of known species are toxic to humans the consequences of a simple misidentification can be fatal. When collecting chanterelles or any other wild mushroom we highly recommend consulting a human expert or respected field guide. Here are a few trusted resources to help you in your identification journey: Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms of New England by David L. Spahr, Mushrooms: How to Identify and Gather Wild Mushrooms and Other Fungi by DK Books, the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff and All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora.
Like their adaptogenic fungal cousins, chanterelle mushrooms exhibit a remarkable array of health-promoting qualities. In addition to being a rich and low-calorie source of dietary fiber and an ethical and sustainable source of protein, they are packed with nutrients like vitamin D, antioxidants, and essential minerals such as copper and iron. Chanterelles may also aid in the bodies’ natural antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and wound-healing abilities. Chanterelles have been reputed to be supportive for various eye ailments such as night blindness and inflammation in addition to treating dry skin and stimulating mucous membranes. They apparently have also been used in the treatment of tonsillitis, tuberculosis, and respiratory infections in traditional Latvian medicine. Chanterelles have not been found to treat any medical conditions and further study into their long-term health effects in people is ongoing. For this reason, caution is always advised when incorporating anything new into your diet and a professional medical consultation is recommended before integrating chanterelle mushrooms into any novel health regimen.
Chanterelles have no known toxins but a few cases of gastrointestinal upset or allergy-like skin reactions have been reported. As with any new mushroom, we advise eating just a little at first and waiting 24 hours to see how your body feels before diving into a full meal. That being said, chanterelles are one of the most sought after gourmet edible mushrooms out there, as they can impart a mild fruity yet peppery flavor to soups, sauces, and omelettes or when cooked down and transformed into a crunchy topping for meats. One of the best ways to prepare chanterelles is to do so simply. A light sauté with olive oil and salt is often all they need. In addition to the chanterelle ice cream, these 15 recipes from Food & Wine look amazing. Chanterelles can be substituted for the oyster mushrooms mentioned in our own Mushroom Dish For Mushroom Haters, but here’s a hint: when cooking with chanterelles, it is best to dry saute them (fry in a dry pan without oil or butter) for a few minutes before adding them to release their moisture. This prevents a soggier dish!
Ecologically important and culinarily versatile, chanterelles continue to drive foragers, mycologists, chefs, and nature enthusiasts into the woods each year to bask in their golden delight. While difficult to cultivate, their beauty, nutritional benefits, and unique flavor are available to us year after year as a kind of challenge to us to use them in new and exciting ways. So whether you're exploring the woods or experimenting with them in the kitchen, chanterelles offer an opportunity to connect with the natural world that is fun, healthy, and rewarding!