Chanterelles: Queens of the Woods
The chanterelle is different from the morel in the midwestern US, in the sense that it is bright yellow or orange and is easy to spot from a distance. Also, unlike the morel, it grows for several months of the year, rather than just a few weeks. Again unlike the morel, instead of an earthy, meaty umami aroma and flavor, the chanterelle offers a delicate bouquet of apricot, orange rind and sweet nuts like marcona almonds. Thus, like the morel, it is one of the most highly prized and coveted mushrooms of the midwest.
How to identify a Chanterelle?
The most immediate indicator of a chanterelle is the fact that it has a, typically, bright orange or egg-yolk yellow cap, often growing in a mess of white oak forest (or pine-hardwood mix up north). Of course, not every orange or yellow mushroom found in the woods is a chanterelle, so it’s necessary to know several other key identification features before hunting for them.
As noted, generally, expect this mushroom to be a bright yellow or mango-orange (left image below), though some specimens will fade in sunlight and there are some species which have a much more tempered pale yellow cap. It also has a pale yellow or white stem where if you tug at it gently, will peel like string cheese and reveal an all white interior. Its sport print, for that matter, is also a white to cream to yellowish. Another significant distinguishing characteristic of a chanterelle is that they have “false gills”. Their gills are actually less like the paper thin blades that extend down from the cap of a typical mushroom (think a Portobello) and rather appear as folds or wrinkles, much like skin, that sometimes will branch away from a central gill and then rejoin it later on or follow other unusual patterns of growth such as lateral gills (center image below). Further, these ”gills” travel down the stem and each of them will stop at different points on the stem. As chanterelles become larger, their margins (the edge of the cap of the fungi) will begin to turn up and form undulations of up and down, sometimes creating showy folds, almost emulating an eccentric flower (right hand image). For a more sensual identification tip, try giving the mushroom a whiff. If it is a chanterelle it should have a fairly noticeable fruity aroma most describe as being similar to apricots.
Once a mushroom matching the characteristics above is found then the next step is to make sure the mushroom is not a poisonous look-alike, such as the Jack O’Lantern mushroom (omphalotus illudens). To be clear, the Jack O’Lantern mushroom is not a deadly poisonous mushroom and really there’s no deadly look alike of a chanterelle, assuming you can identify amanitas. Nonetheless, the Jack O’Lantern is recorded as often being confused for a chanterelle, and it can cause severe gastrointestinal distress (vomiting, diarrhea) lasting a couple of days, so it is not pleasant to say the least. Its misidentification for chanterelles is probably mostly due to the fact that it’s a yellow/orange mushroom that grows after rains in mid to late summer. With that said, a Jack has true gills unlike the chanterelle’s false gills (center image below shows chanterelle at top compared to larger Jack below--you can see the chanterelles gills fork whereas the Jack's gills are thinner blades never forking), which look like crowded sheets of paper from the edge of the cap extending to the stem. Once sliced, the Jack has a yellowish flesh inside the mushroom whereas the chanterelle is white. Chanterelles are a mycorrhizal fungi that grows in symbiosis with other trees and plants directly from mycelium in the soil. Simply put, chanterelles grow from soil whereas Jack O’Lanterns, which are saprophytic (rather than mycorrhizal) grow from rotting wood (left hand image). Like many saprophytic fungi, Jack O'Lanterns are usually found growing in very large clusters or clumps with many stems from a central point. Chanterelles, though they frequently grow in groups, almost always one or maybe two or three at a time, but that's about it. If you find something that looks like a Jack but is growing from the ground, you might be correct, as Jack O'Lanterns sometimes can be found growing from buried roots (right hand image below)!
Another mushroom which is sometimes mistaken for a chanterelle is the False Chanterelle (hygrophoropsis aurantiaca). Though unlikely to be found in the more southerly parts of the midwest where chanterelles grow in association with oaks, this species typically grows in association with conifers or pines. It is also orange, with true gills that also fork. A young chanterelle can sometimes appear to have gills like that of a false chanterelle. An older chanterelle is more likely to have gills which fork and then rejoin one another, which a false chanterelle would never do. This mushroom can also be differentiated from most chanterelles by having an yellow to orange to brown flesh (rather than white flesh like a true chanterelle), and its cap and stem are more likely to have darker shades of orange often to the point of having shades of brown in the center of the cap. Though false chanterelles are not typically considered to be poisonous, they are also not regarded as good edibles and should be avoided.
A few other potential look-alikes are the orange latex milkcap (lactarius deceptivus), salmon waxy cap (hygrophorus pretensis, a choice edible) any variety of pale yellow or orange russulas from sun or environment, or a number of amanitas, such as the Caesar’s mushroom, Death Cap or Fly Agaric. The amanitas can be deadly, so you should be one hundred percent certain of any mushroom before you eat it. A mature amanita would look almost nothing like a true chanterelle, however the young amanitas, with a yellowish cap and white stem could vaguely match some of the above characteristics. Amanitas, however, would have a volva at the base of the stem, often a ring around the stem, and a partial veil around the gills. Amanita, russula or lactarius would all have crowded close together true gills which do not fork at all and will stop uniformly at or before the stem. The waxy cap would have more spaced out gills also not forking and all stopping uniformly at the stem as well. These look alike mushrooms should be very easy to distinguish from a chanterelle with a little bit of knowledge of the families of various types of mushrooms and important identification characteristics. If you are new to mushroom hunting, if you find much of what I am saying here to be new or cryptic or unfamiliar, DO NOT assume that you have successfully identified a chanterelle based just on this blog post. Please do thorough research, check your mushrooms with an expert, refer to online forums (which can often be very helpful), or even send me a photo! Only eat a mushroom which you are 100% confident is what you think it is, such as a chanterelle, and know that you eat it at your own risk. If new to mushroom identification, please read my post on Mushroom Identification Instruction and Advice for Beginners.
How to use it in the kitchen?
It’s flavor is buoyant and bright and supple and is a wonderful complement to pork or more hearty seafood, but is a proud standalone served on toast after a light saute in butter and garlic and served with a nutty cheese shaved over it. If I harvest large quantities, and want to have chanterelles over the next few weeks but can’t get out to continue harvesting, I will pickle them for a tart, fruity accompaniment to salads, bruschetta or pizza. They saute beautifully with simply butter and garlic, or even some crushed nuts or a maple glaze. Try joining them with peach or apricot as a sauce for a grilled pork chop and you might die and go to heaven!