Over ten years ago, before I regularly hunted mushrooms, I remember first coming across these gnarled creatures growing from the ground. They looked almost alien. Many of them were a bright red or orange and emerged from the ground like a gargoyle. However, a few of them were shaped much like a typical mushroom, with a cap and stem. At that time, I figured these were definitely examples of poisonous mushrooms, just based on its appearance! That was before I knew anything about mushrooms, of course.
How to Identify a Lobster Mushroom?
One of the first things you need to know about a Lobster mushroom is what it is exactly. By that, I mean this is not your typical mushroom. In fact, technically speaking, what makes a lobster a lobster is not a mushroom at all, but rather a parasitic fungi attacking another mushroom. Lobster mushrooms (hypomyces lactifluorum) is akin to a mold which is known to attack russula brevipes and lactarius piperatus species. Once the lobster attacks these otherwise unremarkable edible mushrooms it transforms them into a beautifully colored, savory mushroom with a firm texture and flavor reminiscent of seafood.
To identify a lobster, note its environment. If attacking russula species, it is likely growing in a dense white oak forest whereas if it is attacking a lactarius species, it is more likely growing in a pine forest. There is some wiggle room with those statements, but in either case, the mushroom will be a bright orange or red and is covered in asci--little “sacs” which bear the spores of the fungi--resembling tiny goosebumps. These asci are particularly noticeable typically on the underside of the cap and along the stem. Often the top of the cap is damp, covered in dirt, needles, or leaves and the asci have collapsed or cannot be easily observed. When sliced open, a lobster mushroom will have a solid pure white color. On some specimens you can observe the gills of the mushroom it attacked. The meat in the middle will have a crisp texture almost like a potato. Sometimes, this white flesh will darken to a pale grey if left out--this is okay. However, if when you cut into the mushroom initially it has a dark gray color, I would either toss that specimen or conduct careful surgery to eliminate the darker patch of flesh.
Depending on the size of the host mushroom when it was attacked by the lobster, these mushrooms can vary in size. With that said, they will always have a fairly large open cap relative to the shorter and often large stem. Some specimens can be very large, measuring up to 4 to 6 inches in height and with a cap diameter of up to 4 or 5 inches. The stem can reach diameters of up to an inch or more.
Are lobsters always safe to eat?
Many guidebooks will note that lobster mushrooms are edible, provided the host mushroom which the parasitic hypomyces lactifluorum attacked is an edible mushroom. Generally speaking, there is no evidence to suggest that lobster mushrooms are ever any species other than an edible variety of russula or lactarius. So the hypothetical scenario where a lobster attacks, say, a deadly cortinarius or amanita has no documented occurrences. On top of that, lobster mushrooms are easy to identify, even for beginner mushroom hunters, so they are commonly eaten by a lot of people. There have been no recorded cases of poisonings by lobsters from what I can tell.
Hypomyces is a family with a number of different parasitic molds which attack a variety of mushrooms. There is one, hypomyces hyalinus, which is known to attack amanitas as the host mushroom. Had you mistaken this for a lobster mushroom, you could potentially eat a deadly poisonous mushroom. However, it more closely resembles an amanita than it does a lobster mushroom and I would think even a beginner would have to be very careless and unobservant to mistake hypomyces lactifluorum for hypomyces hyalinus.
How to Use Lobster Mushrooms in the Kitchen?
Lobster mushrooms, to reiterate their description, truly do grow like gargoyles and are often extremely dirty or covered in soft spots or eaten by slugs. Often, when you run into lobster mushrooms in the woods, they are everywhere. Be very picky about which specimens you select. As you pick them, trim off the dirty base of the stem and if the cap is growing at odd angles and leaves a huge crevice in the center, better leave that one for the bugs. The center can easily capture moisture which will require gouging out the middle of the mushroom, leaving weird scraps to work with.
Once you’ve collected a bunch of acceptable specimens, first rinse them off and use a potato brush to scrub them. They’re pretty hardy and you don’t need to be shy with them. Now if there are any spots on the cap that are still dirty or soft or chewed up, use a paring knife to trim away little bits of the cap until it’s all cleaned up. As alluded to above, this process can feel a bit like surgery.
Now you have all these beautiful cleaned up lobster mushrooms. What next? I love to thinly sliced them with a mandolin and fry them up in some bacon grease until that get really crispy, sprinkle some salt over them and enjoy much like bacon or mushroom chips. You can also make lobster butter with trimmings, which will color the butter a lovely orange-red. Dice these and toss them in a stir fry or with some pasta and crab. Add them to whatever you’re doing with chanterelles, pickling, sauteeing, etc.