By Jon Brown, RDN, B.S. of Fork in the Road Nutrition
With the right tools, you can do any job. This is true in the kitchen, with vehicles, and yes, even foraging. While you could harvest almost anything in the wild with your bare hands, it’s not always ideal. Some tools are physical, others are intangible. I try to keep my knife and mind sharp for wild foods I may find.
Foraging involves exploration into unfamiliar habitats. While many aspects of the ecosystem may be unpredictable, the season is a great indicator of what you might find. In the spring, there is much digging to be done in the Northeast. Spring brings wild leeks and spring beauty (an edible flower and tuber).
For digging, I like a digging knife. I use a Japanese-style Hori Hori. A small garden spade also works great. I like the digging knife because it is sharper with both a straight and serrated edge, making it more versatile. Keeping a basic pocketknife on you whenever you venture into the forest will cover a lot of your bases.
Some gardening gloves may help protect your hands when harvesting stinging nettles, which you can eat. A quick boil or steam will destroy the spikes that make nettles so unpleasant. Garden snips may also help. Trust me it is worth it. Nettles can be boiled or steamed into a spinach-like vegetable almost instantly. They can also be made into a tea, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Nettles have a numbing effect that some people use to help manage pain from arthritis. I partake in the bare handed-harvest, but you have been warned.
Wild mushrooms can also be culinary magic, if prepared correctly (and be sure to avoid those that can be poisonous). I do not wash mushrooms. I watched a coworker today turn a head of lion’s mane into a sponge from a quick rinse. Some mushrooms like reishi probably should be washed before processing. I always recommend using butter instead of olive oil when cooking mushrooms, or at least a 50/50 ratio. Olive oil can make mushrooms rubbery. There may be exceptions, as the fungal kingdom is vast and diverse. You should use a knife when harvesting mushrooms.
Some believe that pulling the mushroom from the ground does more damage to the mycelium (mushroom roots essentially). I don’t know if that is true or not. However, clean cuts bypass ripping up dirt that will inevitably end up in your bag and on your plate if you just use your hands. You’ll also save yourself time cleaning your product before cooking and thank yourself later. I have a mushroom knife with a soft brush on one end, so I can wipe any dirt from a mushroom before it goes in my bag. Scissors may be used to harvest gentler, smaller mushrooms such as black trumpets.
I wear my most important tool on my feet. Make sure you have some durable footwear that has a good grip. Mushrooms love to grow on steep hills.
Jon Brown is a registered dietitian/nutritionist from Watkins Glen, currently working on his Master’s in sports nutrition at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He runs the Finger Lakes Foragers Club Facebook page, and enjoys foraging as a hobby. He has a private nutrition counseling practice, Fork in the Road Nutrition, and is looking to help individuals with their health and fitness goals.