Volumes have been written about it, and it’s subtly pervaded Anglo Saxon culture. If you have ever seen a lawn with garden gnomes, watched Alice in Wonderland, Disney’s Fantasia, played Super Mario Brothers, or been to a thrift store that sells kitschy trinkets, you’ve seen the influence. It’s Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric, and it is a bit of a moot point in the mycological world, as well as others. Claims have been made that it’s the inspiration for Santa Claus, thousand year old spiritual texts, even the origin of Christianity via it’s involvement in ancient fertility religions. In Eastern Europe it is a symbol of good luck and the yuletide.
All in all it is an impressive mushroom to find, and I’ve come across muscaria with caps nearly a foot long in diameter. Our Midwest version is different from the classic European one in that it is bright yellow instead of red, and, for the record, my images and culinary experience are limited to Amanita muscaria var. Guessowii. I have never eaten European species, muscaria species with a red cap from the United States, or Amanita pantherina, a cousin.
The name is supposedly derived from the mushrooms ability to act as a fly killer. Supposedly if the mushroom is crushed and placed in milk, it will attract flies and kill them. This is reflected in some of it’s names: “tue mouche” (fly killer-French), “mukhomor” (fly killer-Russian), “fliegenpilz” (fly mushroom-German). Accounts of it’s fly killing success vary however, some say it just makes flies buzz around like they’re drunk.
A Poisonous Edible Mushroom
The fly agaric is fascinating because it is poisonous and edible and the same time. Most field guides even say that it can be fatal. There is only one death that I see popping up again and again. Basically a 300lb Italian count ate something in the neighborhood of 3 dozen mushrooms and died while he was visiting the states. He also had a friend who ate many as well, who fell ill, went to the hospital, and recovered. Original Count De Vecchi Article. Even so, many people eat muscaria, and most say it is quite good. The mushroom must be boiled in water to remove the toxins before eating though.
Narcotic Properties + Black Market
Amanita Muscaria is not “poisonous” per se, rather it is a hallucinogen/narcotic. When you eat it dried, freshly cooked, or drink water it has been cooked in, you will become intoxicated, or possibly just get sick and vomit all over the place. The intoxication is often compared to being incredibly drunk, as opposed to a more cerebral experience talked about when ingesting psilocybin mushrooms, like those that indigenous South American populations ate to gain visions and visit the spirit world. The variety we have in Minnesota should be Amanita var. guesowii, known to frequent the upper Midwest and identifiable by it’s orange-yellow cap as opposed to the traditionally known red capped variety.
Some people that ingest this mushroom for narcotic purposes say that the yellow muscaria are not as powerful as the red ones, others also say that it will only make you sick. I can tell you that I do not doubt it’s narcotic effect, at all. I know from personal experience dealing with alternative medicine stores in Minnesota that muscaria has, in the past, been one of the fastest selling products offered, moving out as quick as it comes in and commanding quite the wait list. Sale of muscaria is legal, for now, and probably will remain that way, especially the way legalization is going, which I think is a good thing, for the record, mushrooms being a natural substance and all.
ID and Look a Likes
As far as amanitas go, this is the most easily identifiable, although there is the possibility of confusing it with with amanita flaviconia, (also known as “yellow patches”), which has an unknown edibility. Amanita flaviconia is about 1/10th of the size of muscaria, and also fruits solitary from my experience, where muscaria will be found in awe-inspiring fruitings, with many mushrooms in the area.
I only see muscaria under young aspen where I live, but that’s just my personal experience. “Yellow patches” I see in deciduous forest with many oaks, typically around my chanterelle patches. Confusing amanita pantherina is considered a danger as well, since it is much, much more powerful in regards to it’s chemical components than muscaria. Of course, deathcap Amanitas are important to rule out too, but if you can’t tell those apart instantly from muscaria, you have no place messing with these mushrooms in the first place, beyond appreciating their beauty.
This knife has a 5inch blade, these are large mushrooms, amanita flaviconia is never this size.
Siberians and Muscaria
Mostly we hear about Siberian tribes eating the muscaria, a certain group called the Koryaks, a nomadic group that rely on reindeer as part of their culture. Basically the males eat the mushrooms and get very intoxicated. However, if the mushrooms are cooked and boiled in water beforehand, the toxins are extracted, and the mushrooms are perfectly safe to eat. The funky part about the ibotenic acid in muscaria mushrooms(what makes you become intoxicated) is that your body will not absorb all of it, and that it is passed through your urine. Apparently the urine could be used up to 5-6 times, which is a strange thought. Here is the account from R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist who wrote quite a book regarding muscaria:
“The Russians who trade with them (Koryak – a tribe on the Kamchatka peninsula), carry thither a kind of mushrooms, called in the Russian tongue, Muchumor, which they exchange for Squirils, Fox, Hermin, Sable, and other Furs. Those who are rich among them lay up large provisions of these mushrooms, for the winter. When they make feast, they pour water upon some of these Mushrooms and boil them. They then drink the liquor, which intoxicates them; The poorer sort who cannot afford to lay in a store of these mushrooms, post themselves on these occasions, round the huts of the rich and watch the opportunity of the guests comind down to make water. And then hold a wooden bowl to receive the urine which they drink off greedily, as having still some virtue of the mushroom in it and by this way they also get drunk.”
These are good, better than the blushers I’ve eaten, but not as good as Amanita caesarea or Muscaria need to be processed before eating by boiling. When I first ate them I was a little nervous, I mean its an Amanita after all, the family home to the most deadly mushrooms we know! As for how to detoxify muscaria for cooking, most accounts say to boil them twice then drain well to remove moisture, afterword they’re ready for cooking as you would another mushroom.
After detoxification, one method I’ve liked is dredging them in a little flour and frying crisp, served with a lemon wedge. I’ve also enjoyed them marinated in garlic, oil and herbs Italian style, or just pickled. Some people say that they only eat the caps of these, but the whole mushroom is good. Cooked muscaria, like some othe Amanitas, have a nice texture, and the stems are a bit reminiscent of calamari.
Detoxified Amanita Muscaria Mushrooms
- Amanita Muscaria Mushrooms as fresh as possible
- Clean the mushrooms well, trimming dirt from the stem and volva.
Boil, then Boil Again
- Put the mushrooms whole into a pot and cover with a few inches of cold water, cover the pan, put the heat on high, and bring to a rolling boil.
- When the pan is boiling, the heat off, discard the water, then cover the mushrooms with fresh cold water, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Remove the mushrooms and drain very well, pressing on them with a towel to remove water that could pop or be a hazard if cooking in hot fat (deep frying, etc).
Cooking and Storing
- Cut the mushrooms into pieces according to whatever you're making and cook as usual. If you want to refrigerate them for later, make sure to season them with salt and mix well to preserve their shelf life.
- Detoxified mushrooms will last for 3 days in the fridge, and should be discarded after that time.
Fermented Muscaria: A Dwindling Japanese Tradition
Yep. David Arora shared a bunch of pictures from different trips he took to Japan, and wouldn’t you know it, Muscaria are gathered as a food there (funny enough, porcini aren’t, and David mentioned some of the Japanese mushroom hunters he met thought they were poisonous! The irony!).
“Beni-tengutake is the Japanese name for Amanita muscaria. It means “red tengutake,” tengutake being their version of A. pantherina. Tengu is a mythical folk character with multiple meanings and attributes (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengu).”–David Arora.
For the fermented pickles, muscaria are boiled for 20-30 minutes, then drained, rinsed clean, dried, and mixed with a proportion of salt. The method is simple and easily fits into the basic fermented wild mushroom method I shared in this post. The man who demonstrated the technique mentioned he liked stirring the finished fermented pickles into miso soup.
Fermented Amanita Muscaria Mushrooms
- Vacuum sealer and bags
- Amanita Muscaria as fresh as possible
- Kosher salt as needed
Detoxify the mushrooms
- Clean the mushrooms very well, then put them in a pot and cover with a few inches of cold water. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Allow the mushrooms to cool in the liquid until you can handle them.
- Remove the mushrooms and dry them very well, then weigh them in grams.
- Multiply the weight of the mushrooms by .03% to get the weight of salt needed. For example, 1000 grams of mushrooms you would use 30 grams of salt (You can use anywhere from 3-5% salt here for reference).
Ferment for 7-14 days
- Combine the mushrooms with the salt, pack into a vacuum bag and seal, use a bag slightly larger than you need so you can leave extra space at the top for resealing the bag once or twice during the fermentation process to remove carbon dioxide.
- Ferment the mushrooms at room temperature in a cool dark place like a pantry for 5-10 days. I put the vacuum bag into another dish to handle any leaking liquid, which is rare, but possible.
- Over the first few days, you'll notice the bag puff and inflate from carbon dioxide, snip off the corner to release the air and "burp" it, then carefully re-seal without using the vacuum setting.
- After the fermentation has stopped and stabilized, or when you're pleased with the flavor (taste them after 5 days) store the mushrooms in the fridge. They'll last for a long time, but once the bag is opened I like to transfer them to another container to make sure they're kept underneath the fermented liquid to avoid molding.