The story of the lobster mushroom is an interesting one.
If you noticed they don’t look like typical stem-cap-gill mushrooms, you’d be right. Well, about half right. Lobsters are actually a mushroom that get parisitized by another fungus, called Hypomyces. The Hypomyces fungus seems to infect areas where Russula and Lactarius mushrooms grow, causing them to change shape and contort themselves. The funny part is that the transformation makes the mushrooms taste better than they would before. They only have a slight flavor and aroma of shellfish/crustaceans fresh, but this intensifies when they’re dried.
Not only are these great mushrooms to eat, they’re one of the easiest to hunt. You can casually look for these in the woods like you would chanterelles, walking down a path until you see one. It’s bright red and easy to spot, not brown like a hen of the woods or a black like a trumpet. They do like to hide under the leaves though.
Where I live in Minnesota, these will grow in the summer after Chanterelles in hardwood forests, usually starting around July-August. Look for places where milk cap mushrooms grow, or where you see them nearby-they could be a clue lobsters will be about. You will find them scattered about, if you find one, look around closely, as there will be more nearby. Sometimes I find them growing in the same places as Chanterelles, in oak forests in southern MN. In northern Minnesota, I find Lobster Mushrooms scattered about in areas with Birch and other mixed woods.
In the Midwest, lobster season will start around mid summer (late July) and can go through September, depending. In the Pacific Northwest, the season will go longer into the fall.
You want dense, heavy mushrooms
A proper lobster mushroom should be heavy, like a paperweight. If the mushroom feels light like styrofoam, has a strong fishy odor, or a pronounced purple color, they’re too old, leave them be or cover them with leaves in a futile effort to keep your spot secret. You wouldn’t eat a moldy piece of meat, so don’t eat an old, crumbly lobster. See my shelf life warning below too in the cooking portion.
Avoid dark purple, light weight, or stinky (fishy) smelling lobsters
Some people will tell you they’re ok, but these characteristics mean a lobster mushroom is old, and past prime, and unlike something like a chanterelle, lobster mushrooms have a reputation for making people sick when they’re old. You wouldn’t eat a moldy potato, so don’t eat an old lobster mushroom.
Lobster mushrooms can often be vase shaped, serving as homes for small creatures, rain water reservoirs, and all around stuff you don’t need to eat. When picking, trim the dirty ends from the lobsters, brush them as clean as possible, and shake out detritus from the inside, then carve out the middle and any soft tissue using your knife—if it has a vase shape, this will make for much less time when it comes to cleaning them at home.
Save ugly or slightly older mushrooms to dry
Older mushrooms that might be a bit long for the pan are a good candidate for dehydrating, and, as lobsters dry well, and are one of the best mushrooms to make into powder, I usually save a few extra for drying each year.
White Lobster Mushrooms
Yes, you can eat them, and they’re good. Sometimes you might run into lobster mushrooms that seem like they haven’t fully undergone the transformation to hypomyces lactiflourum from their natural state. Don’t worry though, after a number of years, heated discussions with foragers, chefs, and mycologists, and cooking and serving hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of these, I can tell you that if it’s looks like a lobster, even half way, and seems to be parasitized by the Hypomyces, its edible, and good. White lobster mushrooms have a slightly different, almost more tender texture, think of them as a hard-to-find delicacy. I also wrote another post on white lobster mushrooms if you want to take a look.
When you combine the wide distribution with the quantity that can be harvested, these are a great mushroom, but the drawback is that they lack in flavor compared to something like a chanterelle. To get the most out of your lobsters, proper caramelization is key.
They deteriorate quickly, but make wonderful pickles. If you get a hold of some fresh ones, cut them into large chunks and saute them in some butter with salt first, then eat them all by themselves just to taste their flavor, it’s mild, but like I mentioned, concentrates when dried.
Here are some basic things I’ve learned from years of cooking with these:
- Like plenty of mushrooms, dried lobsters can become bitter when used in excess
- Hands down the best thing to know is that lobster mushrooms love contact with heat and fat. Exposing them to heat and fat, fresh or dried, by a technique like the tried and true fresh mushroom duxelles, or a dried mushrooms duxelles can help curb any bitterness and deepen their flavor.
- When exposed to fat and heat, lobster mushrooms and others like sulphur shelf have a saffron/tumeric effect-they turn things yellow. This is really useful for making a beautiful risotto, or a compound butter.
- Since lobster mushrooms are mild tasting, try mixing them with other mushrooms when cooking for a little variety.
- Simple preparations for these are best, like most mushrooms. Combining them with too many things can mean their flavor gets lost. Most of the time I just fry them up, toss them with some herbs and a little finely chopped garlic and put them on top of things.
Safety / Shelf Life
After cooking, any leftover dish you’ve made with lobster mushrooms needs to be eaten within a day or two, so label and date food you put in the fridge. Eating old lobster mushroom dishes has led to a number of cases of “mushroom poisoning”, and it’s a horrible ordeal. Don’t be tempted to eat a past prime mushroom just because it’s in your fridge and you forgot to get to it, or sometimes more sluethy mushroom leftovers that don’t have a date on them. I’ve found this is especially imortant with lobster mushrooms. I don’t have any scientific studies to site, but I can tell you a few horror stories I’ve seen, and heard about.
A Lobster Mushroom Allergy?
I’m not a mycologist, or a doctor, but the lobster mushroom “allergy” rumor circulating appears to be due to the fact that lobster mushrooms contain a quantity of iodine, which could account for some of the slight fishy aroma. Some people with sensitivities to iodine, shellfish and or fish allergies, seem to have trouble eating lobster mushrooms, and experience mild allergic symptoms. I haven’t personally witnessed this though, so you’re on your own with it-sample small amounts if you have a shellfish allergy. Also, if it happens that anyone knows of studies or instances of this allergy, let me know so I can update this post.
Here’s some of my favorites or places lobsters could be substituted.
- Lobster Mushroom Terrine
- Swordfish With Lobster Mushroom Stuffing
- Wild Mushroom Conserve
- Pickled Lobster Mushrooms
- Whole Roasted Lobster Mushrooms
- Lobster Mushroom Butter
- Lobster Mushroom Hollandaise
- Lobster Mushroom Cakes
- Wild Mushrooms With Persillade
- Lobster Mushroom Crusted Walleye
- Stuffed Giant Lobster Mushrooms
- Lobster-Aborted Entoloma Chowder
- Seared Venison With Lobster Mushrooms
- Lobster Mushroom Bisque