How to Tell the Difference Between Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms – A Complete Guide

By Eve Simmons •  Updated: 06/05/21 •  10 min read

Many mushrooms are picked, added to favorite meals, and enjoyed worldwide. People enjoy them on pizzas, salads, and smothered over chicken. Some even like to eat them raw straight out of the ground.

But there is a dangerous side to mushrooms that can kill a fully grown human with as little as half a mushroom. Toxic mushrooms are hard to distinguish from edible ones. Knowing the difference can potentially save your life or the life of someone else.

In this guide, we’ll cover the difference between edible and deadly mushrooms. Remember, no mushroom guide is 100% accurate, so if you’re not 100% certain, do not eat that mushroom.

Types of Mushrooms

You can break down mushrooms into three categories: 

  1. Edible 
  2. Poisonous 
  3. Medicinal (or inedible). 

Edible Mushrooms

There are tens of thousands of mushrooms that grow around the world. Over 10,000 types of fungi grow in North America alone. And nearly 30% of them are edible – with a taste ranging from mild to magnificent. 

Some of the tastiest include:

Poisonous Mushrooms

Poisonous fungi are a lot rarer than either edible or medicinal varieties. Unfortunately, some have similar appearances to choice edible kinds, making them difficult to identify. Accurate identification can be challenging for even experts at times. 

Some common poisonous mushroom species are:

Medicinal or Inedible Mushrooms

The third category that mushrooms fall under is known either as medicinal mushrooms or inedible mushrooms. Inedible mushrooms are not toxic, but they taste horrible and have low nutritional value, making them disgusting for eating. Medicinal mushrooms are known for their healing effects, not their flavor.

About 50% of all mushroom species are inedible. At times, it can be difficult to distinguish between edible and non-edible mushrooms.

5 Typical Identifying Features of Poisonous Mushrooms

It’s important to remember that no mushroom field guide can be 100% accurate, as even the same mushroom species can come in various appearances. If you are going to hunt mushrooms, a good rule of thumb is, if you’re not 100% sure about it, don’t eat it.

With that being said, there are a few ways to tell poisonous varieties from edible ones. 

  1. White Gills: The gills of a mushroom are thin, papery lines that form under the mushroom’s cap. Some gills will connect to the base of the mushroom, which is typically another sign of toxicity (see Number 2), and some will only link to the cap. 

Many poisonous mushrooms have white gills. While the cap color of these mushrooms may be a different color, the gills underneath will nearly always be white. Unless you’re 100% sure it won’t kill you, it’s best not to eat mushrooms with white gills.

  1. Gills Connect to the Base: In a particular variety of mushrooms, the gills of the fungus will reach down and connect to the base of the mushroom. Sometimes the gills may even run down the entire length of the stem. Rarely can you find non-toxic mushrooms whose gills connect to their base. It may be challenging to make out if the gills connect to the base or not. 

Be sure to take a closer look at the cap’s underside before deciding to keep any mushrooms. Nearly all gills will connect to the upper stem of a mushroom, but only toxic ones will have gills attached to their base or running down their stem.

  1. Red Color on Cap or Stem: While the quintessential red-capped mushroom may make Mario grow, consuming any mushroom with red on its cap or stem won’t treat you as kindly. Many bright-colored animals and plants use their color as a warning system to predators in the natural world – don’t say it didn’t warn you.

A mushroom with a red cap or red on its stem is basically saying, “Stay away, I’m dangerous!” This pattern repeats in the world of fungi, as nearly every mushroom that has red on its cap or stem is poisonous.

  1. Scales or Warts on Cap: Almost a universal sign in the fungal world, any mushroom with scales or warts on its cap is toxic. Some mushrooms have ugly warts sticking out from their cap in all directions. Some have uniform bumps that remain in a line and can barely be seen, but they are all poisonous. 

Edible mushrooms typically have smooth caps with no growths on them. If the mushroom has growths on its cap, steer clear of it, as it is most likely poisonous.

  1. Ring Around the Stem: Many poisonous mushrooms have a ring, or skirting, around their stem. The ring can be small and smooth or large and bumpy. Some toxic mushrooms may even have bulbous rings around their base. 

Some deadly mushroom species can have a ring around their stem when they are young but have it fade as they age. For this reason, not all toxic mushrooms may have rings around the stem, but nearly all mushrooms with rings around their stems are poisonous.

5 Easily Identifiable Common Mushrooms You Can Eat

If you are out to gather mushrooms, they’re five popular and easily identifiable forms of edible fungus you can find. Just remember the mushroom field guide rules for poisonous mushroom species and avoid any that have warts, white gills, or red in color.

  1. Porcini Mushrooms: Has a medium-sized tan or brown cap and are most likely to be found around fir, pine, and spruce trees. The base of their stems is typically thick and bulbous, but the stem thins towards the cap. They can be found in the Fall at lower elevations, and in higher elevations can be found in the Summer. 
  1. Chanterelle: Are found most often at the base of hardwood trees and conifers in the Fall to early Spring. They’re golden-yellow with wavy edges that turn up. Their stems start off thin, but it thickens at the cap.
  1. Puffball Mushrooms: Looks like a little white or tan ball of puff. With their unique look, you can easily spot them along woodland trails. They tend to appear in the Fall and Winter. If you want to be sure if one is good or not, cut it in half. If they are pure white inside, they are good to eat. If they are yellow or brown inside, throw them out as they are no longer edible.
  1. Shaggy Mushrooms: Have tall, rounded caps that hang down over a thin stem. They also have a flaky, shingle-like appearance growing over their caps. You can find shaggy mushrooms in urban areas, woods, and forests. 

Common to North America, they are known for their delicious taste if harvested at the right time. Beware of some toxic look-alikes that might have a ring around their stem.

  1. Portobello Mushrooms: One of the most consumed mushrooms globally. The famous Portobello has a gray or tan cap that is usually at least twice the size of common mushrooms – up to 6 inches (15cm) in diameter! Its under-cap consists of dark brown gills. 

Although found in woodlands throughout Europe and North America, portobello mushrooms originally came from Italy. And if you gather mushrooms in Italy, there are even free, government-run mushroom experts who will examine your mushrooms to see if you picked a portobello or just a toxic lookalike. 

Conclusion

While it can be difficult to tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms, there are several ways in which you can differentiate between the two. Color, rings, scales, and gill color can all be used to determine if your mushroom is edible or toxic. 

Just remember: no mushroom field guide can be 100% accurate all the time. Your best bet is not to eat mushrooms unless you’re 100% certain it won’t kill you when it comes to mushrooms.  It’s far better to miss out than to check out. Always be safe out there, and happy hunting.

Eve Simmons