Identification difficulty: Novice
December 2016 saw an abundance of one of my favorite mushrooms: the winter oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus). I wasn't the only one finding abundant flushes, Instagram was filled with pictures from all over the country.
Winter oysters are one of the best edible mushrooms. They're frequently HUGE - I've found caps that are 9 inches across when fully mature, though 4 - 6 is more common. They have a super-dense, meaty texture, even more so than summer or store-bought oyster mushrooms. They make an exceptional vegan alternative to meat or seafood, especially when properly prepared. They are also great on the grill.
NOTE: there is another mushroom sometimes called the fall or winter oyster mushroom. It looks very similar to Pleurotus ostreatus, but it's actually totally different -- even in a different family. It's Latin name is Panellus serotinus, and it's edible too, but can be bitter, and requires a LOT of long, slooow cooking. It has a different stem and often a different color. Keep reading for more information.
While not exactly a beginner's mushroom, I personally consider the winter oyster mushroom to be a pretty straightforward identification, even for the novice. Summer oysters are actually harder to ID, because there are more similar looking species when it's warm. In just 5 simple steps, you too could be enjoying these tasty foraged mushrooms!