Monday, May 31, 2021

How to identify cinnabar chanterelles - edible mushrooms

Identification difficulty: Novice

Cinnabar chanterelles / red chanterelles, Cantharellus cinnabarinus and Cantharellus texenesis, are often overlooked members of the Chanterelle family. 

Though smaller and slightly less delectable than their larger, more famous cousins, cinnabar chants are certainly edible, and quite delicious in their own way. 

A fairy ring of cinnabar chanterelles in the Piney Woods of East Texas

Most blogs and even professional foraging books group cinnabar chants with the larger, yellow chanterelles, and treat them as an afterthought. This is problematic, as the cinnabar chanterelle has a wider range of look-a-like species, and if you simply use the information for regular chanterelle look-a-likes, you could find yourself eating a potentially harmful species. 

I'm going to try and prevent that confusion with this post. 

As a side note, I've been wanting to do a post on chanterelle and cinnabar chanterelle identification for some time. Cinnabar chants were one of the mushrooms we found most abundantly in the greater New York area.  However, at the time I couldn't afford a smart phone or quality digital camera to be able to take the kinds of detailed pics I feel are essential for identification of these species. 

And since moving to Texas, where higher salaries and lower cost of living have overall improved our quality of life, I've been unable to find these guys, until a trip to the Piney Woods of East Texas.

When cinnabar chanterelles grow up through pine needles they are generally easier to forage for the table, as they don't get dirt and mud trapped under the cap.

How to identify cinnabar chanterelles 

  1. Growth on the ground, not from living or dead wood.
  2. Growth only around trees, especially hardwoods, not in fields or beachy areas. More on this later.
  3. Bright red-orange or magenta-orange color for the caps,
  4. Trumpet or funnel shape.
  5. Cap size no larger than 2" across, usually smaller, between 1" and 1.25". Depending on rainfall, mushrooms may mature before reaching full size.
  6. Caps round, generally with "ruffled" edges at maturity.
  7. Caps frequently exhibit a darker and/or depressed center, especially in mature specimens
  8. Caps do NOT have a significantly lighter ring of color at the edge
  9. Underside of the cap and "gills" are a slightly lighter shade than the cap, being either orange or orange-pink.
  10. No more than 3" high, usually 2" - 2.5" tall
  11. Can grow singly, but often grows in pairs or small clusters of three. Does NOT grow in large (5+ mushroom) clusters.
  12. Growth is often gregarious: many mushrooms or mushroom clusters in a small area
  13. Stem tappers sharply, no more than .2" wide at the ground, and lightens at the base to orange-yellow, yellow, or pink. 
  14. Stem is opaque, with a white cottony inside. There is often a small hollow tube in the very center
     of the stem.
  15. "Gills" are deeply decurrent: they run down the stem for a significant amount. 
  16. Does not possess true gills, instead has a network of false "gills" which are actually wrinkles in the underside of the cap. This is the most important feature, and we will go into it at length in the "deeper dive" section. 
  17. False gills have a network of cross-hatched wrinkles
  18. False gills are thicker where they attach to the cap, and also have rounded edges.
Identification features
Top row: largest mushroom size and average sizes
Middle row: deeply decurrent gills 
Bottom row: cap shape and depressed center, 
white cottony interior

Deeper dive: true gills vs. false gills

One of the most essential identification features for all chanterelles and related species is that they lack true gills. While some species are smooth-sided, many (including the cinnabar chanterelle) will have a network of "false gills".

Closeup on the most critical identification feature: false gills.
Please read all of the "deeper dive" to learn about false gills.

Understanding the difference between true and false gills is generally done with a lot of in-person study,  comparison with other mushroom species, and with pictures: online and in books. 

The small size of cinnabar chanterelles, as opposed to their larger cousins, makes them ideal for study of these tiny features. 

You can see in the pictures above, false gills are wrinkles in the flesh of the mushroom cap. Notice how they get significantly THICKER where they attach to the cap. True gills will generally remain the same consistent thickness from top to bottom.

False gills have rounded edges, the edges of true gills are thin compared to the thickness of the gill. Think of how the edge of a knife is thin compared to the thickness of the blade. That's the same on true gills.

If you were in person with these mushrooms, and with mushrooms with "true" gills, you would be able to break the "true" gills off the mushroom without damaging the cap, but with "false" gills you will damage the cap if you attempt to rub or break off the gills. 

Take a look at my Instagram video below to see how easy it is to remove "true" gills without damaging the mushroom cap.

Spore prints: 

Cinnabar chanterelles have white spore prints, however this is not essential for identification, as many of the look-a-likes also have white or pale spore prints. Instead, focus on the features listed above. 

Cinnabar chanterelle tree associations: 

All chanterelles, Cantharellus species, are mycorrhizal, which means they grow in symbiosis with trees or plants. Remember, the mushroom we see above ground is simply the fruit of the fungal mycelium. The mycelium is a vast network of hair-like fibers. In mycorrhizal species, the mycelium is underground, and wraps itself around tree roots, enhancing the tree's ability to absorb water and nutrients, in exchange for sugars from the tree. 

In particular, chanterelles are specified as being mycorrhizal with hardwood trees, however,  I've infrequently found the smaller, cinnabar chanterelles surrounded only by softwood. This could mean a gap in our knowledge, or it could be that a hardwood tree was nearby and died, and the mushrooms are continuing to exist on underground roots.

Finding, harvesting and storing:

Cinnabar chanterelles are an early summer to early fall mushroom. They prefer daytime temperatures in the 80s, with nights no cooler than the mid 60s. The heavy, soaking rains of late spring and early summer will bring them out, and they will disappear in mid-summer if it's dry, or if temperatures breach the mid-90s. Summer showers followed by cooler periods may cause them to fruit again, but not in the same abundance as the early summer. If conditions are right they will appear again in the late summer to early fall, though nights that are too cold may end the season prematurely.

Look for cinnabar chanterelles in dappled or partial sunlight in wooded areas

Look for cinnabar chanterelles in hardwood or mixed hardwood and softwood forests, on high, well-drained areas that get a lot of moisture. These mushrooms are more likely to be found on the tops of small hillocks or ridges, or on the well-drained slopes, than they are in the valleys and permanently damp areas. They also prefer at dappled sunlight, and aren't often found under the darkest tree cover.

Cinnabar chants will generally fruit where there is rich soil, but also ground cover that retains the moisture needed: fallen leaves, pine needles, or large areas of moss are great places to look. Sometimes I will find them growing on the bare earth, but these are usually not worth harvesting; when grown in dirt, cinnabar chants have a tendency to get mud or dirt ingrained in their false gills, almost impossible to clean. Mushrooms that grow up through pine needles tend to be nearly free of dirt, mud or debris, and they are a delight to find. 

Cinnabar chants are also very fond of growing under brushy, shrubby plants like briars. It's up to you if you think they are worth going after in these hard-to-reach areas. 

Cinnabar chanterelles rarely grow alone,
they are famous for gregarious growth, as shown here.

Cinnabar chanterelles are very small, so small that many consider them not worth harvesting due to their size. While individually each mushroom is scarcely a mouthful, cinnabar chants are known for their gregarious growth. As a mycological term, gregarious means numerous fruitings in a small area. 

Though relatively sturdy for their size, cinnabar chanterelles are still fragile overall and shouldn't be allowed to bounce around with more robust mushrooms, as they are likely to be crushed and broken. 

For this reason, cinnabar chants are one of the few mushrooms I actually recommend transporting in plastic, as long as they aren't wet, and such storage is temporary. The shallow trays that take-out comes in are ideal, as the hard shell keeps the mushrooms from being crushed and the shallowness means the mushrooms aren't stacked deep enough to crush each other. And hey - recycling!

If you want to use them fresh, cinnabar chants are usually avoided by bugs, and so should store for a 3-4 days, but they loose flavor in the cold of a refrigerator. Since most modern American homes don't have root cellars, I recommend dehydrating your haul. Drying these mushrooms is extremely quick, even using the lowest setting on your dehydrator, and dehydration also concentrates and improves the flavor of the reconstituted mushrooms.  Though they become tinsey tiny when dried, lol! Store the dried mushrooms in reasonably airtight containers. It's best to use the dried mushrooms within a year, but I've stored mine of up to 5 without noticeable depreciation in flavor. 

Culinary profile 

Though we treat all cinnabar chanterelles as the same species, it wouldn't surprise me if DNA sequencing revealed that there are actually many different varieties. There's certainly a wide range of flavor profiles to these mini mushrooms. 

Some collections are mildly sweet, with a subtle fruity or floral flavor, similar to the golden chanterelle. Others are peppery, kind of a sweet-spicy mix. Still more have kind of an aged cheese quality to them, like fine parmesan. 

One time about cinnabar chants and chanterelles in general, is that they don't taste mushroomy. If you don't care for strong mushroom flavors, then you might really love chanterelles. 

In all cases, the flavors are subtle and easily overpowered by other ingredients. To prevent this, stick with mild flavored pairings, or with foods that will absorb the flavor of the mushroom.

Cinnabar chanterelles pair excellently with cream sauces, eggs, mild veggies like zucchini, summer squash, peas, snow peas, fingerling potatoes, sweet onions and shallots, and light meats like pork (especially loin), chicken, pheasant, and quail. 

When pairing with other mushrooms, avoid mushroomy mushrooms, which will definitely overpower the delicate flavor. Especially don't mix them with white button mushrooms, crimini, or portobello. I like to use cinnabar chanterelles with beech mushrooms, cultivated enoki, black trumpets (for contrasting flavors), puffballs or mild oyster mushrooms. Winter oysters or store-bought king oysters are good for this but summer oysters are generally overpowering. 

Look-a-like species, some are poisonous!

As mentioned before, cinnabar chanterelles have a wider range of potential look-a-likes than regular chanterelles do. Despite this, the differences are fairly recognizable, and I don't consider cinnabar chants to be an especially difficult mushroom to identify.  Not a beginner's mushroom, perhaps, but if you have some experience with mushroom identification or foraging in general, this should be easy to pick up. 

Cantharellus texenesis: choice edible

7/21 update! After eating the mushrooms we foraged in May and June, I realized they don't quite taste the way the ones from back Northeast did. I did some more research and found that Texas and parts of Florida actually have a different variety of cinnabar chanterelle: Cantharellus texenesis. Visually identical, it was considered the same until DNA tested in 2011. 

From a culinary perspective, C. texenesis are my new favorite chanterelle (aside from black trumpets which reign supreme). They are more fruity/sweet than C. cinnabarinus but more peppery than C. cibarius, and they have a cheesy/earthy quality. I really dig the complex flavor. 

Xeromphalina and Mycena species: probably not poisonous 

Shown: a Xeromphalina species,
possibly X. campanella or X. kauffmanii

Image used with permission from Reddit user: Dribblesky 

Mycena and Xeromphalina are two closely related generea of fungi, both in the family Mycenaceae.  I've never seen an article mention Xeromphalina or Mycena species being confused with chanterelles, and I believe this is an oversight due to cinnabar chants being grouped into the same identification groups as the larger yellow chanterelles. 

This is a shame because Xeromphalina especially have given me pause, both in the wild and in pictures online. Ive read enough Reddit posts to know that others are confused as well. 

nin fact, it wasn't until I spoke with user Dribblesky,  who kindly provided this image, that I even realized what these were, except that they were not cinnabar chanterelles.

Like cinnabar chanterelles, orange varieties of Xeromphalina and Mycena have darker areas in the center, and many have gills that run down the stem (decurrent).

When young, Xeromphalina and Mycena species are convex -- umbrella shaped -- and you wouldn't confuse them with cinnabar chanterelles. As they get older, however, the mushroom cap edges roll upwards, until the mushrooms are funnel shaped, and this is where the confusion happens.

Many of the orange Mycena lack decurrent gills (gills that run down the stem). If you find a potential cinnabar chanterelle with gills that are separated from the stem or only touch it without running down, rule it out. 

Xeromphalina species and the orange Mycena varieties grow on wood, unlike cinnabar chanterelles which grow on the ground. Both also generally grow in large clusters, like shown. However, I've frequently encountered individual mushrooms that appear to be growing terrestrially, as they are actually growing up from buried wood. So these are not effective distinguishing characteristics. 

For some species, the cap edge will have a ring of a lighter shade, like bright orange or yellow, like in this picture. If you see this, you can rule out cinnabar chanterelles, as they will never have this lighter ring. 

On some species, the stem of the mushroom is darker than the cap; if you see this feature, its not a cinnabar chanterelle, as they will always lighten toward the base of the stem. 

On other Xeromphalina and Mycena species, the stems are lighter but translucent because they are hollow, they do NOT have the white inside that cinnabar chanterelles have. 

Technically, Xeromphalina and Mycena species have true gills. However, their wide spacing and interconnected network of smaller gills closely resembles false gills. Moreover, the fragile nature of these mushrooms means that you can't try rubbing or pealing off the gills, as even though they're true gills, you will still destroy the cap. 

Also, Xeromphalina and Mycena species have wide gill attachments, which means the gills get wider near where they attach to the cap. However, the gills on Xeromphalina and Mycena will always have sharp edges, rather than the rounded edges of the false gills on cinnabar chanterelles. 

In short, due to the wide variety of Xeromphalina and Mycena species, there is no single "smoking gun" to help you distinguish between these mushrooms and cinnabar chanterelles.  Instead, go through this list, every potential look-a-like will exhibit at least one of these characteristics. 

The good news is that neither Xeromphalina nor Mycena are known to be poisonous. They are not known to be edible, either, so don't seek to consume them. Nevertheless, it seems likely that people have eaten these, thinking they were cinnabar chanterelles, and we have yet to hear of a poisoning. 

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms: poisonous

The mushrooms most books will tell you to look out for are the jack-o-lantern mushrooms: Omphalotus species, and I would be remiss to not mention them.

Realistically though, you are unlikely to confuse cinnabar chanterelles with Omphalotus, as cinnabar chants are never more than 2" wide at the cap, and Omphalotus are never less than 2" wide, except when extremely young. Jack-o-lantern mushrooms can get up to 6" wide at the cap, and they are proportionately robust. 

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms have true gills, and you can easily remove them from the cap to test. Just was hyour hands after.

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are frequently confused for the larger, yellow chanterelles, so this is another case of the problems of grouping all chanterelles together for identification. 

Though not generally considered deadly, Omphalotus species will make you very, very, very sick. Recovery from symptoms occasionally requires hospitalization. 

False chanterelle mushrooms: (officially) poisonous

Image of the false chanterelle from Holger Krisp curtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, commonly known as the false chanterelle, is famous for only one thing: being mistaken for a chanterelle. Until recently, this confusion wasn't considered a serious issue, as the false chanterelle was believed to be edible, albeit flavorless. Many foraging, mushroom identification and edible mushroom books, published prior to 2000 or so, still list this mushroom as an edible species, yet new information has confirmed it can be poisonous, at least for some. 

People still eat this mushroom globally, and it is possible that the soil it grows in may affect it's chemical composition. For some people it is apparently a sickener, and it may have long-term detrimental effects that aren't noticeable immediately after consumption. It is best avoided by all, especially since it has no culinary value. 

The false chanterelle is a highly variable species. Some collections closely resemble chanterelles or cinnabar chanterelles, others are dramatically different. Sometimes this mushroom is yellow, sometimes orange, sometimes brown. 

In all cases pay attention to the following: 

  • Cap edge. The edges of the caps on cinnabar chanterelles may sometimes curve down, especially when the mushroom is young, but they will never roll under on themselves. H. aurantiac frequently (but not always) features this rolling edge. 
  • Cap edge color. The edge of the caps on H. aurantiac sometimes (but not always) feature a thin ring of a much lighter color, either a pale yellow, bright yellow, or white. Cinnabar chanterelle species will not have this colorization on the edge of the caps.
  • Stem colorization. H. aurantiac frequently (but not always) features stems that are darker at the stem base than the gill colors. Cinnabar chanterelles will always be lighter at the stem base, and yellow chanterelles will always be lighter or the same color as the gills. 
  • Stem thickness. The stems of H. aurantiac are generally same thickness top to bottom. Cinnabar chanterelles always tapper to a narrow point just as the stem enters the soil. While this is a great way to separate H. aurantiac from cinnabar chanterelles, it's not effective at separating false chanterelles from golden chanterelles, as golden chanterelles also do not taper (at least not all the time).

The waxy cap mushrooms: probably not poisonous 

Mushrooms in the family Hygrophoraceae are commonly known as the waxy caps, and as with Mycena and Xeromphalina, the family contains numerous individual species, many of which look rather similar to cinnabar chanterelles when mature. 

For the waxy caps, the rules are going to be pretty much the same as with Mycena and Xeromphalina: young mushrooms have cone-shaped caps, you can rule those out; some species will NOT have decurrent gills, you can rule those out; some species have translucent stems with no white inside, rule those out; some have gills and stems that are a completely different color from the caps,  as opposed to a lighter shade of the same color, you can rule those out. 

In addition, some Hygrophoraceae species will exhibit blue bruising or staining when handled. You can rule these out. 

Finally, many members of the family Hygrophoraceae will look varnished or shiny when even a little bit wet. The caps will also be sticky to the touch. This is the characteristic from which the nickname "waxy cap" is derived. You can rule these mushrooms out as well. 

Waxy cap mushrooms are not known to be poisonous, in fact they are generally assumed to be edible, though this has not been confirmed. Do not seek to eat Hygrophoraceae, but there is not a significant risk if you confuse them for cinnabar chanterelles. 

Small brown mushrooms: probably poisonous (at least some of them)

I have occasionally seen people on social media ask if mushrooms that are small and brown, not yellow or orange, are chanterelles. Color is one of the most essential characteristics of chanterelle mushroom identification, and if you struggle with color blindness, it's essential that you seek the aid of a friend to help you forage these mushrooms. There are many, many similar brown mushrooms, and many may be poisonous. 


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