The lobster mushroom, Latin name Hypomyces lactifluorum, is a delicious edible wild mushroom that fruits in the summer and fall in a wide array of habitats around North America. It has a signature fragrance and flavor that is very akin to seafood, and its texture is quite like lobster, both of which make it a delightful edible mushroom.
The lobster mushroom is bright vermilion-orange in color, which is very reminiscent of the boiled crustacean from which it derives its common name. It usually looks like a lumpy or warped cap-and-stem mushroom, and does not have distinctive gills (you may see that the underside of the “cap” region of a lobster mushroom has lumpy depressions that look a little like gills, but no blade-like formations whatsoever). The lobster mushroom also has sort of a sandpapery, rough surface, and the flesh is a bit brittle. The flesh on the inside of a lobster mushroom varies from orange-white to orange-red, usually a little less brightly colored than the surface of the mushroom itself. Given these noteworthy features, the lobster mushroom is a good wild edible for novice mushroom hunters because there are not an abundance of lookalike species. Thus, much like the delicious and distinctive hedgehog mushroom, the lobster mushroom should be near the top of the hit list for mushroom hunters who are just starting out.
Lobster Mushroom Basics
The lobster mushroom is not terribly common, but it can be found on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, which makes it one of the more widespread North American edible wild mushrooms. I personally have found the lobster mushroom in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Oregon’s coast and inland forests, parts of coastal California. It is also a gregarious species, meaning that once you find one lobster mushroom, there are often a significant number of other specimens nearby.
The lobster mushroom is special compared to other edible wild mushrooms because its signature appearance, texture, and flavor is caused by a mold infection growing on a common Russula or Lactarius mushroom (often the ubiquitous short-stemmed Russula, Russula brevipes). The mold, Hypomyces lactifluorum, attacks one of these common woodland mushrooms early in the victim mushroom’s development and as a consequence, the lobster mushroom is sometimes warped and deformed, and they are often found just barely peeking out of the duff and debris on the forest floor. Some people opine that the lobster mushroom infection exclusively affects white species of the genera Russula or Lactarius, but it’s sort of difficult to tell because once the Hypomyces mold infects its host, the mushroom is transformed into a lumpy, orange-red mass that is firm, a little brittle, and often accompanied by a fishy aroma.
Lobster Mushroom Habitat
As mentioned previously, the lobster mushroom can be found in many different wooded habitats. The unique ecology of the mushroom is such that you can look for them anywhere you would find Russula or Lactarius mushrooms (which, to be honest, is almost anywhere you find trees). Both these genera are mycorrhizal, meaning that they share resources with a partner plant or tree. Thus, the lobster mushroom appears in redwood and hemlock forests on the west coast, oak and poplar groves out east, and lots of different places in between. The indiscriminate partnering of Russula and Lactarius with different types of tree means that one need not limit oneself to hardwood or coniferous forests when seeking the lobster mushroom!
Edibility Notes on the Lobster Mushroom
If you plan to harvest the lobster mushroom from the wild and eat it, there are a few things to keep an eye on when you collect them. First, they should be firm above all else. If they become squishy or soggy, they are on their way to spoiled and are best left alone. Furthermore, an excessively strong fishy odor is also considered a rule-out (usually, the fishy and the squishy happen right around the same time, so it’s not hard to tell when a lobster mushroom is past its prime). A good lobster mushroom is firm to the point of crisp, and does not smell like fish spoiling. The coloration of the mushroom is not as important when considering whether or not the lobster mushroom is good to eat – some lobsters are orange, some are darker and reddish. It all sort of depends on how extreme the mold infection that transformed the specimen into a lobster mushroom was.
The lobster mushroom, like all wild mushrooms, should be cooked thoroughly. Although some stores sell it dried, I have never been terribly impressed with reconstituted lobster mushrooms when measured up against fresh specimens. If you have an excess of lobster mushrooms, I would strongly suggest cooking and freezing them instead of dehydrating them; they are quite nice when sauteed then frozen. The lobster mushroom makes a terrific mock-lobster bisque, and it’s also great when diced or sliced thin and sauteed and added to dishes that call for mushrooms or seafood.
A Word of Warning and A Word of Hope, Apropos of the Lobster Mushroom
One final note, and just a reminder: the lobster mushroom does not have gills! There are other orange-red mushrooms out there that are decidedly NOT edible (for instance, the jack ‘o lantern mushroom) that share its color. Before picking and eating a “lobster mushroom,” make sure it has all the features listed above. Also, when you find one, hit the deck! There’s a great chance that there are more to be had. One of the largest mushroom patches I’ve ever seen was an entire coastal cove that was covered in the things. Even with a group of nearly 20 mushroom hunters picking at a frantic pace, we were unable (and at a certain point, unwilling) to gather all the lobster mushrooms we found in that one small area.