Hydnum repandum, also known as the hedgehog mushroom or sheep's foot is in my opinion the easiest mushroom to start with when it comes to foraging. If you are new to mushroom hunting this is the one you might want to search for and identify first. It is easy to spot and you can't possibly confuse it with anything poisonous. So go get some sturdy boots, grab a basket and get out there.
Depending on where you live you can also buy hedgehog mushrooms in the store or on farmers markets. However the price tag of up to 22£ per 500g in the UK (19$ per lb in the US) might tempt you to go collect them yourself, especially when you realise how easy it is to identify and pick them.
Hedgehog mushrooms are absolutely worth the time because unlike other mushrooms these are firm and have a subtle nutty flavour. Even people who don't like mushrooms generally enjoy eating these because of their hearty and rich flavour and delicious bite.
So here is my guide on how to identify and pick hedgehog mushrooms - but before we get to it, please read the mushroom etiquette. I can not stress this issue often enough for the well being of our forests.
Before we get to the picking and the identifying there is something I would like to address. No matter how excited you are it is important to never overpick. This not only means that you should never wipe an area completely clean but it also means to be respectful of the environment. Don't pick the smallest or the very large mushrooms. They are very important and ensure that there will be mushrooms again the following year. While we are talking about picking: never pull them carelessly out of the ground. Cut them all the way down to the ground so you don't destroy their mycelium - which is the "roots" of the mushroom. By leaving the oldest mushrooms and their roots intact you will ensure that you can pick in the same spot next year - and who wouldn't want that?
Most importantly be respectful to your surroundings. Don't break shrubbery or damage trees around the mushrooms and remember to tread carefully. There are little friends sitting everywhere that would like to keep their home the way it is.
Spotting Hedgehog Mushrooms
Location is everything when it comes to mushrooms in general but not with these. They don't seem to be very picky about growing conditions but they do like more temperate, northern zones. You can find them in Australia, Europe, northern Asia, and North America. Hedgehog mushrooms are usually not hard to spot because of their colour. If you pick them under fir trees they can be spotted almost too easily because there is nothing that can cover them. If you pick them in areas where there are leafy trees and autumn hit then it might be a bit tricky. They can hide under leaves and twigs but they will still stand out due to their colour. So here are a few tricks I use to make sure I find them.
- Hedgehog mushrooms are a widely spread mushroom that grows nearly anywhere. I found them in places ranging from fir tree forests and open areas to thick leafy areas and even on mossy ground. They don't seem to be a very fussy mushroom when it comes to location.
- Generally you will have more luck looking where the mushroom roots have met an "obstacle" like a ditch or a dry area meeting a wetter area. The mushroom will react to this barrier and try to get past it by fruiting and trying to spread past the problem.
- If you spot white, chunky clusters from a distance the chances that you found hedgehog mushrooms are very high. Move towards it and look carefully around. Where there is one there is bound to be more, they barely ever grow alone.
- Once you found one, walk carefully. Don't crush them by walking accidently over them.
Identifying a Hedgehog Mushroom
The reason why this mushroom is called hedgehog mushroom is that it has very distinctive spikes underneath its cap. This is the only mushroom family in the UK that has this so you cannot go wrong with picking it. They come in different shades ranging from very creamy white to yellow and even dark orange.
I arranged a few very contrasting ones in a bowl at home so you can see they not only vary in colour but also in shape. They can look like an ordinary round mushroom or look like clusters of big fluffy clouds. The one thing they always have in common is a spiky surface under the cap.
The French like to scrape away the spikes before they sell them as they have a tendency to get everywhere. I don't do this as they offer a lot of food - and if you are not freaked out by the little white spikes then I suggest you leave them on. If you are lucky hedgehogs will grow right next to chanterelles and we often find winter chanterelles very close to them as they seem to enjoy the same type of habitat and conditions.
If you still have doubts then ask a friend who is familiar with picking mushrooms or take closeup pictures and find a forum where people can help you identify your bounty. Never eat something you are unsure about - mushroom picking is fun and rewarding, but it is not for someone who has not read up on any poisonous mushrooms that look similar to what they are picking.
Cleaning Hedgehog Mushrooms
When cleaning hedgehog mushrooms you won't have much to do even though it's a wild food growing in the middle of dirt, shrubs, pine needles and other things that generally gets stuck on mushrooms. Strangely bugs and worms don't like hedgehog mushrooms very much so all you have to do when it comes to cleaning them is purely for aesthetic reasons. I don't generally do this but I want to mention it anyway. As I already pointed out, these mushrooms have spikes underneath. When you buy them on markets they are cleaned of their spikes to make them look more appetising in dishes because the spikes fall off when you cook the mushroom. If you prepare them in a white bechamel sauce that won't matter much but when you add them to a soup or light sauce then these little spikes can look like tiny maggots which is rather unappetizing.
If you blanch and freeze them for storing reasons then don't bother with cleaning them, they will fall off during cooking and you can strain them away with the liquid. If you add them directly to a dish then you might want to take your time and remove them. It might sound like a tedious task but it is rather quickly done. All you need to do is gently push the spikes down with your thumb and wipe them away. You can also use a spoon for it but it goes much quicker by just using your thumbs.
Depending on how many hedgehog mushrooms you found you might want to preserve them. You can do this by either dehydrating them or blanching and freezing. When you dehydrate them you should keep in mind they don't reconstitute all that well, so grinding them into a powder and using them as seasoning is a very good way to use them outside of their season.