By Ryan T. Bouchard
The Mushroom Hunting Foundation
Wild mushrooms, once picked, have to be treated right. I’ve invented Shroom Coolers, a way of keeping wild mushrooms dry, refrigerated and fresh! Let me first say this: my refrigeration method is at odds with a certain law that governs the commercial picking of wild mushrooms, in some states. But Emily and I do not pick mushrooms commercially. The Mushroom Hunting Foundation teaches mushroom hunting as a hobby, in which you collect mushrooms for personal use, not for sale and as a hobbyist, you can use whatever refrigeration method you like. On the other hand, commercial harvesters in some states are told that any wild mushrooms picked for commercial selling, when left in a car, must be fully enclosed in a container, unrefrigerated. (I think the idea here, reasonable enough in a way, is to keep the mushrooms separate from someone’s dirty car, or keep them out of someone’s un-certified personal cooler.) Commercial foragers can make money by selling wild mushrooms but Emily and I have tried that and we found all the hard work to be, sadly, rather thankless and unrewarding. Maybe the situation for commercial foragers will change in time, but I don’t know: I do hope my invention can be useful to them somehow. It is certainly useful for keeping my own mushrooms fresh.
From experience, we know better than to seal up our mushrooms in a plastic container. Enclosing the mushrooms, without refrigeration, encourages them to “sweat”. They become moist and warm as they begin to spoil and decompose. That is not good. I once placed my mushrooms in a small plastic cooler with no ice, and closed the lid, thinking, “A cooler with no ice is better than no cooler at all.” Well, that was wrong! At the end of a long drive, when I opened up the un-iced cooler, my hands felt a big warm puff of air escaping, and the mushrooms were warm to the touch. So the un-chilled cooler had only encouraged warming and spoilage! I had ruined my mushrooms. With no ice for refrigeration, I should have left the mushrooms open to the air, in breathable containers like wax bags, paper bags, or cardboard boxes, with my car windows cracked open too. But again, refrigeration is ideal.
Emily and I have a few perfect Shroom Coolers in use now, but we struggled for years to develop our method. The basic problem was this: by the end of the day, ice melts, and it will leave your mushrooms all soggy. It’s a real bummer to find your prized discoveries floating in ice water. Worst case scenario, you could end up with the edible mushrooms you’ve collected for eating, and the unidentified or poisonous mushrooms which you’ve collected for study, all floating together in the same icy soup. That is bad! What’s the way around this issue?
We tried using re-freezable ice packs but when our excursion lasted more than a day, they would warm up and just become dead weight. We tried making a wire rack to fit inside our cooler, so the mushrooms would be suspended above the ice, even after it melts. Perfect, right? Well, every time you drive up or down a hill, the water pools at one end of the cooler or the other so the mushrooms still get soaked, repeatedly. Ugh.
Yet I finally invented a solution, one which works for small, medium, and big tailgating coolers alike. Start with a hard plastic cooler of whatever size but get a quality one that tells you how long it’ll keep your ice frozen. Then get a plastic bin that fits completely inside the cooler, with enough room so that the space around it can be filled with ice cubes (meaning the space between the outside of the bin and the inside of the cooler). Once you’ve made some good fungus finds, just put your wax bags of mushrooms in the inner bin. Now, when the ice cubes melt in the outer edges, the mushrooms stay dry in that inner bin! A little condensation may form inside the bin, but it’s never enough to become a problem. Alright, we’ve finally got a good solution! This “bins within bins” method totally rocks! We simply call them Shroom Coolers. So now, we have three sizes of these things. The smallest is about one square foot—that one’s always in the car.
Selecting a plastic bin that fits perfectly inside your cooler may require some work. I’d recommend the Container Store, as it has a large selection of these things. Ask for permission to bring your cooler into the store so you can check the fit before you buy. I have one cooler where I found a bin of the perfect size, but it was too tall to close the cooler; so I bought the bin anyway, and sawed the top of it right off. Perfect. For our biggest cooler, we found two large square bins to fit inside it (instead of one huge rectangular bin), and in hindsight this was even better, as it maintains a cooling wall of ice all around the sides, and also has another wall of ice going right across the middle of the cooler. The photos above show how we fill our large cooler (top row), as well as our small one (bottom row); and the bottom-right photo shows three sizes Shroom Cooler sizes we have for different collecting trips. The Shroom Cooler is a great invention! Our wild mushroom collections, when in transport, have been kept freshly chilled and dry ever since.
So, to recap, unrefrigerated mushrooms should be in a container which either has the top open to the air, or is made of a porous, breathable material; whereas refrigerated mushrooms must obviously be sealed in a closed and non-porous container. As a hobbyist you are allowed to do it however you want so I would recommend doing it right! Keep them refrigerated in your car; or at the very least, open to the circulating air (I’m assuming the inside of your car and the air in there—is not, like, foul).
One last tip about the Shroom Coolers. When selecting plastic bins to go inside our coolers, some of the bins we bought came with lids. At first we were tempted to simply throw the bin lids away because the entire bin will nest inside and be covered by the cooler’s lid. However, we realized at the last minute that we should save the lid. We keep the bin and its lid inside the cooler and when it’s time to use ice cubes to fill the spaces between the walls, we cover the bins with their original lids, a perfect fit of course and then we pour the ice on top. It mostly lands on the lid, and we push it to the sides, into the outer wall spaces (see photos above). When the ice is all in there, then we take the lids away, being careful not to lift up the bins because that would allow ice to get underneath and push them up and then the cooler may not close. So now the ice is all is place, and no cubes have fallen into the actual mushroom bins. Nice! So hang onto the lids of the inner bins, they’ll make it easier to fill your Shroom Cooler.