How to Find Chanterelles and Identify Look-Alikes

It’s chanterelle season and I have a spot that on wet years (such as this one) produces an obscene amount of these golden mushrooms. Aside from helping pay the bills, chanterelles end up in recipes year round once I have preserved them. Easy to identify, plentiful, and blatantly obvious in their surroundings- this mushroom is a great find for beginners.

Let’s start with the important points:

1. Never eat a mushroom raw. 2. Always know the look-alikes. 3. Never eat anything you aren’t 100% sure of.

There’s a simple phrase to keep in mind should you ever be feeling overconfident. There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. There are no old, bold mushroom hunters. Also never allow yourself to become too comfortable with mushrooms as to become careless. Be 100% sure, 100% of the time.

Now on to the fun part! Not only are these easy to spot, but the trees they grow under are as well. In North East Ohio they grow primarily under beech and oak trees. Beech trees have very smooth light colored bark (they’re the ones people are always carving their short lived relationships into with giant hearts).

Oaks have a distinct leaf shape but if you’re still unsure look at the ground, you’re likely to see a few acorns or old acorn caps scattered about beneath the tree. Once you know what trees to look under, you’re set. Unlike the illusive morel, once chanterelles are up, you will find them!

Chanterelles are packed with identifying features that set them apart from other mushrooms.

Fresh chanterelles have a mild fruity apricot-like scent that is like no other. It’s one of those mushrooms you’ll still be picking when you’re 95 years old and wearing inch thick glasses because even if you can’t see them, you’ll never forget their aroma.

They also have a distinctive appearance compared to other mushrooms. Aside from being yellowish, they typically (more on that later) have a concave cap that is particularly noticeable as they grow bigger. In fact it’s this shape that gave them their name, known by the Greeks as kantharos which means “cup” or “tankard”.

They can grow alone or in small clusters, sometimes they’ll even be attached to each other.

Young chanterelle mushrooms growing in clusters.
Young chanterelle mushrooms growing in clusters.

The spore print is white to pale yellow, but truly the best identifying feature of the chenterelle is their gills.

Chanterelles have what are called false gills. They look more like folds and are rather smooth if readily apparent at all (smooth chanterelles exhibit very rudimentary if any false gills).

The underside of a chanterelle mushroom shows distinct false gills.
Notice how the false gills of this chanterelle are very fluid and smooth, and the way they branch out gracefully. They appear wrinkle-like.

Chanterelles do have two reasonable poisonous look-alikes.

Reasonable? Why yes. There are no doubt others that one could confuse if some of the key features of chanterelles were ignored, but so long as you aren’t ignoring anything there are but two species that may throw you for a moment.

We’ll start with the Omphalotus genus, which includes an array of mushrooms some of which are better known as jack-o’-lantern mushrooms.

A detailed picture of Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms by Richard Nardon from Mushroomexpert.com
A detailed picture of Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms by Richard Nadon from Mushroomexpert.com

First off, if you turn it over you’ll immediately notice the gills of the jack-o-lantern are true gills. Meaning they hang down as individual sheets and can be scraped off the cap of the mushroom. You won’t have any luck trying to scrape the false gills off of a chanterelle, you’ll just be scraping right into the mushroom.

And if you did try to scrape the false gills off of a chanterelles you would notice another defining feature- it is white inside. Now it will begin to stain brown eventually, but freshly cut a chanterelle will always be white inside.

A cross section of a chanterelle mushroom displaying the white interior.
Here you can see the white interior of the chanterelle.

Jack-o-lanterns, just like the pumpkins they are named for, are orange both inside and out. Between the gills and the insides you will not be able to confuse the two mushrooms.

The interior of the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom is orange. Unlike the Chanterelle, which is white.
A cross section of a Jack-O-Lantern showing off the orange flesh.

Even once you feel confident in your ability to identify them both, keep in mind the two different mushrooms have been observed growing together in the same area.

In the heat of picking a huge flush you might just pick the wrong thing. It is wise to cut chanterelles in half- you’ll know immediately if you’ve accidentally picked the wrong mushroom by the interior color, rather than later, when you’re worshiping the porcelain throne.

A large flush of chanterelle mushrooms growing under a beech tree.
A large flush of chanterelle mushrooms growing under a beech tree.

The other mushroom that resembles the chanterelle is the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. Once again look to the gills. The false chanterelle has true gills, and they will be highly forked- meaning they will branch off again and again.

The false chanterelle also tends to show a darker area at the center of the cap, which is far less common with chanterelles and seems to only happen as the result of age or beginning decomposition.

This is a trickier identifier if the bugs have already gotten to a mushroom, but if they’re fresh it’s easier to tell. False Chanterelles have hollow stems, but a fresh chanterelle (or at least one the bugs haven’t found) will be solid all the way through.

A detailed photo of the false chanterelle by Richard Nadon from Mushroomexpert.com
A detailed photo of the false chanterelle by Richard Nadon from Mushroomexpert.com

Now I’ll be honest, false chanterelles and true chanterelles certainly can look alike, but there is another key to identifying mushrooms. It is knowing both what you are looking for and the possible lookalikes well enough to know what should be growing where. It’s never enough to know what you are looking for, you also need to be familiar with what you are not looking for. This way you never have to wonder if you have found your target species or not. It may look like a Chanterelle for instance, but it could look even more like a species you aren’t familiar with. Learn the ins and out of mushrooms besides the edible species you’re looking for. You’ll not only be a safer forager but you’ll notice relationships between trees and mushroom species that will help you seek out ideal areas for the species you are hunting.

The false chanterelle will grow on decaying wood and near conifers. The chanterelle will not grow on decaying wood and is less commonly found around conifers.

Never in your excitement should you stop being mindful of your surroundings. The more observant you are the better you will become at finding what you intend to find and being able to avoid poisonous look alikes.

Now what about those “typical” Chanterelles?

The identification books and pictures online like to show you ideal specimens, but that isn’t always reality. The reality is Chanterelles can look pretty funky as a result of insects, rapid growth, sticks or logs obstructing their growth, and surely a bunch of other reasons I know nothing about. To help illustrate that I have included some pictures of what we’ll call nontraditional specimens.

An unusual Chanterelle specimen.
There’s a lot going on here, but it’s all one Chanterelle!

When you’re feeling uncertain remember to look at the identifying features, and look at the surrounding context. Is the mushroom growing under a tree that it is known to have a mycorrhizal relationship with? Are there other Chanterelles around as well? Do the gills, interior, and aroma all check out? If you’re still uncertain a spore print will be white to pale yellow.

Chanterelles can have a lot of variety in their shapes and sizes.
It may look odd, but it has false gills, is white inside, has the correct scent, and is growing under a beech with other Chanterelles.

The next picture looks like I have picked a whole cluster but it’s all one mushroom!

A particularly frilly Chanterelle.
This is just one Chanterelle!

As you can see these beautiful mushrooms can take on an impressive variety of forms but the identifying features do not change. Hopefully these varied photos will help you in understanding the Chanterelle!