This flamboyantly colored mushroom shelters a dual personality. Hiding Clark Kent-like, beneath the screaming red-orange color is (usually) one of the most tasteless and tedious of mushrooms, Russula brevipes. Its sole redeeming quality is its nice meaty texture.
Mercifully, in certain areas of the West, a parasitic fungus (the Hypomyces) attacks Russula brevipes in mid-summer to early fall. This lobster-colored fungus spreads over the outside of the base mushroom, eating and melting the original features of its host. Looking down you’ll see rather pretty orange rippling ridges where the gills of the mushroom beneath once were. Slicing the mushroom in half, you’ll notice the orange parasite layer all around the outside, with the white meat of the original mushroom's interior.
I feel some comfort in knowing that even as we aging mushroom hunters totter around with bad knees and failing eyesight, we’ll still
be able to see these blazing orange drag queens of the mushroom world scattered
across the forest floor.
They must be washed after being harvested. The most common base mushroom, Russula brevipes, grows out of the ground encrusted with dirt. Washing and brushing the upper cap carefully will clean out the rumpled pits. The underside (gill side) is usually clean. Cut the stem and look for worm holes.
In the West, lobster mushrooms are one of the very first to awaken from the dry season's slumbers. The like a little moisture, but not too much, and start along the Oregon coast in late July continuing there often until late October. It’s a similar schedule in the mountain areas of the West, and even in the East.
Sautéing, roasting, and grilling are always appropriate. The common name, lobster mushroom, fits not just the color of the mushroom, but the aroma as well. The strong crustacean smell is very desirable to some and repulsive to others who find this seafood quality inappropriate to their fungal expectations. The name, color, and aroma lead inevitably to odd concoctions like Lobster Mushroom Newburg.
These can stay firm & vibrant in the cooler for 2-3 weeks. Worms can be merrily munching, however, during this time.;
While not as of high quality dried as fresh, lobster mushrooms dry quite nicely and are a welcome addition to soups and dishes that can benefit from its meaty texture.
The mushrooms should be firm and with freshly cut stem ends for easy spotting of the worm holes which can be a problem for this species. Some lobsters are not completely red-orange. This rarer pale form is still acceptable. What is not acceptable is the beet purple red color in patches. This color and the softening purplish red flesh, indicates the final breakdown of the mushroom.