Amanita Muscaria Toxicity and Vinegar Preserved Mushrooms

A look at an historic mushroom text.

“In 1879 mushrooms were exported from Japan to the value of 243,440 yens. The yen is equal to 99.7 cents. Among the northeastern tribes of Asia fungi are largely used as food. One species, when pounded, forms their snuff, while another, the Fly Agaric, which is utilized in Europe as a fly killer, and is regarded as one of the most poisonous forms, is used by them as a substitute for ardent spirits. One large specimen is sufficient “to produce a pleasant intoxication for a whole day,” the alcohol being obtained by the usual method of fermentation. In many parts of Europe fungi are a favorite food, being eaten fresh, and also preserved in vinegar for winter use. For pickling purposes, all kinds, it is said, are gathered, the vinegar being supposed to neutralize the alkaline poison of the noxious species.”

Thomas Taylor, Mushrooms, United States Department of Agriculture Division of Microscopy, US Government Printing Office, 1894, p. 7.

What I find interesting about this passage from an 1894 US government publication on Continue reading “Amanita Muscaria Toxicity and Vinegar Preserved Mushrooms”

How much amanita muscaria is safe to eat?

Detoxified Fly Agaric

How much Amanita muscaria to is safe to eat? When you detoxify the “Fly Amanita” by leaching out the water soluble toxins by  parboiling thinly sliced mushrooms in plentiful  water for at least ten, and preferably fifteen minutes, you transform Amanita muscaria into a prime edible mushroom. Short of lab testing which has yet to be done all that can be said is that there appears to be no toxins left. One can eat as much as one likes. (See my main page on Amanita muscaria and accompanying article from Economic Botany.)  Once detoxified, you can eat as much as you like. This said, there is nothing worse than getting a stomach ache because one is afraid that one has eaten a mushroom that will make you sick (or inebriated when you don’t want to be). The prudent way to begin eating Amanita muscaria is to start with parboiling a portion of a cap in plentiful water for fifteen minutes, throw the water away, and then cook with the now parboiled mushroom as you normally do with other mushrooms you eat. Work up to larger amounts as you build confidence that the mushrooms is, indeed, safe to eat.

Boiling mushrooms tends to tighten their cellular structure, thus a boiled mushroom tends to become firmer rather than softer. Boiling the fly agaric (or any other mushroom) in lightly salted water that includes a bay leaf and a clove of garlic enhances the mushroom’s intrinsic flavor, if it has one, and infuses the mushroom with flavor if it doesn’t. The Amanita muscaria I pick in Northern California  tend to have attractive sweet tonalities. It is an inherently good mushroom that is worth preparing for the table.

What is the safe dose for undetoxified Amantia muscaria?

But what if you want to eat Amanita muscaria without detoxifying it? How much  Amanita muscaria is safe to eat? Mushroom field guides often say that it is poisonous. What do they mean bv poisonous? How poisonous is it, really? What are the facts?

For a full explanation of what field guides mean by the mushroom being poisonous and the facts of the case I refer you to my Economic Botany article. The short of it is that field guides tend to make edibility statements that are more ethnographic than based on lab tested science. They rarely take cooking method into account when remarking on edibility but instead rely on cultural norms. Thus, for example, morels are listed as prime edibles (which they are) but they are likely to make you throw up if you eat them raw. In our culture we always cook morels and limit raw mushrooms on our salads to store-bought Agaricus bisporus. Thus, a field guide author can say that morels are edible because nobody puts them on salads. Denis Benjamin describes a mass  poisoning at a banquet occasioned by just such an error having been made in his book, Mushrooms Poisons and Panaceas. If our culture always boiled mushrooms and threw the water away, then the fly agaric would always be listed in field guides as edible.

But what if you want to experience the mind altering effects of eating Amanita muscaria? How much is the right amount, and how much is too much? I have no personal experience eating Amanita muscaria for the purpose of becoming inebriated. From reading in books and on the internet my sense is that a standard dose for those consuming the mushroom for its psycho active qualities is 1 to 2 caps for a healthy adult. Cap size varies enormously (a Northern California muscaria can have  cap equal to several Lithuanian specimens) and potency varies between specimens. Start with small quantities to work out what a reasonable dose is for you. Be patient. Develop a sense of how you and the mushroom get along when it is not detoxified keeping in mind that drying or grilling (or any cooking that doesn’t leach out the toxins) makes the toxins stronger than they are in a fresh cap (the ibotemic acid converts to muscimol when the mushroom is heated or dried) so keep track of what you are doing.

If you don’t detoxify the mushroom by parboiling, then as with all other inebriants, you must not drive and, as it says on  alcohol bottle labels, don’t operate machinery. If you are going to experiment, then be prudent, and do so in a safe place.

There is probably no point in offering common sense to those who want to push limits. What I can tell you is that the literature on mushroom poisoning does not seem to be able to provide a single instance of a healthy person dying from consuming an overdose of Amanita muscaia. This said, the oft quoted case of the death of Count de Vecchi who died of eating Amanita muscaria in 1896 demonstrates the foolishness of experimenting when one has a chronic illness.While his case is shrouded in mystery — did he experiment on purpose or did he eat undetoxified Amanita muscaria by accident — he was not healthy to begin with and did not recover from his ill fated mushroom omelet.

Wild Mushrooms

Mixed mushrooms from Lithuania

MUSHROOMS ARE THE GIFT of the forest. They are the summer fruit and the winter meet. On the luckiest of days they spread out between the trees like meadow flowers—yellow, red, russet, white, blue, gray. Whether you are out on one of these days, or on a day in which the mushrooms are hiding, every hunt has the feel of a treasure hunt.

The array of mushrooms you see, above, were ones I collected in an afternoon in Lithuania. Judging by the black trumpets, the Craterellus cornucopioides, I think this must have been in the late summer, but I don’t actually recall. In the upper left are boletes. If you aren’t a mushroom collector, then these are the mushrooms that are often imported from Italy as dried mushrooms. They are in the Boletus edulis group meaning that there are a few mushrooms that are so closely related that people picking them for dinner don’t really care which is which. Moving along the top, the mushrooms with the scaly stalk are are in the Boletaceae family. These are in the genus Leccinum. They often grow when the B. edulis is growing. They tend to be denser and not always as flavorful but should always be picked. Like the B. edulis group they also dry well for use in soups and stocks and stews during the winter. The reddish mushroom with white dots is Amanita muscaria. (This mushroom is widely published as being poisonous, but it isn’t if parboiled. I authored a paper on its edibility along with the mycologist David Arora which you can find at the link, just above.)  In the bottom right is a parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera). It is an unbelievably delicious mushrooms. I fry the cap in butter. Along the bottom a few small Leccinum and then Lactarius species in the bottom left corner. I have been collecting wild mushrooms for years but to be honest I am terrible with names and I often only know the more general rather than the more specific name for what I collect. I am pretty sure these are Lactarius deliciosus and if they aren’t precisely, then close enough. These were favorite mushrooms in ancient Rome and are still very popular around the Mediterranean. In the middle are the black trumpets, a terrific mushroom, and chanterelles.