Thanks to highbrow chefs and dumpster-diving hipsters alike, foraging is enjoying a new popularity in the food world. Even neighborhoods that are completely devoid of gardens can be home to plenty of fresh, wild food, but only if you know where to look. Foraging is somewhat intimidating, especially if you’re not sure where to look or what to pick.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a botanist or a chef to successfully forage for food. Once you’ve picked up a few tools—gloves, garden shears, scissors, and a plant guide—you’re just about ready to head out into the world and pick your own wild (and free!) food. Follow these five essential rules for foraging to maximize your food finding success and safety.
Rule 1: Know what grows in your area.
Where you live will largely determine what you can forage. Some cities are a great host to wild ramps and green garlic, while others will mostly have dandelion greens or wild arugula. Do a little research to find out what grows wild in your city, and pick up a local guide to identifying wild plants. Some greens, mushrooms, and other flora can be poisonous, and just don’t taste very good. If you’re having trouble figuring out what to forage, contact a chef in your area to see if they’ve got any ideas. You may be able to score insider knowledge on great foraging spots in your area. Taking a class or connecting with a regional mushrooming or foraging organization or club will put you in touch with trustworthy people who will gladly pass on their knowledge.
Rule 2: Be respectful.
Foraging is as much about sustainability as it is enjoying great fresh produce, which means that you shouldn’t over-pick your favorite spot. Over-picking of wild plants like ramps can significantly impact next year’s crop, and may eliminate a food source for nearby animals. Roots, like wild ginger, will not grow back once foraged, so make sure that you’ve left plenty behind to repopulate the area. Take only what you need, and consider educating yourself on the best ways to plant a few seeds or bulbs to replace what you’ve foraged. It should go without saying that you should only forage on property that you have permission to enter, and that you should leave the land as you found it. Minus a few handfuls of foraged greens, of course.
Rule 3: If you’re not sure, leave it behind.
Some edible wild plants look very similar to poisonous wild plants, and mushrooms in particular are a foraged food where caution and knowledge are critical. If you’re not entirely sure about a patch of mushrooms that look like chanterelles, it’s better to leave them behind instead of discovering the hard way that they’re actually poisonous Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms. Berries, greens, and other wild food can look harmless, but pack a serious toxic punch. If you’re really intent on picking a patch of questionable food, take photos or a sample, and ask a foraging expert in your area to verify before eating.
Rule 4: Try new things.
Even if you’ve never tried wood sorrel or mache, once you’ve identified an edible plant in your foraging spot, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. If you’re foraging, you’re likely already an adventurous eater, but wild foods can help you really push your culinary boundaries. Many of these greens and other wild foods pack complex flavor profiles—from sweet and tangy to bitter and earthy—and make great additions to your favorite dishes. Search for recipes and preparations for greens, mushrooms, and fruits that you’ve foraged, and you may just find something new to love that won’t cost you a dime to add into your cooking repertoire.
Rule 5: Forage with friends, at least in the beginning.
There is safety in numbers, and that can be incredibly important if you’re heading out into a forest or overgrown fields. Gather a group of friends, and put together a plan if anyone is injured out on your foraging trip. Carrying a first-aid kit is always a solid idea, and everyone in your foraging group should be able to discern edible wild foods from poisonous plants. As an added bonus, having more people on your foraging trip can multiply the amount of food you’re able to source, and your friends may be able to identify plants that you would have otherwise missed. Once you’ve gotten your footing as a forager, you can head out on your own and find those secret foraging “honey holes,” or sweet spots.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. You can find her foraging for the elusive whiskey plant in Dallas, Texas. Tweet her your foraging finds @aemccarthy.