First, for the record, let me be clear my skills in mushroom identification could, at best, be ranked as intermediate. Still, I think I might be able to offer a few useful tips to beginners and fellow intermediate-level hunters. And I'll invite those more experienced than me to correct or add to my offerings.
To start with a few tips for beginners, I would recommend the approach advised by many mushroom authors, and that is to Keep It Simple Sport. There are thousands of species of mushrooms in North America. Highly educated and experienced mushroom experts find it difficult to identify some of them and there may well be species as yet unknown and unnamed. If you are new to mushrooming, this large number of species is likely to be overwhelming. So a sound bit of advice is to simply ignore most species and get to know thoroughly a small number of mushrooms from two important categories, namely easiliy identified edible mushrooms and deadly poisonous mushrooms. The idea is to know the members of these two groups so intimately that they will never be confused.
In the first category are a few common edible mushrooms with fairly unique characteristics and relatively few similar-appearing counterparts in the poisonous category. Dr. Clyde Christensen, for example, recommends the Foolproof Four of morel, puffball, shaggy mane, and sulphur shelf. I will note in passing that I tend to avoid use of the term foolproof. I instead adhere to the adage that just when you think you've made something foolproof... someone invents a better fool. But the point is well taken that these four are fairly distinctive edibles and it's a good idea for beginners to focus on finding them and learning to recognize them with certainty before expanding their horizons too far. Most of the better books on collecting edible mushrooms will identify these relatively safe species and I have seen other lists of seven, ten, and thirteen species. But the point is to focus your attention on a relatively few species and get to know them well before taking on the larger universe of mushrooms.
On the other end of the spectrum are the poisonous mushrooms that every hunter should learn to know well so that they can be avoided. An example is the poisonous Amanita verosa that I find annually near my home and talked about in a previous blog. In this case, to know the mushroom is to not have to fear eating it by mistake. The fairly distinctive Amanita genus contains a number of mushrooms to be avoided and even experts occasionally make mistakes. So, just to be on the safe side, some mushroom hunters refuse to eat any member of the Amanita family. Certainly this is not a bad philosophy for the beginner. Michael Kuo in his book 100 Edible Mushrooms specifies 14 poisonous look-alike mushrooms to be aware of. Our own Bill Russell, as do several other authors, includes in his excellent book Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic information on potential look-alike species along with each edible mushroom described. This provides a convenient reminder and reference to cross check potential look-alike species descriptions before making a decision to eat any wild mushroom find.
Another book I recommend for beginners interested in collecting wild mushrooms for consumption is Mushrooms Wild and Edible by Vincent Marteka. This book makes no attempt at identifying every mushroom, or even every edible mushroom, likely to be found but instead focuses on a couple dozen common edible species and a few of the most dangerous species out there. The book has been out of print for some time but can still be found at several of the on-line book sellers.
Before moving on from this concept of focusing on learning one or a limited number of mushrooms at one time, let me just say it has been my experience that this is valuable advice for mushroom hunters beyond the novice. In the early days of my mushrooming adventures I often could not resist the temptation of bringing home from the woods a large collection of "interesting" yet unidentified (to me) mushrooms. Often I noticed one characteristic that I expected would prove unique and lead to a quick ID. Typically, I failed to note in the field important characteristics such as the growth habit, habitat, and substrate of the mushrooms. And I had so many mushrooms to identify that I seldom took time to examine each one in sufficient detail to allow a positive identification. At the end of the day most of these mushrooms remained unidentified and I realized I may as well have left them in the woods. I have since changed my approach and will talk in a future segment about techniques I have found to aid in the identification process.