As seaweed continues to gain popularity for its nutritional benefits and culinary versatility, more people are skipping the dried stuff in the grocery store and going straight to the source: the ocean itself.
At low tide on West Coast beaches, foragers hop between rocks looking for bladderwrack, sea lettuce and Irish moss to take home with them. Sea vegetable foraging has become so common, in fact, that you can take a class to learn what to harvest and what to avoid.
"Seaweed foraging is more popular than it used to be," says Heidi Herrmann, owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, Calif. "With the rise of those little flavored snack packs of seaweed that kids eat in their lunches, seaweed is now a normal household word."
Herrmann commercially forages seaweed to sell to restaurants in places like Napa and San Francisco. She also leads seaweed foraging classes several times a year. The only equipment her students need is a pair of scissors and a bag to carry the seaweed. It's one of many foraging classes offered along the West Coast. They can cost anywhere between $90-$445, and can last for several hours or several days. Some include cooking lessons. Others teach how to harvest seaweed from a kayak.
With or without a class, seaweed may be the safest food to forage. Unlike mushroom foraging, where many species can kill you, there are no deadly seaweeds. This has led to the idea that it's safe to "eat the beach," which is not exactly true. Some seaweed should be avoided. For example, consuming a lot of acid kelp (Desmarestia ligulata) can cause intestinal distress. As with all foraging, research is key.
"Those general rules that say, 'All of this is edible' or 'All of that is edible' [are] a lazy person's way of not having to know anything," says John Kallas, a researcher and educator for Wild Food Adventures in Oregon. "You don't just blindly go out and gather stuff. Knowledge is what keeps you safe."