Different portions of society consider differing seasons as the “busy time”. For retailers, it might be the Christmas season. For farmers, it’s spring planting and fall harvesting. The canoe jobbers and travel agents stay busy during the heat of summer. For folks who enjoy living off the land, spring means much more than garden planting or turkey hunting… it means searching for, cooking, and eating morel mushrooms.
Like most things, the ideal time can fluctuate depending on location, but in most places in the northern hemisphere, morel mushrooms are considered a late-April or early-May delicacy. It takes only a good rain followed by a warm snap to jumpstart morels in their annual ritual of popping up out of the ground prime for the picking.
What? You’ve never experienced the spring euphoria that is a good mess of morel mushrooms cleaned, sliced, and sautéed in butter? Add some fresh fried fish, pan-fried wild-turkey breast, or pretty much anything cooked on the barbecue grill and you have a meal fit for royalty.
By the time you finish reading this, you’ll know what to look for, where to find them, how to collect and clean them, and the best ideas for preparation. Read fast and then go find yourself a good mushroom-harvesting sack and hit the hillsides both hither and yon. But first, let me explain for any novices just what a morel mushroom is, beginning with how mushrooms differ from other plants that stick up above the ground.
First, morel mushrooms are the above-ground “fruit”, or “child” or “manifestation” of an underground network called a mycelium, a branching network of veins of thread-like roots for lack of a better explanation.
A mycelium develops when spores from other morels detach and fall to the ground. The spores can create another mycelium. Essentially the morel recreates itself with each cycle of spores that take root.
Scientists tell us a mycelium cannot produce mushrooms by itself, but when two compatible mycelium cross paths the union can result in mushrooms. Morels, considered by many to be the holy grail of all mushrooms, appear in springtime, often before other species. Scientists say this is because morel mycelium has a protective hard coating called a sclerotium, which helps it survive the winter’s cold.
The question becomes if you can’t see the plant, the mycelium, then how do you know where to look for the fruit? That’s why morel hunting is a time-honored hobby in many rural areas of the world. For as many years as they’ve been gathered and treasured as a delicacy, there are as many stories and tips on where and how to locate morels. Since you may not have been raised hunting morels with a parent, grandparent, or some other mentor, here are some basic facts to get you up to speed this spring.
Morels will often show themselves on a warm spring day immediately following a rain. They tend to be found in shady areas, often on north-facing slopes in the northern hemisphere—areas that never receive direct sunlight. But they can be found elsewhere when cover provides near-constant shade.
Start by looking in areas that have ash, elm, or sycamore trees, especially if some of the trees are dead or dying. Some old timers say to look in the direction a downed and decaying tree is facing. That’s not always the case, because I’ve often found big morels in the side of a large hole in the ground where an ash tree had fallen in some previous wind and been uprooted. This proves the mushroom can literally be in the base of the tree and not in the direction it had fallen.
Some veteran morel gatherers will say to look for an area where mayapples are growing. That stands to reason because mayapples tend to like shaded hillsides and valleys. Others will suggest looking around dead or dying fruit trees, such as at old orchard sites. Many old homesteads had orchards, so check gently sloping hillsides in areas around old home foundations.
Since morel mycelium tends to favor the decaying wood of certain trees, don’t overlook searching where large areas of timber have burned in the past, or where sawmills once stood. Of course, as with all things in nature, there will always be some anomalies. Occasionally someone will tell of having morels growing in their flower garden or beneath the shade trees in their front yard. The first morel this writer ever found was growing in a new flower bed in front of the church building one May morning. Perhaps it was some kind of sign. The more likely explanation is that when topsoil was transplanted to form a flowerbed or garden, portions of mycelium were inadvertently dug up and moved as well.
But the great thing is, regardless of where you find morels, you can almost be assured that if you return when conditions are right the next time, or even the next spring and the springs that follow after that, you’ll likely find more fungi.
If that isn’t good enough, veteran morel hunters will tell you there are things you can that’ll foster developing a real “honey hole” of mushrooms. When you locate a morel, as you pick or slice the stem at ground level give the mushroom a couple of gentle taps on the ground. Doing so could encourage the dispersing of any available spores back into the fertile soil to better the odds for future finds.
Mushroom hunters will often use a mesh bag to carry their finds. It’s reasoned that carrying the morels in a bag with tiny holes in it will allow any spores jostled free to drop to the ground where the soil has already proven to be conducive to housing mycelium.
Morels have been called the “lords of the forest”. In some places, they’re looked upon with the same notoriety and high regard as truffles might be in much of Europe. For others, they’re simply considered the rock stars of the fungi world.
If you’re going to feast on morels you’ll likely have to get out there and make your own magic happen. It’s likely no veteran morel hunter will readily reveal where to find his or her “honey hole”. Occasionally someone will pass along the whereabouts of a prime location to a close friend or relative. It usually happens when a person reaches an age or state of well-being that limits them actually getting out and gathering the mushrooms any longer. There are stories of people being blindfolded when taken along on morel gathering outings to keep the location a secret. Fortunately, once a productive spot is found, it’ll likely produce each spring unless the soil is disturbed for some reason.
Most mushroom-hunting stories come with a disclaimer, and this one is no different… Warning: if you are a novice morel hunter, be sure to accompany someone who is experienced, or at a minimum consult a reliable guidebook. Be aware of the false morel, a mushroom that looks similar to a morel but that is incredibly toxic when eaten raw.
The false morel contains a toxin that can cause potentially fatal liver failure and damage to the central nervous system. While a small percentage of the population is allergic to true morels, far more can be damaged by a meal of morel imposters. Just because you might be comfortable in the woods, or know a few things about flowers and fauna, that doesn’t mean you can guess which mushroom is safe to eat.
Just this past spring I was asked to settle an argument between a real outdoorsman and his wife over whether the large batch of mushrooms he had found and brought home for supper were real or false morels. Sure of his outdoor instincts, the guy had already cleaned and sautéed a small batch of ‘shrooms and sampled them before his wife could have me double-check his find. She was right and he was wrong. The mushrooms were false morels, and fortunately, he had a strong stomach and showed no signs of having sampled potentially deadly fungi. Other people haven’t been so lucky.
Guidebooks will contain photos and drawings showing the difference between true and false morels. Some indicators are that a true morel will have a “sponge-like” hood connected to the stem from the top of the hood all the way to the bottom of the hood skirt. There will be no hollow area between the base of the hood skirt and the mushroom stem.
True morels will have definite ridges and pits on the hood surface, while false morels will bear a vague resemblance but have a rough puffy exterior that looks like the surface of a brain. The most common false morel is reddish in color, while true morels are usually tan, yellow, brown, gray, or black. Know what you are eating. No side dish is worth dying for.
Now you know what, and what not, to look for. If you find morels, cut or pinch the stem at ground level, don’t pull it up by the root. Place the tender treats in a bag. Do not keep them in an enclosed plastic bag for an extended time, which can lead to dangerous mold. Once back at home, rinse the find in a bowl of cool, salted water. Inevitably, the mushrooms will be housing ants, centipedes, and other small creatures in the hollow stem and crevices of the hood. The first soak in salted water will send the small creatures scurrying for safety. After 20 minutes or so, empty the water and refill the bowl with cool, salted water and repeat the process.
Next, cut each mushroom from the peak of the hood to the bottom of the stem one time lengthwise. Note that the stem is completely hollow its entire length. This is yet another indication of a true morel. Now let the pieces soak in a bowl of fresh cool salted water until you prepare them for eating. Never eat a morel raw.
There are many ways to prepare morels. Some prefer to sauté the pieces in butter only. Another common preparation is to batter and pan fry. In this case, dip each piece in a mixture of egg and milk stirred together. Next, roll the dampened pieces in a dry mix of flour, spices of your choice, or perhaps cracker crumbs. Other coating options can include pre-packaged fish-fry seasoned coatings, cornmeal, or mashed potato flakes.
Drop the pieces into a pan or skillet of hot cooking oil. Turn once so each side becomes a light golden brown. Remove the pieces from the skillet and place them in a bowl or plate lined with a towel—paper or otherwise—to absorb the excess cooking oil. Let cool and enjoy.
Food fanatics will often say morels have a nutty, acorn, or nice earthy (umami) flavor. They have much the same taste as other more common mushrooms, but with some additional tastes included. Most who have ever experienced them agree morels are at the top of the mushroom hierarchy.
Even with modern science and growing technology, it’s still nearly impossible to mass produce “farm” morels for groceries and other markets. As a result, the low supply and high demand are what keeps people going back to the shady hillsides and hollers spring after spring in search of this delicacy of the woods… if only for the season.