Morel Mushroom Hunting
by Peggy Deland
Dozens of varieties of edible mushrooms appear in the spring, but there's no
doubt that the wild morel mushroom is the star of the season. Despite their
spongy, almost alien appearance, morel mushrooms have a delicate texture and a
rich, earthy flavor that some describe as not unlike a fine steak. Morels are so
prized that fresh specimens often command upwards of $50 a pound. Luckily, these
gourmet fungi can be found in most wooded areas of the United States; they're
also remarkably easy to identify, which makes morels a perfect choice for the
beginning mushroom hunter.
When and Where to Find Morel Mushrooms
Depending on where you live, morel mushroom season may be anywhere between
mid-March and early July. In general, the warmer your climate is, the earlier
morels appear. In the Midwestern states, where morel mushrooms are most
plentiful, a typical season lasts from April through May. But you can't just
head out on a random spring day and expect to bring home a decent harvest --
variations in weather have a major impact on wild mushrooms, especially morels.
Keep a close eye on the weather and plan your mushroom hunting trips
accordingly. You'll have the best luck if you look on warm days when the highs
are in the 60s or 70s and the lows are in the upper 40s to low 50s. Morels tend
to "pop up" overnight after a heavy rain, and they're nearly impossible to find
during dry spells. Although rain is usually favorable, keep in mind that too
much moisture can also prevent the morels from appearing. If your local forecast
calls for several days of rain, look for morels on the second and third rainy
Morels are forest mushrooms and are almost always found at the base of trees or
near rotting logs. Elm and pine trees are good bets, but they can grow by almost
any tree. Keep in mind that morel mushrooms are often hidden under dead leaves,
and you may need to check a hundred or more trees before you find any. If you
don't own wooded land, try calling your state department of forestry. Many state
and national forests permit mushroom hunting, although there are often limits on
the quantity you can gather each day.
Identifying Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms have a distinctive appearance, so there's no need to perform
spore prints for identification. Most morels are between 3" and 6" high and 1
1/2" to 2 1/2" in diameter. The cap of the mushroom has a sponge-like appearance
with numerous indentations and may be grey, pale yellow, tan, or almost black.
It is firmly attached at the base to a thick white stalk.
Although morel mushrooms are readily identified, two other types of wild
mushrooms -- false morels and common stinkhorns -- are occasionally mistaken for
morels. False morels are larger and stouter than true morels and have a
wrinkled, reddish cap. If you're not certain, cut the mushroom in half
lengthwise; morel mushrooms are hollow inside, whereas false morels have a solid
stem. False morels are generally considered toxic and should be discarded.
Common stinkhorns are found in summer rather than spring, and young specimens
are coated with a slimy green substance. As the stinkhorn ages, the slime
disappears and the remaining mushroom sometimes bears a striking resemblance to
a yellow morel mushroom. However, the edge of the cap is quite thin and detached
from the stalk. If you do accidentally eat a stinkhorn, don't panic; although
nearly flavorless when cooked, they are edible.
Preparing Morel Mushrooms
As with all wild mushrooms, morels are occasionally infested with tiny beetles
and their larvae. Cut the mushrooms in half lengthwise, rinse under running
water, and inspect for signs of burrowing larvae. Most infestations are confined
to a small part of the mushroom and can be cut away easily. If you find signs of
insect damage, soak the mushrooms overnight in salted water to draw out any
Fresh morel mushrooms can be lightly breaded and fried, sautéed, grilled, or
cooked in a soup or sauce. If you're lucky enough to have found more than you
can use right away, you can boil the extra mushrooms for a minute or two and
freeze them for up to three months. For long term storage, morel mushrooms can
be dehydrated or air dried in low humidity.