Morel Morsels - Yum!
Mmmm - Morels
"Are they there yet?" This grown-up version of a child's impatient travels isn't about reaching a destination. It's about finding morel mushrooms in the very short time when they might be discovered in the woods.
Mushroom hunters watch the weather closely. They measure ground temperature. They develop theories about how to find these elusive little delicacies. They follow websites for information about whether anyone has found any this year the way Deadheads once trackedJerry Garcia's path.
The two morels featured in this photograph will be used to make an infused oil that we'll enjoy in later months, long after they've gone into hiding for another year. We found these today, in late March. Usually they don't appear until April, but we've had an unusually warm winter and have no idea whether to expect a bumper crop or if they'll be scarcer than normal.
Keep reading to learn more about why we love morels, how to find them, and what to do with them.
Edible vs. Poisonous Mushrooms
You already know there are toxic mushrooms, and you probably are familiar with a few edible varieties like the button mushrooms sold in cans for everyday cooking, straw mushrooms used in Chinese cuisine, and meaty Portabellas that can substitute for meat in vegetarian sandwiches. What you might not realize is that certain other mushroom varieties are both edible and delicious, but unsuitable for commercial cultivation. That means you have to hunt them yourself or buy them from someone who does.
While some mushroom varieties are edible, and some are poisonous, some are "edible with caution." Unlike deadly mushrooms, these may be eaten in small degrees, by some people, but aren't suitable for everyone. They may contain certain chemicals that can create stomach problems if too much is eaten, or if any of it is eaten by someone sensitive to them.
Edible mushrooms, too, can produce allergic reactions in some people, so it's important to test your reaction with a small amount the first time, especially if you're prone to allergies or have asthma.
Morels are easily recognizable and novice mushroom hunters aren't likely to be fooled into plucking a poisonous lookalike, though there are a couple of lookalikes that should be avoided.
The photo above shows a False morel from the Verpa genus. Note its similar appearance. False morels can be dangerous, and in rare cases, deadly. They're easily distinguished from true morels by their stalks, which aren't completely hollow, as morel stalks always are. Also, the stem of Verpas are connected to the cap near the top of its cone, similar to the way an umbrella handle attaches to its parasol. Morel stems are part of the cap. Slicing a morel in half will reveal its hollow core and the stem will remain intact with the cap.
Beefsteak mushrooms can also be dangerous. While some claim it's safe when properly prepared, it has been known to cause liver failure or death in some cases. Like the verpas, it doesn't have an entirely hollow core.
To view images of how the stems of true morels appear different, please visit Michigan Morels.
This information is not intended as a guide to identifying mushrooms, and shouldn't be used as one. The photos below are for informational purposes only. To learn more about mushroom identification, please use a guide written by experts or consult a professional who can provide in-depth information! (I recommend a couple of good ones below this photo gallery.) If you're interested in technical information about toxicity, visit Tom Volk's page for a far better explanation that I can provide.
True Morels - Edible When CookedClick thumbnail to view full-size
Dangerous LookalikesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Photos and technical descriptions of mushrooms in their natural habitats, plus guidelines for cooking and eating wild mushrooms.
This book doesn't provide information about morels, but does cover other common North American edible mushrooms.
This book covers hundreds of varieties in great detail, and is well-suited for beginners and experienced hunters alike.
Highly rated by Midwesterners but touted as applicable across the U.S. this book provides a good starting point for hunting mushrooms according to reviews. However, you may be able to contact a mycologist at a nearby university for information about morels in your area.
Why We Love 'Em
The earliest hints of spring are my favorite time of year. Daffodils and redbud trees announce that all is well in the world (or least, here in the midwestern United States!) The sun warms up, birds visit our feeders for sunflower seeds, and the whole world seems to get reborn. Hunting morels puts me into the heart of it. Searching for them is a bit of an intellectual challenge that also happens to provide great nature walks. Oh, yeah, and then there are the bragging rights you can claim when you've hit paydirt!
Finding, cooking, and feasting on morels is a process that's not precisely a religious experience, but comes close! For me, it's a celebration of springtime that boosts my spirits after a long winter.
Morels have a unique taste that has been compared to a quality steak. Personally, I find them to have a very mild flavor and wouldn't compare it to any meats I've ever tasted, but they also don't compare to common mushrooms, either.
Last year, we found several pounds of golden and gray varieties. I probably should have dried some or flash frozen them to save them, but instead I invited others over to share in our happy bounty. Twice I served fried morels just the way my husband likes them, and on another occasion I made pasta with morel sauce (which wasn't unlike alfredo sauce but had a subtle, light richness that was unique.)
To prepare morels, soak them in water with a tablespoon of salt overnight to remove any hidden larvae. If you're not used to gathering your own food, this might sound gross, but even the stuff in canned goods goes through a similar process! Rinse them well afterward to remove any dirt, but be careful not to crush the delicate caps.
To fry them, you can simply slice them and cook them in a bit of butter with salt and pepper, or add a light breading and season to taste. They can be dipped in a beaten egg and coated with flour or crushed saltine crackers, too. These seem to be the most favored method for cooking them, but if you like a little creativity, try this recipe (shown in photo above) from MyRecipes.com
The most varied site I've seen for morel recipes features instructions for Mushroom Tarragon Confit, Morel Poppers, Naturally Wild Stroganoff, and about thirty other recipes. The site also sells mushroom related products (six pounds of wild mushroom ravioli costs about a hundred dollars).
You can also make infused oils to add flavor to salads throughout the year.
Why Aren't There More Recipes?
(Because there aren't more morels!)
When I looked for recipes last year, I didn't find many. I believe that this is due to their relative rarity.
Morel life cycles are slightly different than other species of mushrooms. The spores only produce fruit (that's the mushroom that we can collect) every five years, and very specific conditions must exist - a certain amount of rain, the right day versus nighttime temperatures, types of nutrients in the soil, and more.
This is part of what has made the quest for commercial production fail! Ronald Ower found a method for growing them and was granted a patent for his process in 1982. His partners created a company for morel production, but to date they haven't reached mainstream consumers. (Read about their company, Diversified National Products, here .)
Veteran mushroom hunters have dozens of theories on where to find mushrooms and what makes one area more productive than another. Experts have found ways to reliably grow them at home in small batches for those who want to avoid ticks and other creepy crawlies, though using a kit like the ones found below may be easier than their techniques.
Of course, you don't have to use others' recipes if you already have favorite meals that you add mushrooms into for flavor. Twice this season I've scrambled eggs using my own way: Melt some butter with a couple cloves of sliced garlic and 4-5 morels, finely chopped. Cook over medium heat while mixing up 5-6 eggs with 1/3 cup or so of milk. Pour eggs in and scramble, adding salt and pepper to taste. I sprinkle some shredded cheese on it and my husband and I enjoy the rich flavor with some buttered toast. (I don't even care if it's unhealthy!)
If we find a good batch this year, I plan to craft recipes for morel butter and morel mayonnaise. (I think the flavored butter would season green beans nicely, and a mayonnaise would be fantastic for turkey sandwiches.) If we get especially lucky and have more than we can eat, I'll preserve them for use later.
DIY Morel Mushrooms - No Foraging Necessary
Though they're pricey, dried morels can be reconstituted with water or chicken broth and used as if you'd found them yourself.
More recipes in one book than I found on the entire Internet last year!
I love getting out into the woods, so I probably won't be trying these, but then again, the idea of having morels in my backyard is tempting...
Ready to Try Your Hand?
Morels fruit when daytime temperatures are in the 70s and evening temps are in the 40s, usually between April and May, but sometimes a month earlier or later depending on weather. They like to sprout overnight after a cleansing rain, according to many sources. They tend to proliferate around dying trees, and are most often associated with dead or dying elms and fruit trees, especially apple and pear.
It seems most morel hunters have theories about how to find them, but there are no hard and fast rules other than "know your trees." My husband and I look for dead or dying elms, sycamores, and cottonwoods. (See the photo gallery below for identification tips.) My own observations are that we spot them most often in areas of speckled sunlight - under wild roses, for instance - and in damp earth. Our friend Dave likes to say, "Morels love moisture, but they don't like to get their feet wet." In other words, damp is good, but very dry or soggy earth isn't conducive to finding them.
I first learned of morels about fifteen years ago, but never hunted them. In those days, I spent a lot of time in the woods but had never noticed any, even after I saw photos and read about them. One day, while metal detecting in a church courtyard near my home, I found a nice, tall specimen in the grass. It was the only one I in the area. I took it home, cleaned and sauteed it with some garlic, and my love of them was born.
I worked full time and never went hunting for any, though. My next find came over a decade later, when I discovered one in another yard. It, too, was growing in the grass. I carefully searched the rest of the yard and found fourteen more. It had been a harsh winter, with two notable ice storms that had struck down not one, but two elm trees at the house. Two of the morels I found were far from either tree, but the majority of them were within about fifteen feet.
Last year marked my first official morel hunting season. My husband and I went to a state park with some friends. Four of us found about six pounds total, which we split evenly. Later, the same group went to two other forested sites without any luck whatsoever! No matter - good friends and nice weather always make for a great day. Our last trip consisted of just my husband and myself, returning to one of the sites where we'd had no luck - his friend's heavily wooded, 20-acre plot of land. I wasn't enthused. After all, there hadn't been a single morel when we'd gone two weeks earlier. My husband spotted the first, and excitedly called me over. Together, we added three more pounds of them to our season's total. That same day, we discovered two growing in the dirt beneath a tree in our flower beds.
The bottom line is to always keep your eyes peeled. Seasoned hunters will not tell you where their favorite sites are, but they will offer you their theories if you ask. (You can find plenty of info with an Internet search too, though it can make you crazy reading all the conflicting stories!) One truth is found on every single site, though: Becoming familiar with tree species will help you identify promising locations.
If you're ready to get out there and look for yourself, be prepared:
- Take a pocket knife. Although you can pull them from the ground, veteran hunters pinch or cut the stems for two reasons. First, they claim it will help the area keep producing. Second, it makes cleaning your find easier if you don't have clumps of dirt clinging to them.
- Use a mesh bag to carry your finds. If spores do contribute to ongoing growth in later seasons, you'll be planting more as you walk. That's better than washing them down the sink, isn't it?
- Douse yourself with a good tick repellent, because you'll come into contact with them every time you set foot in the woods. You can reduce the risks associated with disease-carrying ticks by discouraging them from climbing on you in the first place. (Ticks are known to carry Lyme disease .)
- Wear jeans and a cotton shirt that brambles are less likely to cling to. T-shirts are not a good choice, but non-stretchy cotton weaves are.
- Be aware of poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac, and nettles. Wear long-sleeved shirts and jeans if you're susceptible to any of these, and bring an itch-relief gel in case you do brush against some. (See photos below.)
- Wear good hiking shoes or boots. Although few snakes are poisonous and most won't bite unless you threaten them, if you do come across one that strikes at you, they'll strike in your calf or ankle area. Over the years, I've made a few hundred trips through wooded areas and have come across a few snakes, but none has ever tried to strike. They're more likely to slither away as quickly as possible. (Probably because we are just so much bigger than they are!) Still, I wear leather boots when I go.
Get Your Gear
If you want to venture out, don't go unprepared! Toxic plants and pesky bugs are the biggest concerns we have. (There could be snakes, too, I suppose, but I haven't run into any during morel hunts. I suspect they're not quite done with their hibernation so early in the spring.)
Good shoes will help you step down on thorny vines. Effective insect repellent is my "must-have" tool for morel hunting. And the right clothing can make a big difference in how comfortable you are.
Sawyer repels and kills ticks when you treat your clothing before heading into the undergrowth. Your clothing will stay treated through several washes, you won't be spraying chemicals on your skin, and it works great. We're using this for the 2014 season!
Designed for fishermen, this shirt's extra pockets, fabric that's engineered for keeping cool, splash and ultraviolet protection, and plenty of colors make this the ideal morel hunting shirt.
2014 Season Hunting
And Remembering Last Year's Hunt
Spring 2014 is here!
Last year, we found about 50 small ones - mostly grays, just a day after we woke to sleet falling in mid-April! We are keeping a keen eye out for small details that alert us to pull on our boots and spray ourselves with bug juice!
Although 2011 was my first official "hunt" for morels, my husband has been an avid forager for over ten years. We look for trees that have bark peeling or sloughing from their trunks, or fallen trees. We're especially interested in sycamores, elms, cottonwoods, pear, and apple trees. (Elms and apple trees are the most often recommended by experienced hunters, but as you'll see, they're not the only ones.) I suspect rough bark helps capture spores that are dropped when the trees lose their bark.
I wanted to give you a good idea of what to look for if you set out on your own, so last year (2013) I snapped some pictures that I hope you'll find helpful, which you'll see in the photo gallery below. When I posted them a year ago, I wrote, "We have gone out two different days, once for about an hour or so, when we found the two you saw in the intro photo up above and several of the half-morels (also called "peckerheads" by some people) and again today at three locations. We found a dozen blondes in a wooded area where people had been dumping trash near a railroad track, none at all in another area reputed to be a good site, and another ten in our own yard. (I dumped the water I used last year for rinsing beneath our pear tree, which may have helped.)"
Before you browse those shots, though, let me tell you where we have not found any and offer a couple of tips:
- Avoid areas that have deep oak leaf coverage. By deep, I mean a couple inches of oak leaves layered atop each other, carpeting the soil. If you aren't sure, oak leaves tend to be orange-y colored, while silvery, smaller leaves are more abundant in promising areas.
- Areas with walnuts and galls haven't been promising for us, either. Don't ask me why, but when I see them, I move past the area faster.
- Slightly spongy, damp ground is good, but not so damp that water or mud oozes around your shoes. Morels can be found in dry ground, but not in moisture-deprived earth.
- Areas with some, but not too much, sunlight seem to be more productive than very shady areas or very sunny ground.
- We use mesh bags that allow spores to be spread as we walk, just in case it helps them thrive better in later years. (Some say it does, while others claim the fruits are due to an underground network of "fibers" that has a long, scientific name I can't ever remember.)
- We pinch the stems to pluck them, leaving a portion in the ground, for the same reason.
Today's ResultsClick thumbnail to view full-size
We Didn't Take Bragging Rights, Though - (what our friends found...)Click thumbnail to view full-size
There are several ways to preserve morels, and one way not to! Although the idea of canning them may be tempting, there are toxins in morels that are only released when they're cooked. Though I'm no expert, the National Center for Home Food Preservation reports that there is no safe way to pressure can morels, because they contain a toxin that is released only when they're cooked. Canning without cooking them first traps the toxins and can produce ill effects.
Fortunately, there are many other ways to save them for a rainy day. Morel lovers at The Great Morel offer simple techniques. We string a thread through ours and dry them, then place them in a container until I pull them out to cook. Another friend places his in paper bags and leaves them in his refrigerator.
And with that, I'm signing off, because tomorrow promises to be another great day for breathing in fresh air and searching for these tasty little nuggets. If I'm lucky, I'll be posting pictures of them soon.