One of the first wild foods I learned to identify after moving to the mountains was the morel mushroom. My dad used to tell me how he and my grandfather would go out in the early spring to gather the delicate, delectable mushrooms that grew in the woods near their home. I was afraid to guess which mushrooms were and were not poisonous until I learned about the morel. Its unusual shape and texture afford one a good chance of picking a nonpoisonous variety. The best way to safely harvest mushrooms is to get a good field guide with photographs or tag along with a longtime mushroom hunter who knows exactly what to look for.
The distinctive honeycombed texture of its dome-shaped cap leaves no doubt that it is an edible morel. The highly prized, earthy flavor of this particular mushroom makes it one of the most desirable to forage for in the woodlands. Some say the taste is similar to oysters; the older mountain people called it “mountain chicken.” Winter snows lying long and heavy make for a good crop the following spring. From late March to the end of May, depending on the weather, is when “shroomers” hit the woods in search of morels. When wildflowers such as trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, violets, and wild strawberries appear, so do these mushrooms.
Morels can be found most anywhere: in fields, near old apple orchards, wooded areas, and by streams. They are highly unpredictable; popping up in one location one year only to completely abandon that spot the next. If you do find a favorable location, it’s best to check it the following spring for a repeat crop.
Don’t expect to find morels easily, especially the first couple of times you look for them. They blend in to their surroundings, perfectly camouflaged in the woods. But practice makes perfect and the more you go, the better your eye will be for finding them. The only thing I find hard about hunting morels is the “dizzy” feeling I get from scanning the forest floor in search of them. They are easier to spot if you glance slowly around the landscape about ten to twenty feet ahead of you instead of looking straight down. Look for the telltale elongated dome cap that the morel sports. Once you find one, others will probably appear in the same vicinity. One good thing about the morels is that they have a sequence in their growing season, so even if you pick a spot clean, you can come back in a few days and find more.
The first morels to appear are almost black in color. As the season progresses, they can range in color to brown, gray, yellow and white. The white ones are some of the largest mushrooms of this variety. Black morels tend to grow in hardwood forests but not around a particular tree. White morels appear later and have a more diverse range of habitat. Forest, fields, old orchards, fencerows, and floodplains are just some of the places these giant morels grow. Also the white variety tend to congregate around certain types of trees; usually bigger, older trees, such as elm, ash, sycamore, and poplar, and trees that are in some stage of dying.
The best way to gather morels is to use a soft mesh bag or a loosely woven basket. This allows their spores to drop back onto the forest floor to replenish the morel population for the next year. Gently “tapping” the top of the mushroom before putting it in a container ensures the spores will drop back into the soil.
There are many ways to fix morels but my favorite (and the easiest) is to just fry them in a little butter with salt and pepper. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a grilled steak.
They also can be frozen successfully if they are half-sautéed in a frying pan with butter or olive oil at a fairly high temperature. The liquid from the mushrooms will create a “soup” that can be put in Ziploc bags along with the morels and then frozen. When ready to cook, put the frozen mixture into a hot frying pan and finish sautéing.
Morels can also be dried. One to two ounces of dried mushrooms equals about a pound of fresh. When needed, simply rehydrate by soaking the morels in wine, milk, soup stock, or water. The remaining liquid can be used in recipes along with the mushrooms.
And remember, like ginseng hunters, mushroom hunters tend to be very secretive about their “sweet spots.” They know if they divulge where a good crop of morels are growing, the next season someone will beat them to that spot and pick them all. So it’s best to find your own patch and keep it a secret!