Morels are kind of a big deal in the hunting and foraging communities. Mushroom hunters across the United States are reporting morel sightings every day on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. News stories are popping up across Indiana, Ohio, Michigan. More states will follow as their morel seasons get into full swing. And as springtime sweeps the country, you can expect more of these reports on a daily basis.
True morel mushrooms, or morchella, have a distinctive honeycomb appearance on their cap and can range from an inch to a foot in height (although the larger ones are more rare). They grow in moist environments with air temperature between 60 and 70 degrees and soil temperatures in the 50s. They typically expire three weeks after they emerge from the ground. While it can appear that they pop up overnight, it typically takes 10 to 20 days for a morel to complete its life cycle, which you can see here. They’re especially apt at remaining hidden in plain sight. It’s enough to drive any mycophile mad. They often appear in patterned lines, or veins. If you find one, stop and examine ever centimeter of your location. Leave no rock or leaf unturned. Where there’s one, there’s many.
There are 19 known species of morels in North America. They typically grow between 1 and 5 inches in height, although one lucky Kansan found one that was a foot tall. Early-season morels are typically black and no bigger than your thumb. Morels with a more distinctive grey or yellow color appear later in the season and are generally larger.
Unlike most plants that grow best in favorable environmental conditions, morels grow underground and then fruit, or reveal their spore-filled honeycombed caps, when the going gets tough. That’s why people often find morels after forest fires or around dying trees. This fungus prefers “softer” trees over big hardwoods, so look for elms and sycamores, as well as old apple orchards, conifers, poplars and ash, depending on where you’re hunting.
Morels are prized for their rich, meaty flavor, and many people forage them to sell to local grocery stores and restaurants. Other mushroom lovers do it to put food on the table. Most say they’re best prepared sliced in half and sautéed with salted butter and aromatics (garlic, shallot, parsley, etc.). Do you prefer to dry your mushrooms and save them to use throughout the year? You’re not alone. Most people cook and eat morels that way. Here’s a how-to on dehydrating morel mushrooms.
It’s best to collect morels in a bag or basket with holes in it so the spores can be released as you explore the woods in search of more. It’s also recommended to cover them with a cloth to help keep debris and bugs away. Be sure to clean them properly and remove any stowaways that may have made it back to your kitchen (aka, bugs and worms).
Finally, avoid false morels, which can be poisonous. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, false morels often have wrinkled, irregular caps that are brainlike or saddle-shaped. They may be black, gray, white, brown or reddish. A good rule of thumb is if you have any doubt whether a mushroom is safe to consume or not, just leave it be.
Here are some morel-valous recipes to try out this spring:
- Venison with Morel Sauce
- Spring Onion and Morel Galette
- Roast Chicken with Bacon and Morels
- Fried Morel Mushrooms
- Sautéed Morel Mushrooms in Butter
- Pork Chops with Morel Mushroom Brandy Cream Sauce
Featured photo: iStock