The anecdote and tips below on finding morel mushrooms come from HOMEGROWN member Rick, an army vet turned Kansas horse rancher. Thanks, Rick, and please keep foraging for good ideas!
Behold, the glorious morel mushroom: This seasonal fungus is truly one of nature’s treats—and it’s free if you know where to find it. Morels typically crop up in forested areas during the spring, generally mid-April to mid-June, when daytime temps hover in the 60s and 70s and overnight lows remain in the mid 40s. Unless you live in the southwestern desert or in some coastal areas of the United States, chances are you can find morels in your neck of the woods.
A couple of disclaimers before you go looking: Don’t put anything in or even near your mouth that you’re not sure about. Some mushrooms are delicious. Others are deadly. The photos and links below will help you get a sense of what morels look like, but the safest bet is to ask an expert. For more help, don’t hesitate to contact your cooperative extension office, your state’s department of natural resources, or your local master gardener program. And don’t go trespassing on folks’ property without permission. Seriously.
Some areas are blessed with semipro morel hunters who lead foraging trips. (If you know of one, post a comment below, and we’ll incorporate useful links into this 101.) But if you’ve got a hankering to give morel hunting a go on your own, keep reading.
HOMEGROWN member Rick’s morel saga is a reminder that amazing things pop up when we least expect them. A recap:
April 19: “Usually I go looking for morel mushrooms as an early April treat, one of the rewards for putting up with sudden rains, unexpected turkey hunters, muddy driveways, and the ever-present ticks. I went out into the woods and found a total of four morel mushrooms (yum!) last Monday, two OK-sized, two kind of small. But with floods and now SNOW, I doubt that I shall find more. Sadly, I have already fried and eaten these two pair of fungi and now have little hope until next year’s batch.”
May 4: “Wednesday evening, May 2, I spotted a large morel near the horse pens. When I went to investigate, I found eight others going down the slope: all large, all freshly grown. Due to the nice size, these nine mushrooms ended up weighing 2 pounds. Last evening I went looking in the same area. Nothing there. But after doing my evening chores, I spotted six more in a different area. They are washed and soaked, and are now waiting the butter and basil with minced garlic before they join the red peppers to create several stuffed omelets. So even if the calendar says May 4, my kitchen is about to proclaim it mushroom time!”
Clearly, Rick has already learned lesson number 1. So we asked him for more tips.
8 TIPS FROM RICK ON FINDING MOREL MUSHROOMS
1. Morels are found in the spring. In eastern Kansas, where I’m located, the earliest I’ve found them is around the second week of March, although this year I was still finding beautiful mushrooms the first week of May.
2. The best time to look for morels are spring mornings, after a light rain or fog. Most of the time, I go looking as soon as we have a nighttime low no colder than 45 to 50, with some recent moisture, and enough wind to stir up old leaves.
3. I only find morels in shaded areas or under long grass left from the fall. They grow well in leaf mold, so if you work down to a gully bottom then work back up the hill, looking under last year’s leaves, you should have some luck.
4. One problem is that, at first glance, a morel might look like a leaf. I usually carry a stick to gently sweep through a suspected patch, but you don't want to stir things up too much or get too aggressive with your stick. You don’t want to disturb morels that are just starting to grow!
5. If conditions are good and you're looking in the right spots but still not finding anything, slow down. Look again. Follow your stick as you gently move leaves aside. When you finally spot that first one, widen your circle out from it. Where there’s one, there’s usually more!
6. A perfect morel specimen is tan, fleshy colored, firm, and cool to the touch.
7. When you find a morel, if you just pull on it, you’ll end up with half a mushroom—or with a big patch of mud stuck to it. I find that I have better luck pushing my fingers down the stem of the morel, to the ground, and then pinching through the stem.
8. If it’s later in the spring, you may come across older-looking specimen that have turned brown or grey on the top. I just pinch off any of these collapsed brown areas that are starting to dry out and get tough. Remember, these little nuggets sell for a pretty penny, so they’re well worth it!
WHAT TO DO WITH THEM WHEN YOU FIND THEM: MOREL MUSHROOM RECIPES
• Rick says: “I like them rinsed several times then soaked in ice water over night. When you’re ready to cook, give them one more rinse and split them top to bottom, in halves or thirds. Sauté over medium-high in butter or olive oil. A dash of minced garlic and a spot of black pepper goes well, and I have used Worcestershire and even A-1. If you’re using older mushrooms, just turn the heat up a little higher.”
• Sometimes Rick folds his sautéed morels into omelets with farm-raised eggs, ham, green onions, sweet peppers, Swiss cheese, lemon basil, you name it.
• HOMEGROWN member Richard recommends combining the following for “an old standby recipe that tastes great”:
» fresh morels, cleaned, trimmed, and halved or quartered
» 2 eggs beaten with 1/4 cup milk
» flour or seasoned cracker crumbs
» vegetable oil for frying
» sea salt to taste
• Appleblossom 79 shares this five-ingredient recipe starring beef tips, morels, and ramps.
• Not that morels need dressing up, but you could substitute them for the crimini and shiitake in these mushroom pasties (AKA handheld mushroom pies).
MORE RESOURCES: THE BEST FROM THE REST OF THE WEB
• The Great Morel offers a useful FAQ, sighting maps, and lots of recipes and tips for preserving.
• Field and Stream's Beginner’s Guide to Hunting Morel Mushrooms shares examples of what not to eat.
• Mother Earth News includes tips on what to bring, what to wear, and how to dry mushrooms once you've found them.
• Also from MEN: a trick for encouraging morel mushroom growth in your backyard.
FOR VISUAL LEARNERS: VIDEOS ON FORAGING FOR MORELS
• And from the Perennial Plate, a segment on hunting morels in Minnesota.
Got a question for Rick? A tip or a cautionary tale to share? A link to foraging trips in your area? Post comments below and keep the conversation rolling! While morels are notoriously difficult to grow—as usual, Mother Nature knows best—shiitake lend themselves to cultivation and are equally delicious. For details, check out the Growing Shiitake Mushrooms 101. You might also be interested in the Hunting, Gathering, and Foraging group, and you can always find more things to plant, grow, make, craft, cook, preserve, and forage in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
PHOTOS: (MORELS ON WOOD PLANK) KRISTIN; (MORELS ON TABLE) GRONGAR, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (BASE OF TREE) TONX, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (PEOPLE FORAGING) WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (ON CAR HOOD) PETER.CHARBONNIER, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (BASKET) KRISTIN; (CLOSEUP IN GRASS) PSEUDOGIL, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR