How to Find Morel Mushrooms and Everything Else You Need to Know
Many deer and turkey hunting fanatics are also foragers. Why is that? Well it just makes sense that if you’re already harvesting one renewable resource, you’d be willing to try another, right? Plus, freshly foraged mushrooms pair so well with fresh wild turkey that it’s a lost opportunity if you don’t (they’re also delicious alongside some venison back strap from last fall, for the record). While there are many wild edible mushrooms that we can harvest in this country, the undisputed king for most people is the morel mushroom. Its broad distribution, timing of harvest, and meaty texture all make it extremely desirable each spring. Sure, you can occasionally find morel mushrooms for sale at farmer’s markets in the spring, but you’ll pay through the teeth for them. And they’re not as good as foraging for them yourself.
If you’ve never gone morel mushroom hunting before, you’re really missing out on a fun day in the woods. But there are some safety topics we need to clear up before proceeding. Let’s be clear: eating wild mushrooms has its inherent risks. If you’re not extremely familiar with the mushrooms in your area, you shouldn’t be handling or consuming them because there are poisonous wild mushrooms that look similar. Borrow or buy some “Edible Mushrooms of North America” guide books that you can bring with you in the field, study online resources (like this article), and ask an experienced friend to go out and show you what to look for. There’s nothing that can beat field time with an experienced forager whose judgment you trust (that last part is key). Practice also makes perfect, so before you start harvesting mushrooms, spend some time in the woods getting used to finding and identifying them.
Morel Mushroom Identification Tips
Now that we’ve discussed the safety disclaimer, let’s dive into some helpful morel mushroom hunting tips and resources you can use. Identifying wild mushrooms is not all that difficult, but since the stakes are so high, you do need to pay attention to small details. They are usually less than about six inches tall, and have a distinct look that resembles a brain-like appearance. Morels usually have stems that are cream, yellow, or tan in color. Their pointy, hollow caps sometimes have brown or black ridges that form a honeycomb structure. The key thing to remember is that a true morel mushroom has a hollow stem and cap from top to bottom, and the cap is connected at the bottom, not floating like an umbrella.
When to Hit the Woods
Ask any farmer about the best time to plant and you’ll get many different responses, but most will say, “It depends.” The same is true about when you can find morel mushrooms. A lot depends on where you live in the country, and a late spring will generally mean a later harvest. Generally, morels start to show up in the Deep South around the end of March, and don’t show themselves in the northern half of the country until about mid-May. Usually this is a good time of year to walk around with just long-sleeve shirts finally after a winter of wearing jackets. Unfortunately, this is when the bugs start to make their summer appearance, so carry along your Thermacell unit for hours of protection. Once the fern fiddleheads start popping up and the leaves are appearing on the trees, you’ve got a good chance that the morel mushroom hunting season is almost there.
If you have a rain event followed by some very warm weather, this seems to stimulate morel growth, so try to get in the woods after this weather combination. You’ll generally have a few weeks of harvest time before the quality starts to drop off. Once the temperatures get too warm (into the 80s), the morel mushroom season slows down, the mushrooms rot, and you’re done until next year.
Best Places to Find Morel Mushrooms
While the sporting community is usually pretty good about sharing information and helping others out, don’t be surprised if a friend suddenly gets tight-lipped when you ask about where they forage for morel mushrooms. People guard their mushroom locations pretty jealously, but it’s nothing personal. While it may take many miles walked and gallons of Sqwincher drank to find your own mushroom hot spot, the effort is worth it.
Some of the most common places you hear about include under elm, ash, aspen, apple, or oak trees. Dead or dying elm trees seem to have some magical relationship with morels, so that’s always a good location to check. You’ll usually find clusters around aspen and ash stands, old apple orchards, or within oak stands as well. You should start your search on south-facing slopes as they will warm up faster in the spring. Morels require moist soil to grow well, so you’ll often also find morels along meandering streams provided you’re out of the true floodplain area.
Train Your Brain
As we mentioned above, you should spend some time gaining confidence in your identification skills up front. But at the beginning of each season or foraging trip, it takes a while for even dedicated forager’s brains to wrap around what you’re telling your eyes to look for. Foraging for mushrooms, especially morels, is tricky because they blend in so well, and you can quickly walk right by them if you’re being too hasty. Before you head out for the day, study some pictures of morel mushrooms in their natural settings. It might sound silly, but it helps to really imprint the subtle profile firmly in your mind.
But the best way to get better at morel mushroom hunting is to spend some time doing it! Don’t be afraid to slowly meander through the high percentage spots discussed above and crouch low occasionally to gain a different perspective. You’d be surprised how many times you find one when you squat lower. Take a brief break every ten minutes of intense searching to look up and blink your eyes, which will help to reset them and reduce eye strain. Bring along a pair of Bushnell Bone Collector 10x 42mm binoculars so you can scan hillsides a bit easier while taking a walking break.
Trophy XLT Binoculars – Bone Collector Edition
(video)- Michael Waddell and Nick Mundt discuss what makes the Trophy XLT Bone Collector Edition Binocular so great. The affordability and quality can’t be beat, they are great for turkey hunting, morel hunting, shed hunting, deer hunting, western hunting, and any type of hunting for that matter.
You Found One! Now What?
Many people are so excited to find a morel mushroom that they don’t stop to think about what the next step is. Is there a right or wrong way to actually harvest one? You have a couple options, but the right and wrong judgment will vary on who you talk to. Some foragers prefer to simply pinch the stem off above the ground with their fingers, while others only use a knife to cleanly snip it off. If the mushroom crumbles as you attempt to gather it, it has probably dried out and you wouldn’t want to eat it anyway. Once you find a mushroom, take your time wandering through the area as there will likely be more. Take note of where it was growing and the conditions of the day so you can target similar areas or conditions in the future.
Finally, there’s the ethics of being a responsible forager. This often gets glossed over or lost somehow, but it’s very important. If you primarily forage on public lands, which you share with the general public, you need to be careful about over-harvesting. If you grab every morel mushroom from a given spot, it deprives others of the opportunity, and you could even damage that location from producing again. A sustainable approach is to only harvest a small percentage of a given spot, which will leave enough mushrooms to send their spores out and give others a chance at harvesting them. But since they only last for a few days or a week in prime condition, you may want to return a few days in a row, just to be sure.
Speaking of morel mushroom spores (think of them as little “seeds” that can start new mushroom colonies), a popular belief is to carry your harvested mushrooms in a mesh bag, such as an onion sack. This allegedly allows leftover spores to fall out as you walk along, perhaps starting new colonies. This theory has been hotly debated, but if nothing else, the open ventilation also keeps them fresher than if they were closed off in a plastic bag.
How to Cook Morel Mushrooms
If you’ve never tried a morel, you’ll find that they are far more than just an edible mushroom; they are a rare seasonal delicacy. But once you get your bounty home, you need to prepare them a little before cooking can begin. Many people wonder how to clean morel mushrooms. It’s not difficult. A standard practice is to remove any obvious debris (e.g., dirt, grass, leaves, etc.) and then soak them in a saltwater solution. Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt in a large bowl of room temperature water, and add the mushrooms. Stirring them around a bit helps clean out the inside folds and the saltwater will chase out any small insects that are hiding inside. It’s normal and you will find some, so just expect it. Once they’ve soaked for 20 minutes or so, rinse them in some fresh water to remove some of the saltiness. Then pat them dry with a paper towel. Some folks prefer to cut their mushrooms in half lengthwise to further clean them out and help with cooking, but it’s optional for all but the largest mushrooms.
While you can probably find lots of gourmet mushroom recipes online, simple is better. A simple recipe with very few ingredients allows the taste and texture of the morel mushroom to shine. A good example of this is to fry the halved mushrooms in some butter over medium heat until they are tender and golden brown (about 4 to 5 minutes). Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on them, and you’re done. This preparation brings out their unique, earthy flavor and maintains their texture. If mushroom served straight-up seems too much for you, you can also bread them with an egg/milk mixture and some bread crumbs or flour. Fry them the same way, and they are absolutely delicious. Just don’t tell any mushroom purist you cooked them that way!
Nature is a remarkable thing. We are extremely blessed to have so many renewable resources in our country, and hunting and foraging is the perfect avenue for us to do that. Morel mushroom hunting is also just another way that you can spend some time outdoors this spring. It’s not that you need an excuse to do that, but it’s sure easier to justify when a plateful of golden fried mushrooms are your reward!