By Doug Claycomb, Outdoor Ethics Chair
May is a beautiful month in Minnesota. As the wildflowers pop and the tom turkeys strut, May is the month for morel hunting. It offers a perfect excuse to get out into the spring woods just in the nick of time before the mosquitoes arrive. The morel is a delicious wild mushroom found throughout the state, including the Twin Cities. Of course, a reasonable amount of prudence is necessary when harvesting wild mushrooms. But fear of dying should not be a reason to refrain from mushroom hunting. What are the chances? Besides, it makes for a great introduction to your obituary: “ate the wrong mushroom.”
Nancy and I are hardly professional mycologists but we do enjoy getting out in the woods after these long Minnesota winters. We hunt morels every spring and we do it right here in Bloomington. There are literally hundreds of little patches of woods in the city and most of them, if searched, will render morels.
Hunting morels is like fishing--you have to be ready to come back empty-handed, time after time, until you start to figure out how to do it. And even then, you’ll get skunked half the time. If you don’t have the disposition to find enjoyment in the serendipity of the sublime--like a colorful insect, beautiful sunset, ebullient flock of geese, or just the smell of damp leaves and soil--then morel hunting is probably not a good fit for you. Otherwise, keep reading.
Fear of death keeps many of us from participating in this fantastic outdoor activity--and it shouldn’t. Sure, there are lots of “iffy” mushrooms which you need to be an expert to harvest. But the morel is relatively easy to identify. It is considered a “beginner mushroom” because it is not easily confused with dangerous ones. And it is also one of the most delectable and plentiful mushrooms the woods offers. If you like mushrooms, you will love morels--especially after you find them yourself. Here’s how to do it.
Morels are available for only a few weeks each year--usually in May in this part of Minnesota. So the most important thing to do is to get out and get looking--don’t let the season pass. There are some natural indicators of morel time. They emerge at about the same time the dandelions first go to seed and the lilacs bloom. Also, morels tend to emerge a day or two after a rain when the nights are warm. If you find morels a few days too late, they’ll be brittle, ugly, bug-ridden and crumbly. Harvest them anyway. They all taste the same. There is no such thing as a bad-tasting morel.
Identification of morels is relatively easy. Purchase a good field guide and use it. Other than false morels, which are easy to distinguish using 100 Edible Mushrooms by Michael Kuo, nothing else looks like a morel in Minnesota in May. A couple rules of thumb: morels are always entirely hollow inside (stem and cap form one continuous hollow chamber), they are never slimy, gooey, or sticky, they grow from the ground (never from a log or stump) and they have a fresh “earthy” mushroom smell (not foul or pungent).
Where to hunt morels is every mushroom hunter’s secret. Nobody divulges their favorite spots, so you will have to find your own. With persistence, and several outings, you should be able to find success the first year you try. The darned things have a tendency to pop up almost anywhere--sometimes even in suburban lawns. Here are a few tips to get you started. They are almost always found in association with trees--especially recently cut, burned, or disturbed woods. I often find luck near recently deceased trees--especially diseased elms with bark just beginning to peel. In general, just walk around the woods with your head down, scanning the ground. Eventually, they’ll show up. I promise. When you finally do find one, keep looking in the same area for more. There will usually be more. Morels are almost never solitary. Cut them off at ground level with a sharp knife and carry them home gently in a basket or sack. When bringing your haul out of the woods, conceal the bounty. Nosey people are everywhere. You don’t want competition.
If you find a hot spot, return every few days. More morels sometimes emerge! After a few years, you’ll have several secret spots. Return to these spots but continue to find new ones. You’ll need new spots as old ones grow cold. Of course, make sure you have permission to hunt mushrooms on private property and consult the rules on public land.
When done hunting, take them into the kitchen for preparation. Pare away any attached dirt and cut each morel in half lengthwise. Doing this, you not only verify that each one is completely hollow inside (if not hollow, it’s not a morel--throw away), but also allow the multitude of critters (especially pill bugs) to escape. Toss the halved morels into cold water and gently agitate them to release the sand and grit. Washed fresh morels are ready to be either cooked or dehydrated.
Unlike store-bought mushrooms, all wild mushrooms must be cooked before eaten. There are hundreds of on-line recipes, but I like it simple. I take clean, cut-up morels and sauté them in butter for maybe a minute at most. Don’t over-cook morels. They release a lot of water in the pan and I use it as the base of a white sauce by adding a milk-flour mixture, cooking another minute until bubbly, then salt and pepper to taste. That’s it! I pour the whole concoction over toast. Mmmm!
If you have a really good foray and come home with too many morels, dehydrate them. A warm oven will work but a food dehydrator works best. Dried morels will keep for years in an airtight container. This way, you can enjoy morels any time of year. To rehydrate them, soak in a bowl of warm water for an hour or so and they are ready to cook. The water used to rehydrate them will turn to a brown liquor--a delicious base for mushroom gravy, broth or sauce. Enjoy!
For more information:
Kuo, Michael. 2007. 100 Edible Mushrooms. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.