My husband was born into a mushroom-hunting family, whereas my mom used to be wary of fresh mushrooms from the grocery. But after 39 years of marriage, and that many turkey and mushroom seasons, I have learned a thing or two about morels. Mostly, that I love to eat them, dipped in egg-milk mixture, rolled in cracker crumbs and cooked in butter. But also that I love to hunt them. Or, perhaps more correctly, try to hunt them.
While my husband Wil can stride through the woods, glancing quickly from side to side, and spot a morel a mile off, I have trouble seeing one right between my feet. When we’re out hunting and he comes to an abrupt stop, I know that means there are mushrooms in sight – but it can take me minutes to spot the first one. After that, it is usually easy to spot the surrounding ones.
He also has been known to mark the morel with a twig stuck in the ground, come back to the house and get me, and then lead me close to the area and wait for me to get lucky.
Although my favorite spot out in the woods behind the house, fondly named the Fairy Ring, has never repeated the grandiose morel production that gave it its name, I have learned where to look in areas nearer to the house and barn. For the past few years I have managed to find a few morels on my own! What a thrill.
Spring is officially here, but it will need to warm up more for the ’shrooms to pop up. However, on those random warm days of early spring, it is tempting to head to the woods and check my favorite spots, just in case. Realistically, though, it will probably be a few more weeks before the morels appear -- it all depends on the weather.
Morels require a near-perfect combination of temperature and moisture at just the right time in order to produce abundantly. Warm rain followed by sunshine is a good sign.
Get out in the woods
Although opinions vary, there are some rules of thumb for identifying likely spots for finding morels. Look for a clump of may apples growing in moist ground near sycamore or ash trees. See which way the tree is leaning and search in that direction.
Dogwood, willow, elm, hickory, cottonwood and wild cherry trees are also indicators, depending on whom you ask, as are dog-tooth violet, trillium and bloodroot flowers.
Look closely around trees that have been dead long enough for the bark to begin coming off. The decaying tree provides nourishment for morels. For that reason, abandoned orchards, burned-over forest or old logging areas are often good places to look.
If you’re looking for mushrooms during spring turkey season, you should wear some hunter orange for safety. Tick repellent is a good idea, too. Be alert for snakes. A walking stick is handy for brushing away leaves and sticks from morels before reaching for them.
Take a cloth or mesh bag to carry your find, or, better yet, a basket. If you stumble upon a mother lode, use your jacket, hat or shirt.
Make sure it’s a morel
The good thing about morels is that they are easy to identify. The pictures and descriptions in a field guide or encyclopedia should give you enough information to recognize a morel, but if you’re gathering morels for the first time, be sure to go with someone who knows what to look for. Failing that, have a knowledgeable person check any mushrooms you find BEFORE you sample any of them. The most important rule to remember is: If in doubt, don’t eat it!
As the old saying goes, “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old and bold mushroom hunters.”
Also, remember that not everyone can safely eat morels. Some people have reactions varying from a mildly upset stomach to violent sickness. When you eat any wild mushroom for the first time, you should eat only a small amount to see if you have any reactions.
The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) offers an excellent guide to morels at http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/morels.
If you end up with more morels than you can eat fresh (Such a dilemma!), you can dry them in a food dehydrator. To use dried mushrooms, simply rehydrate them by soaking in water or chicken broth. They taste almost like fresh and retain a good texture. Freezing morels tends to make them mushy.
Disclaimer: Risks exist when identifying and eating morels or any wild mushrooms. Never eat even the smallest amount if you’re not positive it’s a morel or other edible mushroom. Clean and cook morels before eating them; do not eat them raw.