By Megan Myers
For a few weeks in April each year, people from near and far converge on Cuivre River State Park, abandoning their cars by the side of the road and wandering through the thick woods.
They’re hunting for their favorite fungus: the rare and elusive morel mushroom. The sponge-like mushrooms are a delicacy, prized for their buttery-smooth texture and distinctive taste.
With just the right balance of sun and rain, Conservation Agent Kevin Eulinger said this spring is shaping up to be an excellent morel hunting season. And he said the state park, with its more than 60,000 acres of public land, is the perfect place for mushroom hunters of any experience level to bring in a good haul.
“We have a lot of people who hunt mushrooms in conservation areas,” he said. “We encourage people to go stomping around and look for some there.”
While public grounds are fair game, Eulinger stressed the importance of getting permission from landowners before venturing onto private property in search of morels.
“From an enforcement perspective, trespassing is an issue, and we encourage people to get permission before going out,” he said.
Eulinger also cautioned that beginner mushroom hunters should always consult an expert if they are not completely certain that what they have is a morel.
“The morel is pretty unmistakable,” he said, “but the wrong mushroom can be deadly. If you need advice on what mushrooms are OK to eat, be sure to ask someone who is knowledgeable or compare a picture to it.”
False morels also abound in the park, but they can be distinguished from true morels in several ways, according to Brad Bomanz, a mushroom expert with the Missouri Mycological Society.
“The yellow morel has little tips all over top, whereas the false morel is lobed like a brain,” he said.
“Also, true morels, if you make a cut from the top to the bottom, the stem goes all the way to the cap and is hollow, whereas a false one is fully formed all the way up to the top.”
Bomanz encouraged those interested in mushroom hunting, also known as foraying, to use a mesh bag for collecting the fungi, as this allows their spores to spread and produce more mushrooms.
Bomanz said the morel season usually peaks in Missouri during the second or third week of April, but warm temperatures and several good rains have bumped the season up by one week.
He said the more rain the area receives, the bigger the morels will grow. Bomanz said he has picked one that was 10 inches tall and weighed about 1 pound.
While the majority of morel hunters eat their harvest, some sell them at local farmer’s markets, where they can fetch up to $20 per pound. Grocery stores generally only carry dried morels, which can cost around $10 per ounce.
Morel mushrooms can’t be eaten raw, as they contain a toxin called Hydrazine that must be cooked off.
Bomanz’s preferred cooking method for the mushrooms is to dehydrate them for 24 hours, which allows the sugars inside to kind of carmelize. He then sautés them with shallots and adds cream to create a sauce for pasta or steak.
While some forayers practice an old technique of soaking their mushrooms in salt water to remove bugs and dirt, Bomanz said a better method is to slice the morels up and then pick off any visible debris.
While the park may be a good starting point, the ideal spots for finding morels run the gamut.
Bomanz said the mushrooms can often be found near dead elm trees, as well as live ash, apple, maple, sycamore and cottonwood trees.
Eulinger said creek bottoms and south-facing slopes in forested areas are also good places to check out.
“Everyboy’s got their place to go to find them,” he said. “But the bottom line is just to put some boots on and get out there and be rewarded with a delicious meal.”
As he bagged up about half a dozen yellow morels at Cuivre River State Park, Jesse Miller said he is partial to searching areas carpeted by pine needles, and areas that have recently been burned.
Miller, who has been hunting morels for several years after learning about the practice by word-of-mouth, said his favorite way to prepare the mushrooms is to simply bread and fry them at home.
He said besides making for a tasty meal, morel hunting is a great way to enjoy the outdoors.
“I like just walking around out here. It’s fun just being able to find them,” Miller said.