Morels can go for as much as $20 a pound, but many ‘shroom hunters hunt them for their subtle, nutty taste and just for the fun of it.
The morel has a distinctive, honey-combed shaped head that sits atop a small stalk. Distinguishing between the various species of morel can be difficult: there is a wide variation in size, shape and color. Scientists don’t even agree on how many biologically distinct species exist. Some put the number at three to six. Other authorities posit as many as 50 species in the genus Morchella. ‘Shroom hunters refer to the different types of morels by color: The “yellow morel” or “common morel,” the “black morel” and the “white morel.”
Yellow and black morels are most commonly found under and around deciduous trees like ash, sycamore, tulip trees, dead and dying elms, and cottonwoods. Old apple orchards also make good morel hunting grounds.
Morels most frequently appear in the Spring months in the United States.
Morels may grow abundantly in forest areas where moderate wildfires have burned. The reasons for this are not fully understood, though it is thought to relate to the morel’s preference for dead or dying trees and the clearing of organic material from the forest floor. If you live near an area that has recently been burnt by fire, that might be a target-rich environment for the pursuit of morels.
It is always important to use care when hunting, and ‘shroom hunting is no exception. Tend to avoid gathering mushrooms from areas near railroad tracks, the side of the road, golf courses, parks and even subdivisions. These could all be contaminated by vehicle exhaust or pesticides. You should also avoid damaged or blemished mushrooms.
More importantly, you should be absolutely certain that what you have is an edible specimen. While morels are distinctive, there is a group of mushrooms known as false morels. Not all of these are poisonous, though many are. You can tell a false morel from a true morel in the following ways. The false morel has a wrinkled cap as opposed to a honeycombed cap. The caps of true morels are attached at the bottom of the cap, as opposed to the false morels which are attached at the top of the cap. True morel stems are hollow; false morel stems contain a cotton-like substance. The caps of the false morel can be twisted quite easily. False morels often have a brownish color.
Morels shouldn’t be eaten raw, as they contain small amounts of toxins that are removed from the mushroom by cooking. They are featured in many cuisines, most notably French cuisine. They are easily enjoyed in simple preparations like the following recipe.
1 pound morel mushrooms
1/2 cup oil for frying
3/4 cup milk
1 (4 ounce) packet saltine crackers, finely crushed
salt and black pepper to taste
Clean the mushrooms carefully with a damp paper towel or a soft mushroom brush. Cut large mushrooms in half.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. While the oil is heating, beat the eggs and milk in a shallow bowl. Coat the mushrooms in the egg and milk mixture, then toss them in the cracker crumbs. Carefully place the coated mushrooms in the heated oil. The mushrooms will cook quickly. Cook the mushrooms until they are golden brown on the bottom, then flip them over to brown the other side.
When the mushrooms are evenly browned, remove them from the pan to drain on a paper towel. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Morels are best used fresh, after a brief (an hour or two) soak in salt water. If you find yourself with a bumper haul that you can’t finish in one sitting, there are ways to preserve morels. One is flash-freezing. Simply run the mushrooms under water or soak briefly, spread the morels on a sheet pan and place in the freezer. After they develop a frozen glaze, they can be kept in airtight, plastic containers in the freezer. Morels can also be frozen after steaming or frying. Drying is also a way to preserve the mushrooms.
For more information on mushroom hunting, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation website at http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/outdoor-recreation/mushrooming/basic-mushrooming.