As Spring ushers in early flower and tree blooms, my thoughts wander to the woods and fencerows, and specifically, to mushrooms. Morel (Morchella spp.) mushrooms represent one of the most sought-after and prized culinary delights of the forest.
The first two species to emerge in April are the black and gray morels (Morchella spp). The black morel displays a honeycombed cap with dark gray to black margins, whereas the gray morel displays a honeycombed cap with gray margins. These morels are generally 1 to 5 inches tall. General habitat for these morels includes woods with rich soil or recently burned woods.
Morchella punctipes, the half-free morel, emerges a bit later in April than the black morel. The head of this species is conical, olive-brown in color, and its lower portion doesn’t touch the stalk (stipe). Though not as tasty, this morel still possesses good flavor and is found in broadleaf woodlands.
In late April and early May, the prized yellow morel (Morchella esculenta) emerges. With a honeycomb cap that is yellow-brown with a cream-color or whitish stalk, this mushroom is also known as the giant sponge morel. In its prime, the yellow morel stands with a 2.5- to 3.5-inch cap on a 1- to 2-inch stalk. However, older specimens can reach a height of 12 inches! General habitat for the yellow morel includes old apple orchards, areas with dead elm trees, and ash-beech-oak woodlots.
All morels have hollow stems and caps, a good identifying characteristic. Morels seem to pop out of the ground when air temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and soil temperatures near 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Spring rains seem to encourage them to emerge, too.
While hunting morels is a fun pastime, safety is of the utmost concern. Several other species of mushrooms, such as false morels, resemble the edible morels, but can cause gastrointestinal issues or worse (if consumed). So, be absolutely sure you are correctly identifying morels. Do not eat morels raw and don’t drink alcoholic beverages when consuming morels. Websites abound with information regarding morel mushrooms.
The Ohio Mushroom Society maintains a particularly good site to visit: ohiomushroomsociety.wordpress.com/. Several Facebook group pages are handy to view, because members report what species and what dates they are discovering morels. Just enter “Ohio morel mushrooms” in the Facebook search bar to find these groups. Group members are also helpful in answering beginners’ questions.
While hunting, wear sturdy shoes to assure good footing and don insect repellant to guard against ticks. Use a mesh bag to collect your quarry – this allows the mushrooms to stay fresh and allows mature spores to drop out of the bag, hopefully seeding next year’s crop. Finally, make sure you have permission to collect mushrooms if you are hunting on land that you don’t own.
Hunting for morels is not for the faint-hearted. A person may find enough to fill a grocery bag one year in a particular spot, only to find that same area devoid of mushrooms the next. I once asked a successful morel hunter, “Where do you find morels?” The reply was vague: “I find morels where they are.” Nary will a successful morel hunter give up the exact locations of their “honey holes” of morels. Even in families, aunts, uncles or cousins won’t divulge their hunting areas with other relatives, which points to what a delicacy these mushrooms truly are.
During those years when I have collected more morels than I want to eat (this happens rarely since they are so tasty), I place the morels on a dehydrator to enjoy later. The quality and texture of dried morels isn’t quite the same as a freshly fried batch, but is still a welcomed treat when the snow flies. While you can skip the legwork to find and harvest morels by purchasing dehydrated ones on the internet, they will set you back at least $200 per pound!
My family’s favorite way of preparing morels involves frying. Place the mushrooms in a bowl of water with a pinch of salt to clean the fungi. It’s not uncommon to see small beetles or bugs that were residing in the morel honeycombs float to the surface. After a soak of 10 minutes, dry the morels by covering them in paper towels or gently tossing them in a small colander. Cut larger ones in half, dredge the mushrooms in flour, and place in a frying pan with melted butter. Gently turn the mushrooms once to ensure that both sides achieve a light brown crust. The morels will be tender in about 10 minutes. Finally, salt the mushrooms to taste, and enjoy your treat. Morels, rich in umami (savory) flavor, will tickle your taste buds.
Like foraging for edible plants, hunting for morels affords the chance for families to relax and sharpen their observation skills in the outdoors. So go find that mouth-watering “fungus among us” as you make the time to explore Ohio’s natural environment.
Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.