Foraging for Food: The Hunt For The Wild Mushroom

by Linsey Knerl on 1 May 2009 22 comments

It’s early May, and the river bottom where I live is full of new life.  Not just rabbits, snakes, and chicks, but also brand new morel mushrooms.  This tasty treat is as much fun to find as it is to devour, but how does one get started?  Here are my tried-and-true tips to finding the gourmet ingredient where it grows! 

What they are:  We’re talking morel mushrooms, here.  The slender, light brown/yellow/grey beauties can vary in size from a tiny marble to a large man’s hand (or even larger.) They are hollow on the inside, unlike the False Morel (which is dangerous to eat).  To see some excellent pictures of the morel, see the best web site in the world, The Great Morel. 

When to look:  You can read all you want about the exact time of year that the new morels will begin to pop up, but the truth is that it’s a delicate balance between calendar and gossip.  Depending on where you live, the middle of April to mid-June is the eligible timeframe for them to appear.  The difficulty lies in pinpointing the exact time that they will grow.  Perfect conditions (adequate moisture, warm enough temps, and enough time to grow) will need to combine to give them a reason to spring forth from their hideouts.  The best way to know if it is mushroom season in your area is to listen for “talk around town.”  Someone will have seen the early ones and have blabbed about it to their friends or neighbors.  When you hear the first reported findings – it’s "go" time! 

How to harvest:  It’s really just as easy as you would think.  As soon as you have identified a morel, you can choose to pick it as close to the base as you wish, remembering that if you pull it completely out of the ground, you will have a lot of soil to contend with later.  A nice clean snap will give you some yummy stem and the entire cap.  If you see one that appears too small for your needs, by all means leave it (but remember that hunting is competitive.  While you may wish for it to remain until it can grow some more, the guy that comes after you might not care to.  It’s every man for himself in the mushroom hunting game.)  Placing them in a nice grocery sack (reusable or plastic work equally well) until you get home will keep them from getting crushed.  They are very delicate! 

How to clean:  There are varying opinions on how to do this best, but experience has shown me that lightly rinsing them under a slow stream in your sink and then allowing them to soak in salt water for a few hours will rid them of bugs and soil (plus give them a nice buttery flavor.)  You can lay them on a stack of paper towels and let them dry carefully before you cook them.  Don’t leave them too long, or they will start to dry out. 

How to cook:  Here is the best part!  You can choose to add them to any recipe that would require cooked mushrooms (pasta, soups, casseroles, etc) to give it a rich flavor you can’t get from anything else.  (My sister made her famous green bean casserole with morels one year – delicious!I prefer to dunk them in an egg/milk combo, then in saltine cracker crumbs, and lightly fry them in cooking oil.  This is the traditional way of cooking them in my area.

How to store:  If you’ve been blessed to get so many mushrooms that you can’t possibly eat them all, call me.  I’ll take care of them for you.  You could also store them by either using your food dehydrator to dry them for later, or you can stick them in a freezer bag after doing the salt-water soak.  They won’t be quite as nice, but will be much appreciated during the later months. 

How to sell:  Yes, these things sell like hotcakes during the season.  There are now ads on Craigslist offering to sell them for between $10 and $15 a pound. You can get cleaned and sliced ones for up to $25/lb!   

Once you find, clean, and cook your first morel, you will be hooked for life!  I recommend visiting The Great Morel for all your mushroom questions, including how to identify them, some great recipes, and what you should know before packing them for mailing. 

Happy Hunting!

*Blogger's Note: Some of you have pointed out that mushroom hunting is best left to those who can accurately identify the morel mushroom, as eating other kinds of mushroom can be dangerous.  We agree, and encourage novice hunters to buddy up with a seasoned shroomer before venturing out on your own.  If in doubt, never pick or eat anything that can't be positively identified.

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Andrea Karim's picture

These sell for up to $60 a pound in Seattle, but that's because Seattle is populated with yippies (yuppy hippies). They are amazingly delicious, but I can NEVER get the sand out of them. They seem to grow really well in areas that have burned the year before (we have lots of forest fires out here), and the ash really sticks to them.

I keep telling myself every year that I'm going to go morel-hunting, but I never have. Maybe this year?

Guest's picture

Not to rain on your parade, but if you don't know what you are doing mushroom hunting can be really dangerous (as in death dangerous).

If you want to go mushroom hunting go with an experienced hunter until you fully understand what to look for and what to avoid. Don't just grab a guidebook or a print off a webpage and go hunting.

No gourmet food is worth dying over.

Guest's picture
Guest

Even experts make mistakes. A doctor friend had to take care of four people - all mushroom experts - in town for a mushroom conference who went foraging in golden gate park. One died, three ended up with permanent damage.

As a committed forager I won't touch mushrooms unless I'm with a local expert - and even then I am very careful.

Mustard greens on the other hand? A bit late in the season now but they are still there, still plentiful and completely safe.

Guest's picture

When I was younger my mom found this huge mushroom and we ate it, but my dad refused to touch it because he thought it would be poisonous. Thankfully it wasn't and we're still alive, but I have heard of people suffering permanent liver damage from eating wild mushrooms. Mushrooms do taste pretty darn good, because they are a natural source of glutamate, which is similar to MSG so they enhance the taste of other foods.

Andrea Karim's picture

It's true that no one should wantonly go running through the wild eating every mushroom they come across, but morels are pretty safe and easy - false morels, as Linsey has pointed out, aren't hollow, where as real morels are. I think if you stick to morel-hunting, you're pretty safe.

Guest's picture

Although there is a great danger to choosing the wrong mushrooms, I know there is a guy in our city that will give specific tours around the area so you can learn about the local mushrooms. You also get to keep what you pick. I would highly recommend these kind of tours for people interested in wild mushrooms.

Andrea Karim's picture

 Now, how cool of a job would THAT be?!

Guest's picture

I am in the woods quite a bit (fishing and hiking), but have never come across them . . . guess I'll keep looking.

Linsey Knerl's picture

While I agree that it is probably wise to venture out with a local expert on your first few trips, identifying the morel is something you can become accustomed to over time.  I've been hunting them since I was tiny, as have many in my area.  I think that it's important to stay within one area for your hunts, and get to know the mushrooms of that particular area very well.

I would recommend that you not handle any mushroom you are not 150% certain is a morel, and even then, use caution.  While I have never personally known anyone to eat the wrong mushroom, it can happen.  Study up, take care, and have fun!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I had my first taste of morels for the year last night and am looking forward to getting myself out in the woods to find more! Practically everyone around here is a morel mushroom expert...it is a lifestyle!

Guest's picture
Shannon

By all means, know exactly what you're looking for when hunting morels. Make SURE they are hollow inside, otherwise they are a false morel.

But also very important to the future of morel hunting: take a little pocketknife along to slice the morel off at the base, leaving the root in the ground. That will enable the mushroom to grow back later on.

My expert morel hunting mother-in-law has also mentioned that it's good to haul them home in a basket, or at least a paper bag -- not plastic. That apparently lets the spores or whatever sprinkle about the forest as you make your way back to a kitchen for cleaning/cooking/eating!

Can't WAIT to head for the hills for a little hunting in my neck o' the woods...

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Linsey, you told me that you went to pick mushrooms as a BREAK from blogging.  And here I find you doing a post about it.  Bad.  BAD Linsey!  When you're taking a break, TAKE AN ACTUAL BREAK.  =)

Guest's picture

Might it be smart to farm them? I mean, grab the log they are growing on and bring that home and keep it moist and in the dark?

Linsey Knerl's picture

Ah, Will!  Of course I had to write about my hunting experience this week.  But the chicken, tomato, onion, and morel mushroom pizza I made last night was ALL mine.  :)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Shannon

I forgot the most important thing I wanted to mention -- NEVER EAT THEM RAW!!! Morels are dangerous to consume when raw. Cooking gets rid of the toxins, and then they're quite safe.

Never thought to put them on a pizza, Linsey...that's a great idea.

Guest's picture
Jess

Mostly good information, but there are two big errors in the post:

1. Use your fingernails or a knife to cut the morel stem above the ground. Pulling the portion of the stem below ground is widely thought to damage the mycelium it's attached to. If you're pulling dirt with your morel, you're pulling too much.

2. Never never use a plastic grocery sack while hunting--always use a mesh bag of some sort. I've used onion sacks in the past, though last year I purchased a nice re-washable mesh bag. The mesh allows spores to fall from the head of the morel to re-invigorate the patch and/or create new patches.

It's a blast to hunt morels and even more enjoyable to eat them, but please be responsible and respect 'em!

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm pretty sure that mushrooms grow from spores, not the root. There's no good reason to take the part that's underground, really, because it's not as edible as the part above-ground, but leaving the roots won't help it grow back - it's not a banyan tree. You can yank out the roots without fear of destroying next year's crop.

I've seen lots of mushroom-growing kits, but they never involve morels. I'm pretty sure that morels don't grown on wood like wood ears. Shiitake have become easily cultivated, but very few other mushrooms like to grow on command - I think morels are the uncultivatable kind, because otherwise people would be growing them like crazy.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

I'm not well versed in mushrooms and would never trust myself or my kids to eat the ones we pick, but I am aware of what a delicay they are. In fact, we just went to the local Fiddlehead Festival where they had presentations on what local flora (including fiddleheads) you can eat and they had the New England Culinary Institute come out and make meals with local mushrooms and greens. They are, after all, in our own backyard, so if you know what you're doing, you can't beat them for convenience and economy.

Thanks for the great post.

Linsey Knerl's picture

While I agree that it's always good to practice good stewardship with mushrooms, I wouldn't necessarily agree that collection bag and picking techniques have been proven one way or the other. Many of the "facts" behind mushroom survival is mere speculation, as they is very little known about how exactly they reapper year after year.  A few quotes from the website I use (The Great Morel):

What type of collection bag should I use?
There are many who believe you should use a mesh or onion bag to help in the distribution of the spores back to the forest floor. The Great Morel knows of no pure scientific data to support this.

However, Gregg Kathol (a renowned and legendary shoomer in his neck of the woods) did some research and reports the following: "I did a little research on the subject and came up with some interesting tidbits. I guess the spores can be compared to pollen. It takes hours for the spores to fall to the ground, so with even a slight breeze they can be blown miles away. I also learned that by the time a person picks them they have lost most of their spores anyways. Same thing for the roots being picked. I learned this is a story because the growth of the shroom is a one time process. These are just some things I found out, whether they are backed by 100% scientific data, I do not know. I'll continue to carry them in a mesh bag because I figure even if they get blown away at least they are going to the ground and not in my sink or house.

The Great Morel would find it hard to disclaim such research, so it is left to the shoomer.

 

And as far as the root theory goes, I will agree that it is best to leave it in the ground, but like Andrea said, they reproduce by spores, so picking the entire root on accident probably won't blow the whole future its offspring (very dry or loose dirt can make it almost impossible to remove the cap without the entire root coming out anyway.)

Along the same lines – many of you have had your favorite morel patches, which have just dried up so-to-speak. Those "sweet spots" that are no longer "sweet" anymore and you think they’ve been "picked into extinction". One has to understand that something in the biological and ecological makeup of that patch has changed. Did the spores that spawned that patch get blown there? Has the root system or the ground composition changed? Did something else change? Have they actually been "picked into extinction"? Based on basic research, it is most likely there has been a biological or ecological change, which has caused your morel patch to no longer be bountiful. Simply put – the source of the spore is no longer capable of propagating the great morel.

Thanks for all your comments!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm so jealous. I have never found Morels in 20 years! I find plenty of stuff in the Autumn and last year I moved to Sussex where the chalky soil should produce plenty of Morels. Guess what even with my dear elderly dog I found none. But at least I've been gathering loads of wild garlic as a consolation prize.

Guest's picture
Dog Beds

Wild mushrooms are excellent. Not only do they taste amazing, it's a lot of fun going out and looking for them. Perfect in a risotto!