A Gourmet Dinner from the Woods
By Jerry Iles, OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Fairfield County
Spring is here and with it comes my favorite spring outdoor activity. I love to get outdoors and hike in the woods. While I’m at it I hike to spots where I’ve previously found that spring delicacy…morel mushrooms. (Morchella)
Hiking to the right spot at the right time may reward you with tasty Morel mushrooms. Morels have a texture and taste like no other mushroom. I would describe the texture as somewhat meaty and the taste kind of earthy and nutty and of course the way I cook them, buttery.
In the “early season” which varies from year to year depending on temperatures, rainfall etc. I usually find the black variety followed by the yellow morels later in the season. Morels are a little particular concerning growing conditions. Temperature is important. Morels like daytime temperatures around 60 – 65 and night- time temps in the 40’s. Soil temperature is also important. Get a soil thermometer to be more precise, morels start popping up at around 45-50 degrees. In the early season I tend to hunt south facing slopes as the soil heats up a little faster. Many of my best spots are just on the south side of a wooded ridgetop. I like to go hunting on a sunny day following a rainy day or two. Sometimes a warm spring rain seems to magically cause them to come up overnight!
Trees can sometimes help you to find a potential morel hotspot. Researchers always quote species such as elm, ash and poplar as varieties where morels seem to prefer to grow. I wish I had a penny for every time someone to told me to look for a dead elm tree. This tip may serve as a good starting point but I’ve found morels in fields and pastures, along gravel driveways and near about every variety of tree. Don’t rule any location as out of play. They can be tough to find. The first time I found some I was with an experienced morel hunter and he found some but did not pick them. He called me over and allowed me to find them. Even after he did that it took maybe 15-20 seconds before I spotted my first of 13 mushrooms that day. He explained you need to train your eyes and I think he was right! I continued to visit that spot we found that day year after year and it was always productive until the area was used as a logging road. The mushrooms disappeared after the equipment compaction. Morels do sometimes like disturbed ground say by flooding as well as fires.
When you actually harvest the mushroom don’t just pull it up but use a sharp knife to cut the mushroom stem. If you don’t have a knife simply pinch the mushroom at the base of the stem with your fingernails and again don’t pull the whole works out of the ground. My mentor encouraged me to always give the mushroom cap a flick with my finger to scatter the mushroom spore for next years crop before harvesting the shroom.
Be safe. I’m talking about confirming with an identification key or experienced mushroom hunter that what you collected actually is a morel mushroom. There is something called a false morel though I’ve personally never run across them, friends have. Take a phone so you can photograph your mushrooms and send them to an experienced collector for confirmation.
Simplicity is the word to go by in preparation and cooking morels. I wash the mushrooms in a colander under cold running water several times until I get the soil and bugs out of them. I use a cast iron frying pan and simply cook them in butter until well done. A delicious reward for a hike that does you good even if you come back empty handed. Good Luck!
Photo by Patti Hann Lee – morels found late March 2020