We’re smack in the middle of spring, the perfect time to grab a mesh bag and a walking stick and go hunting — mushroom hunting, that is.
As elusive as a prize buck, the mighty morel beckons; the moment you spot a group of them is a moment worth savoring. However, if you prefer to leave the picking to others, morels are often available in grocery stores and at farmers’ markets.
As with any sort of hunting, a certain element of danger is present in the pursuit of mushrooms; a falsely identified and eaten specimen can bring with it dire consequences. Luckily, morels are one of the most easily identifiable wild mushrooms.
Peak morel season runs mid-April to mid-June, a few short weeks when mycological enthusiasts in nearly every state search their secret spots in hopes of finding the honeycomb-capped beauties.
Morels are prized for their delicate, earthy flavor and their versatility when it comes to food pairings. You can substitute a morel for any other mushroom in your existing recipes, but they are positively irresistible when they are quickly sautéed in butter and given just a sprinkle of salt.
Morels can grow in size anywhere from two to 12 inches, and can range in cap color from gray and white to yellow and black. There are a few tips on where to find patches, one being to “follow the burn.” That is, morels can often be found in burned areas, usually two to three years after a fire. They also like moist areas and rotting trees, especially elm, sycamore, and ash, but sometimes they can even be found near pines. Also, areas that have recently (within one or two years) been spread with fresh wood chips are a good place to look.
Once you find a patch, you can either slice off the mushroom at the base with a knife, or pinch and twist it to pick it. Leaving the root system intact helps to ensure the patch will grow back the following season. Lightly brush off any debris from the mushroom and place it in your sack. The ideal mushroom bag is made of mesh. Onion bags work great, allowing air to circulate.
Don’t pick any morels that appear rotten or ones whose caps have turned completely black and shriveled. Watch out for “false morels,” too. The easiest way to test whether a morel is a true morel is to slice it in half; true morels are hollow on the inside.
Morels are never cultivated; regardless of where you buy them, usually they were grown in the woods. In addition to dirt and debris, there might be a few insects and worms hiding in the cap or inside the stalk. Just prior to cooking them, briefly rinse the mushrooms to remove dirt and any bugs. Slice per your recipe, or leave whole for stuffing or sautéing. Never eat them raw.
Unlike hedgehog mushrooms or chanterelles, morels don’t harbor a lot of moisture, so it’s unnecessary to dry-sauté them prior to adding them into anything. Large morels can be stuffed with a mixture of Parmesan, goat cheese, and herbs before being breaded and fried. Smaller morels can be kept whole and folded into creamy risottos or used as toppings for delicate white pizzas with spinach and dried tomatoes.
If you find yourself with an abundant harvest of morels, you should know that they dry easily and quickly and can keep for up to three years. Thread a needle with a length of thread and a button sewed on the bottom as a stopper. Thread the morels. Hang the string of mushrooms in a warm, dry place until they are fully dried. Place in a paper bag or glass bottle to store.
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