Morel mushrooms are a mysterious and highly sought-after spring delicacy. Because they are extremely hard to farm, they must be foraged from where they naturally grow. Where and why they grow is the subject of much debate and lore. Temperature, moisture and types of trees in the area are important factors, and variables like distrubed ground, burned areas and clearcuts all can be key, too. It can be mystifying why some years an area will produce well and others produce none. People who frequently hunt for morels usually have a preferred set of conditions that they consider ideal. But finding them comes down to a combination of research, patience, training your eyes and luck. Two things are for sure when it comes to morels. Spring is the time to hunt and no one is going to share the location of their secret, best spot(s) so be prepared to do some footwork.
The shape of morels can range from round and bulbous to pointed and oblong. Their color can be black, gray or yellow. They have a recognizable honeycomb like texture on the exterior and a hollow inside. But beware, like many types of mushrooms, there are lookalikes and these false morels can be very poisonous. If you are new to foraging for mushrooms, be sure to do some research and, if possible, go with an experienced guide.
Morels are prized not only for their rarity but also for their earthy, nutty flavor and pleasant meaty texture. People who do not normally enjoy mushrooms often find morels to be quite enjoyable. Morel mushrooms are best when cooked fresh. However, if you happen to be lucky enough to have an abundance of them, they can be dried and last for several months in an airtight container or freezer. Morels are often prepared simply by frying in butter but are also amazing stuffed, in soups, pastas and in sauces for meats. They are often prepared with other spring favorites like ramps, asparagus and trout. If you do not have luck finding them yourself, you can intermittently find them at farm markets. Also, area restaurants occasionally feature them in their spring menus.
Recently, I had the pleasure of asking Olivia McCrevan about her experience hunting for these elusive and delectable mushrooms. Olivia is frequently one of the first people in Southwest Michigan I see posting photos of her finds —at times weeks before I find my first one.
How did you get interested in morel mushrooms?
My interest in morel mushroom hunting stemmed from family tradition. My grandfather and his buddies bought a cabin, and every single Mother's Day Weekend starting from when my mom was a kid, our family would go hunt for morels. My little brother Isaiah was literally 5 days old when he went on his first mushrooming adventure, and is now 26, never having missed a year. So, the excitement of morels has always been relevant in my family and something that brings us all great joy!
What is it you like about foraging for morels?
I love the chance to get out in the woods, hear the birds and smell the flowers. Mushroom hunting is truly thrilling and fun! And of course they taste delicious.
When is the right time to start looking?
Springtime of course! I start looking from March all the way to May. After it rains a bit and the ground starts warming up (I believe temps have to be around 50°) is the best time!
How do you select a spot?
I look for promising conditions. I've never had much luck at beachy places with lots of sand. I usually have luck in big old forests with lots of animal life and other kinds of fungi.
What should you bring with you?
You should bring a mushroom bag (an old orange or lemon bag), water or whatever you fancy, a snack and bug/tick spray. A GPS or compass is nice if you're bad with directions like me. Don't want to get lost in the woods.
What is your strategy for finding them?
As weird as some of these are, I use these as a good sign of a mushroom spot: animal poop, other kinds of fungi, old forests, dead trees, trillium flowers, ramps, and other spring foliage.
How should you harvest them?
I always try to let them grow as big as they can before I pick them. I either pinch them off at the root (I leave the root and part of the stem in the ground) or I use a pocket knife and cut them at the same point.
Is there any particular etiquette people should be aware of for morel mushroom hunting?
Never steal your friend or family member’s secret spot! Go when they go or find your own spot. Also always be light on your feet. If you aren't careful, you could knock over or squish other mushrooms. Never leave a trace! Pick up after yourself if you bring things with you.
Do you have any tips for beginners?
Everyone has to start somewhere. Sometimes it takes minutes to find a mushroom, sometimes it takes hours. Never give up! I've searched for days and been unlucky, but still had fun because there are loads of other things to discover in the woods —wildlife, animal bones, flowers, etc.
Do you forage for any other mushrooms or vegetables?
Yes! I look for other Michigan edible mushrooms like oysters, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods and chanterelles. I also forage wild asparagus and ramps.
What is your favorite way to cook morels?
My favorite way to cook morels is the way my family traditionally does it. Put some unsalted butter and oil in a pan over medium heat, coat the morels in flour, salt and pepper, and fry 'em up! I prefer them a little crispy, but my mom likes them a bit softer. You can add more salt to taste after they are done. SO GOOD! I am all for people being adventurous with morels though. My sister has made stuffed morels before and I've seen people put them on pizza and all sorts of yummy things.