Morels are one of the most sought after mushrooms in the woods. Found all over most of the United States, as well as other parts of the world, they are a delicacy as well as a source of income for those who sell them. They are expensive and a few pounds can bring a decent bit of money. But most morel hunters will throw them in the skillet or fryer as soon as they get home.
Here's a guide to show you:
-how to identify them, be sure it's the real thing
-how to spot them better, since they are camouflaged.
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Step 1: How to Positively Identify
First, this is a guide and not a scientific definition guaranteed to find you the correct mushrooms. Be cautious about what you eat and remember the phrase "when in doubt, throw it out".
Now don't get too scared, because the morel is one of the most early identifiable wild mushrooms.
Characteristics of the morel are:
-Pitted, "sponge" type appearance
-Hollow interior and stem (the stem will go up through the cap as well)
The hollow stem is the main way to be sure it's a morel. There exists a "false morel" that has been reported to be poisonous to some people, but it's fairly easy to distinguish from the morel.
False morel characteristics:
-more of a brain-like cap rather than sponge
-stem is not hollow, usually somewhat "cottony" in appearance
Once you have found a morel with a hollow stem, you can be sure it's the real thing (again, this is a guide, and don't eat anything you aren't completely sure of).
There are several species of morels, but the main groups are:
-Yellows (the largest, often light brown or yellow-brown)
-Grays (usually immature yellows, have dark gray pits and light ridges)
-Blacks (all brown when young, brown with black ridges when mature, these are known for more flavor and the earliest ones to pop up
-Half-free (lower half of cap is detached from stem, often the stem is much larger, these are known as "dog pecker" or "pecker heads" due to appearance)
Step 2: How to Spot
Morels are incredibly camouflaged. Some of the bigger yellows will stand out more, as will tall specimens among matted down leaves. However, most morels are almost the same colors as the leaves they are growing among, and some might not even penetrate above the leaf litter.
How to spot...
Remember this: your eyes focus on a small area in the center of your vision, about 5 degrees. The rest of your visual field around this is peripheral. While you can still see colors and movement just fine, you won't be able to see the detail to distinguish a mushroom from the surrounding leaves.
Only the very center of where your eyes focus will be in clear detail. This means that scanning the forest floor won't yield many mushrooms. You have to look directly at the mushroom to see it. Sometimes, a particular mushroom will catch the corner of your eye, but you can't go into the woods expecting to find them like this. You must scan as thoroughly as you can, hoping your vision will cross a mushroom.
When searching new territory, you will want to find a balance between lazily scanning the woods and thoroughly scrutinizing the ground. You don't want to miss a patch, but you also don't want to spend too much time in one area when trying to find a new patch.
When you find one mushroom, keep looking in the immediate area in all directions. Often, morels will grow in patches. Sometimes you may only find one or two, but you may also find three or four, or 20, or 250. You never know until you look.
Step 3: Where and When to Look
First I will tell you some good areas to look. In much of the Midwest, morel hunters like to find dead or dying elms. Several trees can be linked to morel patches, but nothing is absolute.
Here in the southeast, I like to search wooded hillsides and ridges that have plenty of tulip poplar, white ash, maple and sometimes hickory trees. I have found some of my best morel patches in large groves of tulip tree. White ash is also a common morel tree but I have found mushrooms in a wide variety of woods.
Hillsides are a great place to look regardless of tree species. Morels will also grow in bottoms, ridges, valleys and sometimes meadows and orchards, but a hillside is a good place to start.
There is no telling where the mushrooms may grow, but the above mentioned trees are a good indicator of woods that may be ideal for morels.
When to look:
Morels only grow for a few weeks in the spring. Some years are better than others. Ideally, the soil temps should be in the 50s.
A general rule is that when day temps are starting to hit 70 regularly and not going much below 40 at night, it's a good time to look. Also, you can add the daytime high and nighttime low together, and if it is at least 100 for a few days in a row, you should be in the woods.
Another good indicator is may apples - if you know what these look like (google them, they grow in patches) you should start looking for morels when the may apples have come up and their leaves are opening up like umbrellas.
Once the day temps are consistently in the 80s, it's usually getting too hot for morels and remaining mushrooms will dry up.
Be sure to visit patches repeatedly until they stop producing. A good patch will keep sprouting mushrooms for at least a week or two.
DONT FORGET: when picking morels, it helps them reproduce if you carry mushrooms in a mesh bag. This allows millions of spores to release back to the woods while you are walking around.
Step 4: How to Cook Morels
Morels are arguably some of the best mushrooms to eat. They can be used in almost any dish that calls for mushrooms, or you can eat them by themselves.
Common methods of eating morels are:
-breading and deep frying
-roll in flour and sautée
-sautée in butter with salt and pepper
The latter is probably my favorite way to eat them plain, but they are also very good fried in flour, cornmeal or batter. Season to taste with whatever seasoning you like.
Cut larger mushrooms in half lengthwise so they cook better.
Some people soak morels in saltwater to draw out bugs. I don't usually do this, any any really dirty mushrooms can be discarded.
Step 5: Preserving Morels
Probably the best way to preserve is to string them up on a thread and let them hang out to air dry for several days. Make sure the mushrooms are completely stiff and dry before storing in an airtight container. Boil dried mushrooms for a minute or two to reconstitute.
I hope this instructable has helped you and good luck in the woods next spring!
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