Mushroom hunting: Morels!!!

After a bit of research, our first morel outing was crowned with success. We looked like chimney sweeps from hiking in a sooty burn area, and my husband was giddy with delight for days.

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Of all the mushrooms, the morel is deservedly famous as a delicious and easy to identify mushroom. Even many people who don’t ordinarily care for fungi make an exception for this one. The smell of the morel is delicately earthy and its flavor is subtle and hard to describe. It tastes wonderful breaded and fried or folded into an egg dish. It also makes for a tasty cream sauce on venison or in soups. The texture of the morel is meaty and substantial, making it a great meat substitute. You can sometimes find morels in supermarkets, usually in a dried state. This is a great way to experience their flavor (just make sure to rehydrate them for about 15-20 minutes before cooking), though they do tend to be pricey. No one has figured out how to grow morels commercially yet, so the only cost-effective way to get them is to pick them yourself.

I won’t reveal our secret foraging location 🙂 but I’ll give you some pointers on the basics.

Where to find morels?

Various kinds of morels occur all over the world and depending on species they are associated with different tree species. The black morels of the Western United States tend to like coniferous forests and show a particular affinity for burned areas. Finally a reason to appreciate forest fires! Fir and pine forests that burned at medium intensity the previous year yield the most mushrooms the following spring. They may also produce a moderate crop the second or third year. Prime harvesting time is May through June, depending on elevation.

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Identification

Morels have a distinctive honeycomb pattern that folds inward and a firm rubbery texture. They range in color from yellowish brown to black and are always hollow in both stem and cap. Morels do have a potentially poisonous look-alike called the false morel. The false morel’s folds fold outward in a brain-like pattern and it tends to have a more reddish brown color. False morels are also not truly hollow, so the best way to be sure of your identification is to cut the mushroom in half length-wise.

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Notice the hollow interior of the true morel

How to harvest them

Cut the mushroom with a sharp knife above the soil line. Brush the mushroom off with a fine brush if necessary. The less dirt collected with the mushroom the better. The best container to use for collection is something breathable like a paper bag. Make sure not layer too many mushrooms on top of each other so the ones on the bottom don’t get crushed.

How to process and preserve them

Morels generally accumulate some dirt, and a few bugs and pine needles. They can be stored fresh and uncleaned in an air conditioned house or in the fridge for up to two days without serious spoilage (if for some reason your house is a toasty 80 degrees, better process them within 24 hours). A lot of people seem to soak the mushrooms in salt water for cleaning. Personally I like to reduce soaking time as much as possible to prevent flavor loss and don’t use any salt. I swished the morels in cold water a few times and cut off any problem areas, leaving only the especially soil encrusted mushrooms to soak for a few minutes. This was very effective in getting the dirt off. We ended up cutting the clean morels in half and dehydrating them in the dehydrator. This reduces their weight to about 10% of the fresh morels and is very space effective. Morels can also be frozen fresh or lightly sauteed. To prevent them sticking together, place on a cookie sheet in a single layer and freeze, then transfer to a freezer bag or container. With either method flavor loss is minimal and morels can be stored for many months.

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