May has arrived and so have the morel mushrooms. Here in Ohio, these edible (and delectable) spores are pure treasure to Ohioans.
A highly sought after commodity, the morel mushroom has an extremely large and diverse fan base, made up of hunters, culinary experts, business enthusiasts and the average individual who has sunk their teeth into them.
Every person I’ve ever known who has eaten morels, no matter the cooking method, loves them.
Those who hunt them successfully are serious and secretive in their methods. And despite their short harvest season (late April to June), these mushrooms are currently a multi-billion dollar enterprise, worldwide.
Is that a lot of hype for a six inch spore?
I, daresay not.
Unlike other varieties of mushrooms, morel mushrooms are not added for flavor, they bring the flavor! Their nutty, earthiness is such a savory delight that they can be served alone or as a complementary dish on its own merit.
Now, let’s mention the amazing amount of health benefits packed into these little spores and couple it with the fun and fitness in hunting them in the wild, and now you can understand how morels got their reputation.
I found the most common way of cooking morel mushrooms is pan fried in butter and garlic, with some salt and pepper. But I also read that some serve the mushrooms stewed, braised or cooked in main dishes like rice, poultry, game, and fish.
As for recipes, they are easy to find and there is a great deal of variety in cooking methods and combinations of foods these mushrooms are served with that one could eat morels for a month without getting bored.
Fresh morels perish quickly unless dried or frozen, so after harvesting, be sure to place them inside a paper bag and keep it in the refrigerator. Do not store them inside a plastic container with a cover since they sweat and will become soft, mushy, and decay. Being a field mushroom, morels gather sand and grit in their pits and need cleaning.
Soak them in cold salted water for a few minutes and strain and again rinse in cold normal water for a few seconds to remove the salty taste.
Morels retain their flavor even after dying. Dried morels can be stored for several months, but should be reconstituted by soaking them in lukewarm water for 20 minutes. Soaking swells them up, regaining their original conical shape.
If the delicious savory taste of the morels is not tempting enough, check out the health benefits these spores offer:
● It is an excellent source of protein, potassium, magnesium, copper, selenium, zinc, and B vitamins.
● It contains a high level of vitamin D.
● It contains enough iron per cup (8 mg of iron per cup of morels) to meet daily iron demands
● It is a powerful antioxidant to protect against heart diseases, stress and free radicals.
● It has an unusual carbohydrate molecule that stimulates and strengthens the immune system.
● It has a high level of selenium and niacin which fights cancer.
● It has anti-inflammatory properties
Those who have honed the art of finding these delicious honeycombed spores are tight lipped and do not share tips.
Hunting morels is just as involved as learning any other sport, if you will.
Locating morels in the woods can be a hard task because they blend in easily where they often hide, under thick leaves, dead trees, or in recently burned spots. So patience and good eyes are helpful. And you have to be willing to dig around. I have been told that when looking in forest areas, morels can be found in abundance around the base of elm, ash, aspen, cottonwood, and oak trees.
Morels make an appearance when temps are around 50 to 60 degrees during the day, and linger around the 40 degree mark at night. Blooming lilacs, bluebells and dandelions are great visual tell signs that the morels will be pushing through the debris. And I have been informed that hunting is usually more productive the day after a good spring rain.
In my opinion, a great clue as to when hunting is good, are the noticeably increased number of cars parked along roads near public land and the increased traffic on the wooded walking paths. If you really start looking down and around when walking you will see signs of human scrounging among heavy leaf areas.
In fact on our most recent walk down the Junglebrook Trail at Malabar, I found several upturned dirt piles next to small holes; just big enough to have held the roots of the morel.
Mushroom hunters collect completely grown morels by trimming them at the base of the cap using a paring knife. Some hunters will dig the spores out of the ground completely. Upon reading and talking to hunters, it seems there is a bit of debate or discussion about whether or not hunters should dig up or cut off the morels.
Recommended items to make hunting easier:
● A soil thermometer and check the temperature of the soil where you hunt.
● A basket or a mesh bag to help ensure that spores can fall from the mushrooms you’ve picked and repopulate the forest floor.
● A pocket knife to clean up the stems of mushrooms you pick, cut them to check for worms or to cleanly extract them from the ground.
● A mushroom key so you can easily identify unfamiliar mushrooms while in the field
● A brush to clean the tops and gills, ridges, or pores of your mushrooms after you’ve picked them.
● A topographic map because specific mushroom species like to grow at specific elevations at different times of the year, as temperature and humidity conditions have to be just right for ideal growth.
Common caution should be used when hunting spores and it is a good rule of thumb for first time hunters to accompany an experienced morel picker while foraging because there are false mushrooms that can be harmful if consumed. The false morels look like the actual morels but their caps are round, reddish-brown, and sometimes yellow.
The cap also does NOT connect to the stem, instead it fits over the stem much like a skirt.
If hunting for morels seems like a larger endeavor than you want to participate in, the good news is that you can grow morel mushrooms in a greenhouse. This is better and more affordable than hunting them in the wild, although they are delicate to nurture and can take several years before you see some results.
There are different methods to growing in the greenhouse, however the simplest way to get a spawn is by buying a morel mushroom kit. It will come with all the necessary items to get you underway.
Ideally you want to prepare the morel bed between summer and fall or in a climate where there is a transition of seasons. Shady spots are best, as is sandy soil with some gypsum and peat moss.
The gypsum has calcium sulfate which helps to develop the size of the mushroom caps. I have read you can simulate a post-forest fire environment by adding some ashes from burned logs to your soil which will provide nutrients.
Next you will need to spread your morel spawns into the bed within the top layer and combine some hardwood chips on top of your spawn bed. Then wait. Don’t be sad if nothing appears next spring. Sometimes it may take more than one season of nurturing, but once they sprout, morels can continuously produce for many years.
Another seeding method is creating what is known as a spore slurry or solution of water, salt, sugar, and spores. The spores are suspended in water and used to inoculate an outdoor environment.
While I think growing morels would be marvelous, I think I will simply spend a little time in the great outdoors hunting and if all else fails, well I will call up one of my hunter friends and offer a “finders fee” for a mess of mushrooms.
The Life & Culture section is powered by University Hospitals Samaritan Medical Center.