Searching for the elusive morel mushrooms

Photos by Bill Sterrett

By Sandra Serra Bradshaw

Sun contributor

It is the rebirth of spring where life comes back to the woods and gives us hope and the great morel. —thegreatmorel.com

It’s that time of year again—when hordes of hunters head for the woods and fields of northern Michigan in search of a much sought after delicacy—the illusive morels. May is morel month in Michigan and these wild mushrooms are the rare prize of this annual spring hunt. Not exclusive to northern Michigan, morels can actually be found in every county in the state. But not just in Michigan, nor only the Mid-West. Morels have even been found in temperate zones throughout the world—from as far north as Russia and as far south as Australia.

You thought northern Michigan had the sole claim on it? Not so! Strangely, morels picked in Pakistan and France are exported to Michigan and other U.S. cities, even though they are well-known and hunted here. And the state of Minnesota recognizes the morel as its “official state fungi.”

The morel is considered one of the safest mushrooms for eating. Easy to identify, they are actually a large, fleshy fungi belonging to the genus Morchella, Latin for “mushroom.” At least 60, and some sources say up to 100 species, have been identified. The five most common are: the Agusticeps Morchella angusticeps; the black—and earliest—morel; the Esculenta Morchella esculenta, called the “yellow morel” or “common morel”; Crassipies, Morchella crassipes, also known as “gigantic morels” due to their size; and finally, the all-time favorite of many, the Deliciosa, Morchella deliciosa, the “white morel” and the last to appear during the season.

Since the 1970s, scientists have considered the fungi distinct enough from plant life to be placed in its own kingdom, the Mycota. In fact, DNA-based research reveals that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants! Fungi produce spores rather than seeds for reproduction, (which is why any shroomer worth their morel should collect them in a net bag, so as to allow the spores to spatter along the ground, and NEVER use plastic bags to carry them as it speeds their decay).

Though morels can be found just about anywhere, the most popular place for these elusive mushrooms is in forests and areas of scattered trees. A good indicator—if you see trilliums, chances are there are morels lurking nearby. Often, old orchards, especially peach, apple and pear that are not being sprayed with fungicides, may have a reliable crops of morels. Burned areas frequently produce them as well. “Although they can be found in many places, they most often can be found in the forest. They seem to like to grow in maple, basswood, beech and aspen woods,” explained Suttons Bay resident Bill Sterrett. He is a life-long morel hunter, and recently retired as DNR Forest Manager.

“They seemed to have a special affinity to grow where the white ash trees grew, both the early black morels and the (later) white morels,” Sterrett said. “But now with their demise—due to the ash borer—makes them harder to find. There are a lot of young white ash coming back, but it remains to be seen if they will survive to maturity … A case in point, the elm trees that disappeared have come back, but [are] still in jeopardy. Whether the ash borer will come back to harm the ash trees again out again remains a mystery. Time will tell.”

When should one start to look for morels? Typically, early April starts the season. Many veteran morel hunters look for specific signs including: “The oak leaves the size of a squirrels ear,” the blooming of wild plums,” “when asparagus begins to pop up in the garden.” Other persons may time it when the wildflowers bloom, such as the lovely white trilliums, or even earlier, the tiny hepatica nobilis, a small evergreen found growing in rich woodlands, and the white violets. They are one of the few edible mushrooms to be found in the spring. But other types of edible mushroom are found in summer up until the snow starts to fall. Michigan has more than 2,000 varieties of mushrooms.

A wet—and warm—spring is of utmost importance for a prolific morel season. As soon as the soil warms up, it’s time to start looking. With the wet spring northern Michigan has had so far this year, it seems a good sign that this will be a great year for the morel hunters. The morel season begins in the southern parts of the state and progresses 100 miles or so per week northward as the weather warms, generally speaking. First check on south-facing slopes, then those facing west, then east-facing and then finally at the end of spring, north-facing slopes.

The black and gray mushrooms are the first to found, and then as things warm up, the white morels (my favorite!). They generally start to peak when the lilacs are beginning to bloom, and the black morels and white morels tend to overlap for about a week where you may often find both kinds. Peak morel hunting seasons lasts for approximately five weeks.

If you are new to hunting, be aware of the beefsteak morel: Gyromitra esculenta, the false morel. They are sometimes found growing right next to the true morals. Never eat them. A true morel will be completely hollow from the tip of its cap to the bottom of its stem. Slice your find lengthwise to check. “If you break open the stem the false morel has marshmallow, kind of cotton-like inside its stem. But more importantly, if you pull off the cap of a false morel, it is attached to the top. The true morel is attached throughout the cap,” explained Sterrett.

It is strongly advised, if you are new at morel hunting, to take along an experienced guide. Become familiar with the false morels. The DNR has provided a helpful guide with more information on morel hunting at michigan.gov/dnr/things-to-do/morels/morel-identification. There are many good books to read on them as well, but be sure to read information pertaining to the area you live in. Another bit of wise advice: no matter how many mushrooms you have eaten in your life, save a small piece of the mushroom, just in the rare instance that you have a reaction. This will be an invaluable aid for a doctor to determine the course of treatment.

Gracie Dickinson Johnson, a photographer who owns Dickinson Art Gallery, has been a life-long morel hunter as well. “Years ago, my sister and I would go hunting in the woods—in the forest between Empire and Glen Arbor,” she explained. “Mostly on the 40 acres my family owned on the south side of the backwoods of Little Glen Lake. It is now owned by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore,” Dickinson said. “Back then, we could find them so easily, not so anymore,” she lamented. “The many trees that are now downed block the paths in the woods making it difficult both to walk along them and even find the morels. But we still find them. We know some specific areas to find them every season, oftentimes under ash trees.”

Morel Cooking Ideas

First of all, never eat wild mushrooms raw! The simplest preparation for morels is to melt a generous amount of butter or oil in a frying pan, put in enough thoroughly cleaned and dried morel halves to cover the bottom of the pan, and salt lightly. Sauté about five minutes on each side, and serve immediately. Or try a few of these recipes, or the many others to be found in books and online

Simple Old Stand-By Recipe

-Author Unknown

Thoroughly clean the morels—this may take some patience, (some may contain a lot of sand and grit depending on where they were picked). Gently pat dry. Dip in an egg that has been beaten with a touch of milk or cream. Then lightly dredge it in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and other seasonings if you wish. Heat a heavy skillet. Melt several tablespoons of butter (they soak it up quite readily), and cook about five to seven minutes or until the morels are lightly browned and tender. Enjoy!

Heavenly Morel Mushroom Bisque

-Adopted from Allrecipes.com

½ cup unsalted butter

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 large onion, diced

8 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, sliced

1 tablespoon chicken bouillon granules

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 cups water

2 cups heavy cream

⅛ teaspoon ground dried thyme

1 tablespoon Cream Sherry or to taste – optional

salt to taste

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in onion and morels; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions have softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes, add garlic, sauté one more minute. Stir in chicken bouillon and flour; cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in water and cream; bring to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes. Puree half of the soup in small batches, filling the blender no more than halfway full each time. Return soup puree to pot. Cook on low 10 to 15 minutes. Season with thyme and salt and pepper before serving.

Sautéed Morel Mushrooms

-Allrecipes.com

½ pound morel mushrooms

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon lemon zest

Brush mushrooms clean. Trim ends and cut mushrooms in half lengthwise. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; stir gently with a spatula to evenly coat mushrooms with the oil. Cook, stirring often, until mushrooms begin to brown and soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add shallots and thyme, then turn heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until shallots soften and just begin to brown, about 4 minutes. Add butter, parsley, and lemon juice; stir to melt butter and blend ingredients. Remove from heat and sprinkle with lemon zest and additional black pepper if desired. Serve hot.