How to Improve Your Odds When Hunting Morel Mushrooms This Spring
Finding this elusive delicacy is definitely hit-or-miss, but there are a few tricks that can increase your chances of coming home with a few of these tasty treats.
Morel mushroom season is in full swing right now, and if you’re looking for a new activity to keep you busy, it might be time to head out to the woods and start hunting for them yourself. Morels are a delicacy; these delicious mushrooms can easily cost more than $20 per pound when they’re fresh, and over $100 for a pound of dried morels. The main reason they’re so pricey at grocery stores and farmers markets is their rarity. They only appear in the U.S. from late March through May, and they’re very difficult to farm or grow indoors, which is why many people try to forage for them in the woodsy areas where they grow. They grow all across the country, but they're harder to find in the southwest and other typically dry regions.
How to Identify Morel Mushrooms
Whenever you’re foraging, identification is key (you don’t want to end up bringing home a basket filled with inedible or possibly toxic mushrooms by accident). Luckily, morel mushrooms have a distinct look that’s pretty easy to spot. Look for mushrooms with a cone shape cap with lots of crevices like a sponge. When you slice them open, all true morels are hollow inside.
Watch out for false morel mushrooms, which can sometimes be toxic. They look a bit like real morels from a distance, but when you get closer, it should be clear that they’re not. Most false morels will have wrinkly, almost shriveled-looking caps instead of pits. Sometimes, color gives them away too; real morel mushrooms are light brown, and some false morels are reddish in color. If you’re ever in doubt, leave the mushrooms where they are and keep looking!
Where to Find Morel Mushrooms
Your best bet for morel mushroom hunting is to head out to a forest. Usually, the mushrooms grow on the edges of wooded areas, especially around oak, elm, ash, and aspen trees. Look for dead or dying trees while you’re on the hunt too, because morel mushrooms tend to grow right around the base.
Timing is also important when you’re looking for morels, so keep an eye on the weather. They love moist, slightly cool conditions, and tend to pop up if there’s been several spring rainstorms. Temperature also plays a part; usually, morels will thrive when the temperature at night doesn’t dip below 50°F, so a string of cool but not cold nights paired with rain is your cue to go mushroom hunting.
Keep in mind too that the mushrooms will get larger as the season goes on. You might not have much luck searching in late March or early April because most morels are tiny at that point, usually the size of your thumb or smaller. But in later spring, morels can get much bigger (sometimes as large as a soda can), reaching 4 or 5 inches tall. This makes them a lot easier to spot, so new mushroom hunters might want to wait until later in the season.
Another good place to check for mushrooms is in any area that’s been recently disturbed. It could have been a forest fire in the past year or two, or even just a lightly-used trail in the woods, but morels tend to sprout up in these areas. Following a small stream or creek could also lead you to morels; they don't like soggy soil, but the moisture splashed from a nearby stream could create the perfect mushroom patch.
If you hit the jackpot and stumble across a morel mushroom or two, stop where you are! Your best bet to find more mushrooms is to search the immediate area, within about 20 feet of the patch you already found. Usually, you’ll find at least a few more morels nearby. If you find some, the easiest way to harvest them is to cut them at the base with scissors or a knife, but you can also snap or pinch them off at the base with your fingers.
For the most part, hunting for morels is all about luck, especially for beginners. But if you’re not sure where to start, sometimes more experienced hunters will share spots that they’ve found morels. The Great Morel, a website dedicated to tracking down these elusive mushrooms, has a morel mushroom map where foragers can submit locations where they’ve found them, including the date they were there. This year’s map has already tracked hundreds of sightings, so you could use it to pinpoint a hotspot in your area.
A lot of the fun in morel mushroom hunting comes from the search itself, but if you manage to find some, cooking them can be an even greater treat. Try using morels to top a pizza, or sauté them with a little butter to serve as a side dish. Enjoy the hunt, and have fun taste-testing any morels you’re lucky enough to find!