Spring in the forest is such a beautiful time. Songbirds are returning from their southern vacation. Bears are waking up from hibernation. Trees and shrubs are budding, and some of the first petite flowers of the year have already bloomed. The forest floor also comes to life, with little morsels of spongey treats. Morels – both black and yellow – begin to emerge while the first blades of grass sprout and reach skyward for the warm spring sun.
Morels are probably the most sought after of the wild edible mushrooms. They’re easy to identify, delicious, and plentiful if you look in the right places. They come up in the spring, giving people good reason to get out and enjoy the fresh air after spending the winter months inside keeping warm by the fire. They’re such a prized item that they sell for up to $20 a pound in markets and grocery stores across north America.
First Things First – Mushroom ID
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms – It doesn’t get handier than this. It’s a great resource to have for mushroom identification. With more than 700 mushrooms detailed with color photographs and descriptive text, this is the most comprehensive photographic field guide to the mushrooms of North America. If you intend to forage mushrooms, this is a valuable resource.
Black Morel Mushroom Hunting
Hunting for black morel mushrooms requires a bit of background knowledge in their preferred habitat. For the most part, you’ll want to focus your efforts hiking around Aspen and Oak forests in south east Manitoba, although it’s also worth noting that Morels will pop up where they want and when they want. While hiking around, keep your eyes moving, sweeping from left to right scouring the ground for their unmistakeable conical shape and dark brown to black colour. They tend to stand out quite well when other vegetation has yet to overtake the forest floor. When you find one, don’t pick it right away. Instead, use the one you have found to condition your eyes to what you are looking for. Usually where you find one, more will be found close by.
Yellow Morel Mushroom Hunting
The Yellow Morel mushrooms usually start to appear a couple of weeks after the Black Morels. They prefer a different habitat than the black ones. Look for these mushrooms where the earth has been disturbed in some way. That could mean near logging operations, ditches, near gravel pits, where large trees have toppled over – uprooting themselves, and on the edges of open fields that are used for livestock pasture. Yellow Morels tend to be a little larger than their black cousins. And again, where you find one, you are likely to find more.
Harvesting Morel Mushrooms
Harvesting the mushroom is simple. Using a sharp knife, slice the mushroom at the base of the stem, just above the soil level. It’s important to be careful to not disturb the part of the mushroom that lives under the leaf matter and soil. This is where the bulk of the mushroom actually lives, as a colony under the leaf litter on the forest floor. Use a mesh bag, or a basket with plenty of holes in it to collect and hold the morels. As you walk around hunting for more mushrooms, you’ll end up spreading any spores that may be present in the mushrooms, and possibly creating more colonies of morels for future seasons.
Preparing and Storing Morel Mushrooms
Once you are back in your kitchen, empty out your basket or mesh bag and sort through your bounty. If you find any morels that are showing signs of death or decay, toss them into a reject pile. The unwanted mushrooms can be tossed around your yard to potentially grow into colonies of their own.
Once you have separated the good from the bad, gently wash the dirt and forest debris from each mushroom. At this point they are ready to eat. They can be sliced and fried with a little butter. Just make sure you cook them thoroughly.
You’ll notice when you slice morel mushrooms lengthwise that the entire cap and stem are attached to each other. This is a distinguishing attribute of morels. Some morel look alikes such as the Verpa Bohemica species don’t exhibit this attribute. Their caps are instead attached to the top of the stem, resembling an umbrella.
Drying Morels For Long Term Storage
If you have a lucky outting and end up with far more Morels than you can eat fresh, you’ll probably want to preserve them for later use. Morels lend themselves to drying quite well. The method is simple. Wash them and allow them to air dry on some paper towel or cardboard for a few hours or overnight. Once the mushrooms are dry enough to handle easily, string them onto some sewing thread or fishing line, separated by buttons if you choose. Next, hang the string of mushrooms in a well ventilated area with plenty of airflow.
It shouldn’t take more than a few days for them to dry out and become hard and crispy. Once dry, place the morels in clean canning jars and place a lid on tight. Store the jars full of morel mushrooms in a cool place like your pantry, where there is minimal light.
When it comes time to enjoy your dried morels, simply place them in a container with some warm water to rehydrate them. They’ll swell up to nearly the same size they were before you dried them. Cook as you prefer and enjoy!
*Disclaimer – If you intend to forage for your own wild mushrooms, be sure you know exactly what you are harvesting and consuming. Many wild, edible mushrooms have deadly look alikes. When in doubt, throw them out.