Wild mushroom season starts as early as March, depending on the weather, and ends as late as October or November in some places, again depending on the weather. Anyone who likes store-bought button mushrooms would probably love wild morels. They make for an enjoyable outing and best of all, in most places, they are free.
Safety needs to be stressed at the outset. Some mushrooms like the morel are very difficult to mistake for any other mushroom. Other mushrooms, such as the Chanterelle, have several look-a-likes and not all of them are good or safe to eat. It is advisable for even veteran mushroom pickers to have handy a field guide to mushrooms that includes color plates. For the beginner, it is a good idea to go mushroom picking with someone who is experienced. Never eat a mushroom if you don’t know exactly what kind it is and that it is safe to eat.
Morels grow, sometimes in great profusion, in most of the conifer forests of Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest. They are common in many areas of the US and Canada, including in deciduous forests. In Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Northern California, they can be found in such numbers in the fir and pine forests that it isn’t uncommon to fill a five gallon bucket with morels in two hours or less. This is the reason that the Pacific Northwest is known as the morel capital of the world.
Morels will nearly always be found in areas where the ground has been disturbed during the previous year or two. This makes old wildfire areas prime morel areas, but don’t overlook deer trails, logging roads or other similar places where ground has been disturbed.
Morels will generally only grow where there is surface moisture, whether from melted snow, rain, dew or other sources. They don’t do well in very dry areas nor in boggy areas. They prefer shady areas that do get some sunshine, so it is common to find them growing next to trees that have fallen, or under trees. Many people have the greatest luck in finding them in mixed fir and pine forests, where firs dominate, and they tend to be more often found near fir trees or fir dead fall. This makes it valuable to periodically bend or stoop when looking for morels. Looking at different angles can sometimes let you see morels that you might otherwise miss entirely.
They can also be found in deciduous forests, but seldom in nearly as great a profusion since they are acid loving fungi. Many people have firmly believed that morels love broad-leafed plants, but have been totally amazed at the number of mushrooms they’ve found in pine and fir forests.
Mushrooms like the morel start from a spore. This puts out very fine roots, called mycelium, each strand likely to be smaller than a human hair. These grow and inter-mesh, often very close to the surface of the ground, as they take in nutrients from decaying vegetation. This is important to know for a couple reasons. First, the root system can be several feet across and second, it may put up more than one fruiting body. If you find a morel, scour the area nearby. There could very well be other morels growing there.
Mushroom size and appearance
Like button mushrooms, the morel grows in various sizes. Most are fairly small, but some people have found white morel that had almost ten-inch caps. It is the cap that is the good part, and it is easy to pinch or snap the morels off just below the cap, when collecting them. The cap itself is conical in shape, with many many holes, unlike most other mushrooms. Naturally, the smaller ones are a little harder to see, and making it even more difficult, they will often look like pine and fir cones at first glance. Still, they are occasionally found in staggering numbers.
Be sure to store the morels in water or an ice chest as soon as feasible, as they are usually moderately delicate. You don’t want to lose any flavor or to have them going bad. They last well, but older morels do often lose flavor.
Morels can be preserved in a number of ways. They can be air dried. They will readily rehydrate by soaking them in water. They can be canned. And they can be frozen. Many people prefer the latter, since they are similar to fresh mushrooms when they are thawed out for use. To freeze them though, you should blanch them first. This keeps the flavor fresh. You can blanch them by frying them in hot grease or butter for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly, or by cooking them about the same length of time in boiling water. Let them cool for a few minutes, but then freeze them immediately to preserve the flavor.
For smaller morels, cut the cap width-wise in about 1/2 inch slices, before preparing them for freezing. The larger morels are superb for stuffing with such things as meat, cheese, a combination of both or whatever else you might want, since the caps are hollow. For these, blanch them whole. Also, it is helpful to know that when cooking, morels don’t shrink like button mushrooms will, so a smaller amount will go farther.
Morels are one of the easiest to identify of the mushrooms, so it is hoped that more people will keep their eyes open for them. This mushroom tends to come up in the early spring, after the ground has warmed and doesn’t cool appreciably at night. They are fun to find, and even more pleasurable to eat.