Hunting for morels, the state mushroom of Minnesota, is a great way to begin your foraging journey. This year, I have made it a goal to go out and look for these elusive mushrooms that blend so well into the leaves around them. If you’re like me and just getting started, here are a few of the discoveries and resources that have helped me the most.
Before you begin your hunt for morels, be sure to check out the rules and regulations of the lands you are hiking. For example, state parks and forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin allow you to harvest edible fruits and mushrooms as long as they are only for personal consumption. However, federal, county, and municipal properties have their own restrictions. No matter where you are, be sure to respect the land you are foraging on and avoid taking more than you can consume.
Where and where should I look?
The easiest strategy is to go by months. Morels start popping up in April and slowly disappear in June. This can vary depending on where you are in the watershed. I’ve also heard sayings about when to look, including starting to look for them when the oak leaves get as big as squirrel ears, or when the lilacs start blooming.
While morels are found on the ground, don’t forget to look up for clues. Morels, especially yellow morels (Morchella esculenta), are found in hardwood forests. Look for south-facing slopes near decaying elm, ash, poplar, and apple trees. Black morels (Morchella elata) tend to be found in coniferous forests and under birch trees. They also can be found after a disturbance such as a forest fire or timber harvesting.
Look for decaying trees or trees with bark that is falling off, and brush up on your tree ID to help you find the best spots. Take some time once you find an area like this. Morels could be hiding in plain sight. Don’t let that deter you! Look under the leaf litter, crouch on the ground, or sit and enjoy the spring air while you wait for a morel to catch your eye. Just being present in the woods can reveal other wonders.
Once you do find morels, be sure to cut them just above the base. Don’t pull or yank on the mushroom. You can help their spores escape and promote more growth for next year by using an onion bag (or any bag with small holes) while collecting the mushrooms. If you aren’t sure of your mushroom identification, always use caution and let it be.
How do I know it's a morel?
Once you know what morels look like, they can be fairly easy to distinguish. This makes it a good beginning mushroom to forage. They have a very distinct spongey look. They can grow up to 6” or taller, and when sliced in half, they are hollow on the inside. There is also no separation between the cap and stem portions. True/yellow morels vary slightly in color and can be yellow to yellowish brown, and there is an edible black species. But there are a handful of lookalikes that you should be aware of:
False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta)—This mushroom is inedible and darker orange with folds rather than pores. This mushroom is also meaty and not hollow if sliced.
Wrinkled thimble-cap (Verpa bohemica)—While this inedible mushroom looks very similar to morels, cutting it in half reveals wisps of flesh inside. These are smaller than true morels with a ridged and wrinkled surface, instead of a true morel’s porous surface.
Half-Free Morel (Morchella semilibera)—A small, edible mushroom with a mild flavor, this mushroom has a cap that is fused to the stem only along the upper half—unlike the true morel, where there is no separation between the cap and the stem portion.
If you do not know what you are eating, do not forage it. It is always better to be safe than sorry as the false morel has been known to cause death.
How should I eat morels?
It may be tempting, but do not eat morels raw. Consumption of raw or undercooked morels will lead to stomach issues due to the gastrointestinal irritant hydrazine, but this can be cooked off. Brushing the morel off can help remove bugs, dirt, and sticks. Try not to soak them in water as this will lead to wilting. Morels are versatile and can be added to dishes or sautéed in butter and seasonings and consumed on their own. If you have leftover morels that you are not ready to eat, you can also dehydrate them to eat later on in the year.
Good luck on your hunt for morels, and enjoy the process! To learn more about morels, check out these resources:
Harvesting Morel Mushrooms: https://extension.umn.edu/woodland-ownership/harvesting-morel-mushrooms
Minnesota Harvester Handbook: https://bookstores.umn.edu/product/book/minnesota-harvester-handbook
Searching for Morels: midwestweekends.com/plan_a_trip/nature/wildflowers/morel_mushrooms.html
Classic Fired or Breaded Morels: foragerchef.com/classic-breaded-or-fried-morels/
Find Your Food: dnr.wisconsin.gov/wnrmag/2021/Spring/Forage