'M' is for Morel Mushrooms in the Mountains in May
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
For a while now, I've been twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the Cascades mountains to begin their thaw around the lower elevations. When the month of May came around, suddenly I was swept away on an almost daily hunt for morel mushrooms in the foothills of Central Oregon.
After you've foraged for morels once, it can become a little addicting (or it might drive you completely mad) to search for them because they're just so elusive--and of course, they have a unique flavor and texture that is prized in the culinary world--so it's especially rewarding to find them! Even those who say they don't like the taste or texture of mushrooms might feel differently about morels. There is a lot to know about picking and prepping them though, so I'm here to share everything I know--well, everything except for where my secret mushroom picking spots are--along with a few "tried and true" recipes at the end!
The first key to hunting for morel mushrooms is to understand where, how and why they grow. The fungus is believed to have a symbiotic relationship with trees. When an event like wildfire or logging takes place, and there is a lot of tree death and devastation in a forest, the morel fungus often begins fruiting above ground a few years later in order to spread/relocate. This is why the fungi's fruiting bodies (a.k.a. mushrooms) are most consistently found around old wildfire locations.
It seems like the best time to look in Central Oregon is around mid-May, when temps start reaching the 60s(Fahrenheit) in the mountains during the daytime and not dropping much below freezing at night, and when most deciduous trees are finally forming visible leaf buds. Like most mushrooms, morels grow best after substantial rainfall (which can actually be hard to come by east of the Cascade mountain range, so there is definitely some proper timing involved between the temps and the rainfall).
In lower elevations and the more coastal climates, morels may start showing up as early as March.
Morels can vary in color from a light tan/cream color to a darker gray or brown. They are great at hiding on the ground, and may be completely out of sight underneath dead leaves, or blended in with patches of grass. I have even overlooked them as old piles of dog poop, although they taste far superior to dog poop, ha ha!
There are only two dangerous "look-alike" mushrooms to be aware of (which I've personally never mistaken for real morels), the Early Spring False Morel (Verpa bohemica) and the Deadly False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta); however, only true morels have that honeycomb cap that is hollow and fully attached to the stem as one, instead of the more typical "free hanging" cap. Know how to discern the lookalikes! When in doubt about whether a mushroom is safe to eat, don't eat it! Consuming a misidentified mushroom can make you very ill.
When harvesting, one should use a knife to cut morels just above ground level, leaving its base and "roots" in the ground. Depending on where you go, some places have rules and requirements about obtaining a foraging permit before you go picking, or cutting your mushrooms to leave half of each one behind so you're spreading the spores for future seasons. Regardless, I like to halve my mushrooms with a knife and at least wipe the knife in the grass as I cut them regardless, to spread spores by some means.
Once you've picked your mushrooms, the clock is ticking as to how you handle them. Those pitted, hollow caps are the perfect place for little bugs to hide, and if left unattended, the bugs will colonize in your stash. That doesn't sound very fun, now does it--unless you wanted to play Bug Farm? Even if you don't see bugs in plain sight, they're probably hiding in there. Believe me about this.
If you aren't going to immediately cook up your wild morels, you need to either dehydrate them or soak them in very salty water to prevent bug growth. Depending on who you ask, soaking may lessen the texture and overall quality, because the mushrooms will become a bit waterlogged. At the least, store your fresh, wild picked morels in a paper bag in a fridge for up to five days.
The flavor of morels is hard to explain in words, but it is sort of nutty, toasty, smoky, and earthy--yet subtle--without having that overly strong "mushroom funk" that makes some people despise mushrooms. Their texture is firm and meaty, but not rubbery or slimy--they would be great as a replacement for clams in vegan clam chowder, for example.
Since they have a nuanced flavor that's worth appreciating (especially if you put a lot of effort into hunting for your morel mushrooms), I prefer not to smother them with other strong flavors when serving them. My favorite is to fry them with bacon fat and fresh garlic in the cast iron pan until they start to get crispy, golden edges, and then eat them just like that; however, below are a few simple recipes if you'd like some inspiration for other ways to enjoy them.
1) After frying them as mentioned above, serve them over your favorite cooked long pasta (spaghetti, linguine, etc.) with extra virgin olive oil, ghee, a sprinkle of sea salt, cayenne, grated parmesan cheese, crushed black peppercorn, fresh chopped parsley.
2) Fry them as mentioned, then pair them with a fine rib-eye steak, herbed butter, and a glass of dark red wine for a very decadent, sensual food pairing.
3) Before cooking, dip the cleaned morels in runny pancake batter, and then fry them in a pan of hot oil until crispy and golden. This makes really easy, yummy mushroom "fritters" that you can eat plain or dip in aioli, for example.
4) My all-time favorite was cream of morel mushroom soup, served in a bread bowl!
Recipe as follows:
Cream of Morel Mushroom Soup (serves 2-3)
2 Tbsp butter
8 ounces fresh morels, cleaned
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 cup broth or prepared bouillon
Few Tbsp. sherry or dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Pinch of nutmeg (optional, yet recommended)
Sea salt (to taste)
Ground black pepper
Fresh minced parsley, for garnish (optional)
Small, hearty bread loaf or hearty rolls for serving (if serving the soup in bread bowl(s), your bread needs to be hearty enough to hold the hot liquid until you start eating--just something to think about!)
- Clean the mushrooms and cut any big ones into bite sized pieces; you can leave the small ones whole.
- Melt the butter in a hot pan, then sautee the mushrooms on medium-high heat until they are soft and starting to turn golden on the edges. At the end, toss in the finely minced shallots and garlic, and stir constantly for a minute; be careful not to let the shallots or garlic burn
- Add the broth or bouillon and the splash of wine; simmer on medium heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring frequently until the liquid has reduced by about half
- Add the cream and nutmeg, simmer and stir constantly on medium-low heat for another 10 minutes, or until it thickens slightly
- Season with salt & pepper to your liking
- Place your hollowed out bread bowls on plates; pour soup into bread bowls; garnish with fresh parsley, and enjoy immediately!
This soup recipe was very comforting, remarkably easy to make, and it highlighted the unique flavor of the morels in the very best way. You definitely don't want to skip out on that splash of sherry or white wine, either--I made this recipe without the wine one time, and it didn't quite have the same gourmet flavor without it.
Remember, always follow the "leave no trace" principles and familiarize yourself with local rules about picking mushrooms in your area before you start foraging. When in doubt about whether a mushroom is safe to eat, don't eat it! Consuming a misidentified mushroom can make you very ill. Last but not least, bring a compass and remember to tell someone where you're going in case you get lost (I avoid such mishaps by stay within view of my car, if wandering around off-trail!). Be safe out there!
Hopefully this article taught you a few new things about how to forage, prep, or cook morel mushrooms! If you have any pointers, favorite recipes, or things to teach me about morels and other wild edible mushrooms, I would love to hear from you!! Thanks for reading, and happy adventures!