Every time somebody asks me about morel mushrooms, I flashback to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab. While it’s true that things didn’t work out all that well in the end for the good captain, at least he found the object of his quest. I wouldn’t have to pull off my boots to count the number of times I can say that about my pursuit of the wily morel mushroom.
Not that I haven’t gotten a lot of well-meaning advice over the years. To the contrary, I’ve been told that morels can only be found on ridges or on side hills or in creek bottoms. Furthermore, I’ve been told that the best places to look for them are under cedars or near dead or dying elm trees or beneath May apples or on bare ground in mature forests or in lush grassy meadows with or without trees. On two occasions, I’ve had the rarely granted privilege of being taken to veteran fungi finders’ can’t miss hotspots. One of my hosts didn’t find anything, and the other found three shriveled mini-morels. Neither has wanted my company while gathering mushrooms since. Imagine that.
The one bit of advice I’ve been given that seems to be almost universally true is that morels tend to appear in the exact same spots year after year. That being the case, if you’re lucky enough to know where a few of those spots are, shouldn’t you be doing everything you can to keep those spots healthy and producing?
How this year’s mushroom crop is picked has a bearing on future production. Standard procedure is to pull the entire mushroom out of the ground, but doing so can damage the main body of the mushroom, which grows underground. Instead, cut the mushroom’s stem just above ground level. Special mushroom-cutting knives are available, but a linoleum knife is every bit as efficient.
Cutting the mushroom’s stem also greatly reduces how dirty your morels will be when you get them home. Using an open-mesh bag to pack mushrooms around the area you’re hunting will reduce the amount of dirt they retain still more. Far more important, the open mesh will allow the mushrooms to shed spores. The bags northern anglers use to transport frogs are ideal, but replacement bags for landing nets also work well.
Unless you’re me, you’ll eventually discover the morel mother lode and will want to preserve part of the bounty for off-season consumption. Here are a few of the many ways to do so.
An Illinois man first cleans and soaks his morels. Next he dusts them with flour, puts them on a cookie sheet and freezes them solid. The frozen mushrooms are then transferred to plastic freezer bags where the flour keeps them from sticking together.
A Missouri off-season morel muncher cleans his morels and cuts them in half before dipping them in beaten eggs followed by flour. He fries them two minutes per side, lets them cool and then freezes them. When he wants a mess of ‘rooms, he pops them in the oven or back into the frying pan to reheat.
Steve (state of residence unknown) slices his morels in half and gives them a “little” soaking in salty water. The mushrooms are then placed in a bowl and microwaved for “about a minute.” The zapped morels are separated and placed on a cookie sheet to freeze prior to storage in vacuum sealed bags.
A veteran Iowa morel hunter cuts his morels in half and rinses them in cold water. Unlike everyone else, he believes soaking morels in salt water softens them and can make them “mushy.” He follows up with either the flour and freeze or the partial fry and freeze method.
Drying is a viable alternative to freezing. While using a dehydrator is the easiest method, putting morels on window screens and drying them in the sun–which supposedly takes less than a day–or leaving them in a dark, dry place for a month both have staunch advocates. In either case, freeze the mushrooms after they’ve dried.
Canning is not a recommended preservation method for morel mushrooms. In fact, the National Center for Home Preservation warns that morels contain toxic hydrazines that evaporate harmlessly into the air during open cooking processes. When canned, these toxins cannot evaporate, so they remain in the mushrooms where they can form a deadly form of botulism. No safe pressure or poundage has been found to eliminate this problem.
Call me a wimp if you must, but I think I’ll forgo canning. That leaves me with a variety of drying and freezing methods to choose from. Maybe this will be the year I get enough morels to try them all…
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]