Now that it’s finally early spring — also known as morel time — I have a great excuse to sneak off into the quiet woods in search of these forest treasures. In the cool mornings, I wander near stumps of old trees, walking softly through velvety leaves. The task is absorbing and peaceful, especially when the weather is warm and the early sun is gentle. Though elusive, morels appear in the most unlikely places, too: in urban back yards, on the edges of parks, as well as the wilderness. I’ve found them along the fence of my neighbor’s home in south Minneapolis and along the trails of Big Woods State Park near Northfield.
Morels grow in temperate zones throughout the world, as far north as the former Soviet Union and as far south as Australia. Right now, they’re popping up on forest floors, in pasturelands, ditches along railroad tracks, and even in the cracks of sidewalks.
They tend to appear each year in the same location and normally, in groups, aka “herds.” A lone morel, displaced from the herd, is called a scout, and if you see a scout, the herd is probably within 50 feet.
I have to credit John Ratzloff, a remarkably intuitive morel hunter, who served as my guide on a recent hunt for the mushroom, which since 1984 has been the state mushroom. Unlike many guides, Ratzloff doesn’t blindfold his guests as they head to their destination, but he does swear them to secrecy and insist that they join him in the feast that follows.
This morel season promises to be early and bountiful, Ratzloff noted. The temperature has risen earlier than expected, and though it’s been dry, the recent rains are encouraging growth. Ratzloff offered these tips for finding, picking and cooking the wild mushrooms:
• Morels are the most distinctive mushroom in appearance. They are the only spring mushroom with pitted and rigid caps, and their stems and caps are hollow throughout. Their peculiar shape makes them the easiest mushroom to identify, especially for beginning hunters. There is, however, a false morel, called Gyromitra. The biggest difference is the solid or fibrous stem and round, uneven rounded cap with folds. It’s edible in some, but not all regions, and can be toxic. At first glance it may resemble a morel, but upon closer inspection, the differences in stem and cap become clear. If there’s any doubt, do not pick or eat these.
• Seek morels in uncompacted soil, the ashes of a forest fire, near stands of aspen and birch, young second growths of hardwood, near recently dead or dying elms or spruce stumps. They also like the edges of conifer forests, walnut and butternut trees, as well as old apple orchards. You might spot them on the banks of rivers and streams, along drainages of ravines, game trails.
• To harvest, slice them at the stem with a knife, so the cut is clean and there is a chance that what remains may reappear the next year. Do not pick any morels that appear decayed or soft. Once you’ve got a full sack, get ready to enjoy. But do not eat them raw. They must be cooked.
• Cook morels right away. Like spring, these don’t last. They are fragile, so, handle with care. Cut the bases from the stems, where there’s dirt, and gently brush off any dirt. Split the morels lengthwise and dunk in a dish of cold, salted water. Drain them thoroughly and lay them on clean towels and pat them with towels to dry. The drier the better. At this point, you can store them for up to two days, covered with a damp cloth or in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking teacher.