Finding morels is fun. But the best thing is to have them fried!
Besides the change in temperature, there is another reason to celebrate the arrival of spring — the emergence of morel mushrooms.
Their unique appearance matches their distinctive and nearly indescribable taste. Once tried, morels cannot be compared with any previous experience of the palette; they’ll be leaving you wanting more, year after year.
For my family and many rural residents, hunting the elusive morel is a treasured spring ritual. Families come together across generations to scavenge for these humble morsels, which are so highly prized that many West Virginians don’t want to share their favorite hunting locations.
A small window for “mushroom hunting” is open during a few weeks beginning in late March and lasting to early May. The season varies from region to region, and the prevalence of the morel is highly dependant on rainfall and, more importantly, ground temperature.
Enthusiasts describe morels as having cavernous, brain-like ridges, reminiscent of a honeycomb. Colors range from black and gray to tan and white. Sizes vary from several centimeters to several inches, but a morel can grow much larger.
“I just recently picked one that was five pounds and about the size of both my fists,” said LeRoy Paden, President of the National Morel Mushroom Hunters Association and an expert. “It was the damndest looking thing you’ve ever seen.”
“The gray ones always come up first.”
Paden and his wife once owned and operated a family restaurant, Paden Place, in Horton, Kansas. For more than thirty years, they served morels, drawing in crowds from all over the country.
“We had people come from Las Vegas, California, Kansas City, just to come up to eat our mushrooms,” he said.
Paden has been hunting morels for over 65 years and travels the country finding morel hot spots. There’s no sure way to locate morel colonies; identifying these hotspots is different from region to region. Much of what folks say about the best places to find them is based on local convention passed down by oral tradition.
But generally the best places to find morels are near trees, creek beds and mayflowers, said Paden. They grow most commonly under apple, elm, hickory, pine, poplar, and sycamore trees.
Paden said he has found that elm trees, especially red elms and white speckled elms, are the surest places to find morels.
And “cotton wood stumps,” he said, are usually hot spots for morels. “Once you see those stumps, you won’t be able to carry all of them. I once found 39 in a cluster.”
Paden advises hunters to start at the lower elevations and work your way up. Flatter ground sees the mushroom as early as late March, while higher elevations and mountainous terrain have their season in late April and early May.
While morels can be found throughout the United States, they are commonly found in the Great Lakes regions, Midwest, the Appalachian and Ozark mountains and sometimes in sunbelt states like Texas and California.
Beginners should familiarize themselves with the morel and learn to differentiate it from other similar looking mushrooms that are poisonous. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (considered the mushroom Bible) is widely accepted as the go-to resource for the novice mushroom hunter.
Before departing on a morel hunt, it’s important to have the essential tools of the trade: a bag and a pair of muck boots. One can opt for a reused grocery bag, however serious mushroom hunters swear by canvas or burlap.
Surrounded by trees, decaying leaves, branches and discarded pieces of bark, the fungus can be quite tricky to spot.
From my own experiences, developing an eye for the morel is the most challenging aspect of the hunt. I can assure novice hunters that it gets much easier after you find the first one.
A knife is recommended for removing the morel, but a simple pinch of the hand will also do. Many believe the root should be left behind to spur further growth, allowing morels to sprout again in the same season.
A tip learned from a Missouri woman, Paden said, helped him preserve the mushrooms after they have been picked.
“She found them in a big cluster, picked them at the root, put them in creek water, and after putting them in her crisper overnight, they swelled up and kept growing,” he said.
He recommends using creek water or rainwater, but strongly warns against traditional tap water.
“All those chemicals are not good for the mushrooms.”
Paden advises hunters to store morels in containers padded with cotton towels or napkins to draw out the moisture.
“You should cook them within three to four days of picking them. The longer you wait, the more they lose their flavor,” he said, adding that morels not be rinsed until they’re ready to be cooked.
Paden’s crowd-drawing recipe for fried morels includes “dredging them in buttermilk, rolling them in flour and then deep frying.”
The emergence of the morel is one of spring’s most precious gifts. Here’s hoping that this season’s splendor brings many morels, many treasured family memories, and, of course, many batches for frying!
Miranda Kessel is a graduate student at West Virginia University and a West Virginia native.