By Eugenia Bone
I have traveled all over the country in order to pick morel mushrooms. If I ever did the math, I would probably find out I was paying a lot more by hunting them than if I just bought them from a store. But then I’d miss out on the profound pleasures of the quiet hunt and the lusty pleasure of a stocked pantry.
Morels, which are the fruiting bodies of various species of fungi in the Morchella genus, are native to temperate forests—forests that endure a winter snow–across the northern hemisphere (though introduced morels grow in the southern hemisphere as well). They flush in the spring under dead trees, dying trees, and living trees. But people have found them growing in the weirdest places, like landscaping woodchips, fireplaces, even in cracks in a sheetrock wall. If you ask a mycologist where morels grow, he’ll tell you, “Wherever they want.”
My first morel hunt was with the New York Mycological Society, my local mushroom club. The club hunts an abandoned apple orchard that looks like one gigantic tick-infested bramble patch. Lots of people turn out for the foray, so not only is it arduous to find the morels, but there is a lot of competition, too. Indeed, after hours of crawling under the thickets and poison ivy to check the base of the decaying trees, I finally spotted one large brown morel. And then I saw her. Apple cheeked and undaunted by the prickers, her gray bun pulled askew by snapping branches crawled an elderly lady from the opposite direction toward the very morel I’d spotted. I deferred to her, of course, as if the mushroom between us were a seat on the bus.
I was definitely bummed out to be going home empty handed. And adding insult to injury, that very woman who had picked my only morel was taking a little open-mouthed snooze in the back seat of my car, her basket of morels hugged tight in her arms, while I coped with the traffic over the George Washington Bridge. It was clear that I needed an environment that offered a bigger payload and so in the ensuing years I hunted morels in the Midwest, in the Sierra Nevadas, and on a forest fire burn in Montana. Each spot was beautiful and dramatic in its own way, and each yielded a bounty of morels.
I attended the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship hunt, which took place in a dying elm forest near the windy city of Henry, a small central Illinois town on the Illinois River. I hooked up with Al Nighsonger, a biker type fellow with all the trimmings: leather jacket, jackboots, a long grey ponytail, and his wife, Dee, a former Iraq war Air Force gunner in a soldier’s cap. Al led me along, a sixteen-ounce can of Busch beer in one hand, smoking cigarettes the whole time, pointing with his lit butt at one tree or another. In the Midwest morels may be found in abundance under dying elm trees. And due to Dutch elm disease, a fungal blight, there are a lot of dying elms.
“You’ll find morels under that there elm,” he said, pointing at a dense thicket. While Al sat on a stump, I crawled under, my clothes and hair tugged and ripped as I pushed through. The undergrowth was so thick I couldn’t see where I was going. I could only look over my shoulder at Al, who gestured for me to keep going, keep going, with a wave of his hand, and I obeyed, crawling like an infantryman through the nettles and briers. Using this technique, Al and I found about 35 hard won morels—not nearly enough to wine the championship, but enough for dinner.
An auction followed the hunt, and at one point a shaggy pale-eyed dude from Los Angeles told me he always finds morels after he’s done a good deed, and he thought it was due to divine intervention. I’d heard stuff like this before. Hunters who stumble upon a great patch of mushrooms will wear the same clothes again, thinking they bring them luck. Some hunters carry a small basket so as not to alert the mushrooms. “Never say the M word in the woods,” they’ll warn, and never pick the first morel you see, because they send a signal underground to the other morels and then they’ll all go into hiding. There is certainly a feeling of inevitability when you do find them—almost like it is your destiny to find that mushroom. After all, many fungi live underground. They are by their very nature mysterious. But on the other hand, the championship winner was a PhD in mycology, so obviously he enjoyed an edge based not on superstition, luck, outwitting the mushroom spirits, or by agreement with God, but because he’d taken a lot of biology courses.
Later, Al and Dee also took me to their spot “where no one else ever goes,” a military installation near the Peoria airport. Dee showed her pass and, after yucking it up for a few minutes with the baby-faced boys holding automatic rifles, drove us to a beautiful moist forest deep within the base. What they’d said was true. We had the woods to ourselves. However, the forest was at the end of a firing range, and practice was going on. Guns popped and crackled and bullets whizzed overhead periodically, buzzing through the high branches, nipping off twigs. I hunted with my shoulders bunched around my ears, trying to make my head a smaller target. “Oh, that’s just the police practicing,” said Dee, utterly unperturbed. “Now if it were machine gunners, I’d say walk low.”
I heard there were even more morels to be found in California, on a late May Wild About Mushrooms foray in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. David Campbell, a well-known California-based mushroom hunter, conducts the hunt from a campground in the Crystal Basin area. I found some morels under live pines, but most were growing in debased places: around the outhouses, next to fire pits, and under picnic tables, and though David explained to me that morels like “disturbed earth,” it seemed to me that they simply preferred to be around people.
Over the course of the weekend, which also included some excellent meals (scrambled eggs with morels that tasted all the better because we were eating outside and the air was chewy with smoke fire and the morels had been picked moments before, smoked pork loin stuffed with sausage and morels with a sauce of morels and caramelized onion washed down with copious amounts of Northern California wine), I found about 7 pounds of morels.
I had hunted under dying and living trees, under apple, elm, and fir. But for the real morel payload, you’ve got to hunt a fire. If there has been a forest fire in a national park during the summer and the following spring is wet, then morels may bloom in vast quantities—thousands per acre–amidst the wreckage of the incinerated trees. Commercial pickers descend on these burn sites by the hundreds and the Forest Service has to set up campsites and permits to accommodate them. Why morels are so prolific after a forest fire is a matter of dispute: maybe the morels flush as a result of the destruction of their host trees. Whatever it is, burn morels tend to come up only for a year, whereas morels that grow in non-burned areas will come up for many years.
I went to hunt fire-ravaged woodlands in Montana’s Flathead National Forest with my friend, the photographer Andrew Geiger. We camped with the gritty circuit pickers, 1,000 or so transient people, primarily Southeast Asians, who pick mushrooms 6 to 10 months of the year, following the flush of matsutake, porcini, and chanterelles, and morels around the northwest quarter of the country. A circuit picker probably collects the wild mushrooms you buy in a store or restaurant.
Burn morels prefer to grow in areas littered with dead conifer needles, along the path of tree roots, and in shady dips and boles in the earth. But walking around in those blackened woods, it was hard to pull my eyes away from the long view: the destruction stretched as far as I could see. When I finally did cast my eyes down I had to freeze: all around my boots—and probably even under them—hundreds of morels poked their brainy caps up through the ashy pine needles.
After just one hour, we had collected about 10 pounds of morels. All along the road back to camp, we saw the tents of the morel buyers, independent contractors who work for wild mushroom distribution companies. It is not uncommon for buyers to purchase tens of thousands of dollars worth of mushrooms a day. There is no real accounting of the wild mushroom harvest, either in volume or in dollars, but the forest ecologist David Pilz estimated the commercial morel harvest in Oregon and Washington in 2005, half of which was shipped overseas, was over 770,000 pounds. At today’s retail prices, that’s over $300 million. Indeed, wild mushroom transactions may be the largest legal cash-based commerce in the USA.
Morels have been successfully grown, although I’ve heard they don’t taste like much. Likewise plenty of connoisseurs think burn morels aren’t as tasty as natural morels. It may be because cultivated and burn morels lack the complex stew of microbial symbionts found in natural, non-traumatized ecosystems. I don’t know. Personally, I’d never turn down a morel; even if grew in a fireplace.
Eugenia Bone is the author of Mycophilia: Revelations From the Weird World of Mushrooms, which explores the biology and culture of mycology and mycologists. An Amazon Best Books of 2011 selection.
Keep in mind that all raw mushrooms are indigestible and some edible mushrooms are poisonous when eaten raw. Raw morels are poisonous, but cooked they are one of the most delicious foods on the planet.
Chicken with Sherry and Morels
This is a poor man’s version of the very elegant French regional dish, chicken with vin jaune/Chateau Chalon. You can make it with dried, fresh, or canned morels.
8 chicken thighs with bone in and skin on (you can use any chicken parts or even a whole chicken)
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups dry sherry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
At least 1 cup dried morels, but more if you’ve got them (see note below)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat the butter in a large heavy casserole with a fitted lid over a medium heat. Add the chicken and lightly brown all over, about 20 minutes. Add the sherry, salt and pepper, and the dried morels (if you use fresh, add them later: I will tell you when). Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to low, and cover. Gently boil the chicken in the sherry for about 40 minutes, until it is very tender. If using fresh, frozen or canned morels, add them in the last 20 minutes or so of cooking. Remove the chicken and keep warm. You will probably have about 2 cups of sauce (sherry and drippings combined). Add the cream. Turn the heat up to medium and reduce the sauce, uncovered, by about a third. Check the seasoning and return the chicken to the pot. Cook for an additional 5 minutes to heat through.
Note: You can throw the dried morels into the stew, or you can rehydrate the morels by placing them in a bowl and covering them with water and allowing them to soak for about 10 minutes. When you add the morels, add their liquid too. The benefit of this is you have more liquid in the sauce, which is good if you are cooking a whole chicken this way and need a lot of braising liquid. The reduction time will increase if you add the morel water.
If you should be so lucky as to have more morels than you can eat fresh within a few days of picking, then drying is a good preservation method. Morels must be dried until less than ten percent moisture remains to insure no microorganism can grow. That’s crisp enough to be easily broken.
If you need to keep the morels in the fridge for a day or two before drying, place them in a loosely closed paper bag in the fridge. The key to staving off spoilage is to keep them cool and dry, with a little ventilation.
There are three techniques: drying in a food dryer, air drying, and oven drying. To prepare the morels for drying, soak the morels in salted water, agitating them occasionally, for about a few minutes to loosen any grit that may be captured in the folds of the cap. Do not allow them to soak for long as morels absorb water and will be harder to dry. Allow to drain thoroughly. Split large mushrooms (over 2 ½ inches tall) in half, longitudinally. Do not put the morels in the fridge after they have been washed.
To dry in a food dryer, place the clean morels in the dryer and set at 110 degrees for 8 – 10 hours. To air dry, thread a poultry needle with light culinary twine or dental floss and string clean morels longitudinally. Hang the strings in a dry, ventilated place for about 36 hours.
To dry in an oven, thread each mushroom through the stem with a needle threaded with about 6 inches of dental floss. Tie the mushrooms to a rack in your oven so they hang caps down and are well separated: adjust your oven racks to accommodate two layers of hanging morels, if you have that many. Remove any unused racks. Set the oven at the lowest temperature you can and leave the door partially open. If your oven is too hot (over 140 degrees), you may end up cooking the mushrooms, rather than simply removing all moisture from them. Many ovens cannot be set below 200 degrees, so set the oven to “warm” and leave the oven door partially open. Set the oven to the convection bake feature if you have one, as this will keep the air rotating. The mushrooms will dry in 8 – 10 hours, depending on their size. Properly dried morels should be brittle and broken easily.
Pack dried morels in freezer jars (a gallon of fresh morels will produce a quart of dried) and freeze for up to a year. You can also store them at room temperature in an airtight container but there will be some flavor loss over time. If your morels are not 90% moisture-free—if they feel leathery, for example–it’s okay, but then you must freeze them.
To rehydrate morels, place them in a bowl of cool water, with a ratio of about 1 part morels to 3 parts water. To keep the morels submerged, fill a baggie with water and place it on top of the morels. After 10 to 20 minutes, they will be soft and return to their fresh shape, ready to cook. The water will be very flavorful. Strain it and use when cooking the morels.
Makes 2 pints
For best results, be sure your freezer is cold. Zero degrees will hold the mushrooms for the full time period. If your freezer is warmer, use the foods sooner. Never freeze mushrooms raw as they may develop an off flavor, which you will notice when you cook them. This recipe calls for sautéing the morels in butter before freezing, but you can also boil them whole for about 5 minutes, then freeze as described below.
1 lb morels, cut in half if small, in rounds if large
2 tablespoons butter
Soak the morels in salted water, agitating them occasionally, for about a few minutes to loosen any grit that may be captured in the folds of the cap.
Melt the butter in a large non-stick skillet over a medium heat. In batches, add the mushrooms, turn the heat down to medium low, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid.
To preserve, it is best for the mushrooms to be frozen in their liquid, which protects the tissue of the mushrooms, the same way sugar syrup protects pit fruit when you freeze it.
Dump the mushrooms and their liquid into a bowl, allow to cool, then pack the mushrooms and liquid equally into 2 freezer baggies (about 1- 2 cups per baggie depending on how much water was in the mushrooms in the first place). Push the air out of the baggies, seal and freeze.
To defrost, place the mushrooms in the refrigerator. They will be ready to cook in about 1 hour. If they are still frosty when you are ready to cook them, it’s okay. You can dump the frozen mushrooms directly into stews and soups.
Precooked frozen mushrooms hold beautifully in the freezer for 9 months to a year.
Makes 2 pints
I am bending the USDA rules here. Their canned mushroom technique is for white buttons only. I think the reason why they recommend you not can wild mushrooms is because of the risk of mistakenly canning poisonous or otherwise inedible mushrooms. No food safety lab has tested them yet, maybe because they can’t be tested due to variables arising from the fact that they are wild. Since I know exactly what kind of mushrooms I’ve picked, and used very fresh, fine mushrooms that were relative in size to the recommended white button (or smaller), I am confident this recipe is good. But note if you use it for canning morels: they must be equivalent in size to a small or medium white button and they must be pristinely fresh and clean.
1 lb morel mushrooms
1 teaspoon salt per jar (optional)
Soak the morels in salted water, agitating them occasionally, for about 5 minutes to loosen any grit that may be captured in the folds of the cap.
Place the morels in a pot of boiling water and boil gently for 5 minutes.
Have ready two clean pint jars and band, with new lids that have been simmered in hot water to soften the rubberized flange.
Drain the morels and pack them into clean pint jars. Add salt if you like (the salt is not necessary for safe canning—only for flavor). Cover the morels with boiling water (you can reuse the water you boiled the morels in but there may be some grit in it). Place on the lids and screw on the bands fingertip tight.
Process the jars in your pressure canner as per the instructions of your individual canner at 10 pounds of pressure for 45 minutes.
Allow the pressure to come down, and open the lid of the canner away from you to avoid getting hot steam on your face. Remove the jars—they will still be boiling. It’s okay. Let the jars cool on a rack for about 6 hours.
When cool, check the seals and store in a cool dark place. Refrigerate after opening.