Wild morel mushrooms are often described as more flavorful than the white button mushrooms found in supermarkets. They often appear in specialty food shops as gourmet mushrooms. Eager cooks and diners will pay up to $20 an ounce for these tasty fungi. Should you decide to hunt for these delicious specimens for your own table, learn about their habitat and appearance, to ensure you have found morel mushrooms that are safe to eat.
When to Look For Wild Morels
The season for wild morel mushrooms runs from late winter to mid-summer. Morels begin to sprout after a period of rain, followed by warming spring temperatures. Black morels (Morchella angusticeps) appear first. They are slightly smaller than white morels (Morchella esculenta), which pop up about a week later. Morels can be found as early as February in southern areas of their range. Farther north, you can still pick morels in the Rocky Mountain regions of Canada as late as mid-July.
How to Recognize Wild Morels
True wild morels that are safe to consume have a thick white stem and a slender conical cap. The cap is deeply indented and has a raised grid of darker lines overall. The cap is mainly a light golden brown in color. Study a mycology (mushrooms and fungi) guide before setting out to hunt wild mushrooms, and if possible, go with someone who has experience at finding them.
False morels have shallow indentations in the cap and no honeycomb grid over it. These can be poisonous if eaten, so do not pick them.
Where to Look for Wild Morels
Across central North America, morel mushrooms grow in woodlands, near the exposed roots of dead trees, especially beech and maple. They also grow well on river and creek banks, close to decaying trees and shrubs. Often they are covered by leaves and twigs from the previous autumn, so they are not easy to see. Look for other low-growth plants such as trillium, wild lily and wild leeks to give clues to the morel's presence.
Check near the base of trees that have a good depth of old leaf and twig debris piled up near them. Only the light brown conical tip of the morel mushroom may protrude, so search carefully.
How to Pick and Take Home Wild Morels
To remove the morel, tug gently on it and lift it from where it is attached. Cutting it may damage the remaining growth. All mushrooms grow from fresh spores each year, so leaving any part behind will not promote regrowth there. Carry the morels in a loosely woven bag or straw basket. This allows the spores to fall out and establish themselves to become next spring's harvest. Spores are nearly microscopic in size, so it is not possible to "collect" them from the morels to plant in your garden.
Do not wash the wild morel mushrooms; just brush off dirt and leaf bits with a soft pastry brush. A harder brush will tear the cap and stem. Store in a paper bag at room temperature, and eat them within 2 days of picking.