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On the hunt for morels

Springtime means it's time for Missouri's favorite forage

April marks the high time for America’s most popular mushrooms, morels. When the sycamores and cottonwoods start to bud, mushroom foragers get itchy feet and roam the bottomlands across Missouri to find fungal gold. Traditionally, morels are fried, but if you walk enough, you just might find sufficient amounts and want to branch out and try something different. Or perhaps, you’ve never had a morel and are wondering what all the hubbub is about. This is your introduction to the world of the morel, how to use them in the kitchen, and why people love them. 

There are numerous species of morels. In Missouri, you are most likely to find the yellow or common morel, but black morels and half-free morels are often found as well. The yellow morel is a light tan to golden brown in color, depending on age. The head of this mushroom resembles a brain and is attached to its base. It’s also hollow inside — an important feature — and sometimes you’ll find a slug friend in a morel. Don’t be squeamish, though. Slugs and other critters like eating them just as much as us and can simply be shaken or washed out to be returned to the forest floor.

There is also a “false morel,” which is actually a group of fungi under the gyromitra genus that you don’t want to eat. You may have heard them referred to as the “red ones,” or “beefsteak mushrooms.” They are a dark red or maroon in color, are not completely hollow inside, and have a lobed or folded looking cap compared to the pitted cap of true morels. While some of these false morels are consumed regionally, it’s advisable to stay away from them, as their identification and toxicity are debated. 

Also, while morels are eaten by millions of people every year, if you’re trying them for the first time, try only a little bit and make sure they are well cooked. Morels can cause an upset stomach in some people, though it’s not common. Better to find out they don’t agree with you after having a small morsel than after downing a feast. 

Finding morels is simpler than you might think. Come April, look in river bottoms with sycamore, cottonwood, ash, and box elder trees. I often find common morels in areas with sandy soil and plenty of deadfall. Floods can stimulate morel growth and you’ll find them both in open areas and bunched up where wood has been washed against the bank. If the area you’re hunting has large cottonwoods, try and find large dying trees to search around. Morels don’t always grow on these, but it’s a good way to narrow down areas to look. The secret to success is to look often and walk far!

Once you’re 100% certain you have an edible variety of morel, it’s time for your culinary wheels to turn! First, understand that morels are different than store-bought button mushrooms. Morels have a slightly nutty, light flavor, which pairs well with white meats, risottos, soups, and crusty bread. If you’re looking to pair a drink with them, I enjoy witbiers, lagers, and white wines.

Morels are synonymous with spring, sunlight, warmth, and the likes. Their texture is paradoxically both firmer and lighter than button mushrooms. Once you have a morel sautéed to crispy perfection, it might ruin you for most other varieties. If you are feeling indulgent, morels are also phenomenal when fried and stuffed with cream cheese and chives. Livening up your dish with other wild ingredients makes a successful mushroom foray that much more rewarding. 

How to prepare morels:

  • Lightly battered and fried
  • As a topping for pizza
  • Sautéed in butter
  • Duxelles 
  • Soups and bisques
  • Risotto 
  • Stir fry 
  • Pickled 

Meats to pair with morels:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Rabbit
  • Squirrel
  • Shellfish