Hunting and Drying Morel Mushrooms
Three years ago, my husband and I bought our first house and we were fortunate to buy one on five acres of mostly wooded land. We were thrilled to learn that our piece of serenity has some old apple trees, many raspberry bushes, serviceberry trees and cherries. Our first year was full of tending to the areas near the house that had been forgotten; trees that fell, removing dead branches on old pines, determining the weeds from the intentionally planted garden, all new home owner stuff. This year was the first year we could start focusing on what was in the wooded edge and start clearing out some of the brambles and vines taking over.
On the southwest side of our property, we have a barn that is perfectly lined up to block northern wind. My husband decided to surprise me this spring by purchasing some bees for my very own hive. This was something we had talked about prior to buying this place, being an herbalist and wanting to be surrounded by medicinal plants, having a hive just made sense…someday. Suddenly with the impending arrive of unexpected friends this spring, I needed to quickly find the right location for them – not too close to the house, sunny but also protected from the wind. The area in front of the barn sounded like the right place for them, but it meant venturing into an area of brambles and fallen trees we hadn’t meant to tackle just yet.
I selected an area that was somewhat accessible if you were a deer, and decided to widen the path and clear enough space for the hive. As I was clearing out the debris and removing unwanted undergrowth, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the area I selected was right near three completely forgotten apple trees. Perfect! My new friends would be surrounded by an early food source, and that was all the thought I gave to this location.
Fast forward a month and I’ve been checking the hive regularly. Being a plant lover, I explore the little wooded area I cleared each time I’m out near the hive. One morning I was greeted with a surprise trillium in the middle of the cleared path. On another visit, I discovered a hidden jack-in-the-pulpit. Then on the one sunny day we had in the third week of May, I was stunned to find a strange mushroom popping up under one of the old apple trees. I don’t eat mushrooms so I know very little about them. I decided to take a picture and sent it over to one of my mushroom loving friends to ask if he knew what it was.
The immediate response: False Morel, possibly poisonous.
As I continued my walk and I reached one of the other apples, a much larger similar-looking mushroom was there, but this one wasn’t quite the same…picture sent:
I could sense the excitement from the other side of the phone, but didn’t appreciate it as a non-mushroom loving person. So, I went back to the house to do some research and I quickly understood his excitement. The morel is an elusive and much sought mushroom to the true fungi lovers. They are difficult to find and only have a harvest season of about three weeks from April – May, depending on your climate. I’m in lower Michigan, zone 6, so for us that usually means May due to late frosts.
Morels, Morchella, are often found under or near old fruit trees, elms, tulip poplars, or occasionally white pine. They are also likely to be found on the southwest side of the tree, which I discovered to be accurate. Because morels grow from an underground runner called a mycelium, if you find one you are likely to find more within 20 feet of it. All of the morels I found were under or near apple trees that looked much like this one:
The medicinal value of morels has had little research so far, but a recent study suggests they may have anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory activity and potential immunostimulative properties. The nutritional evaluation of the morel is somewhat dependent on the soil it’s grown in. However, they have been shown to contain several important vitamins and minerals, enough to count towards your daily recommended values. These vitamins and minerals include a high amount (dependent on size) of vitamin D, folate, niacin, zinc, copper, iron, and manganese with lesser amounts of riboflavin, vitamin B6, thiamine, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
Identifying a true morel can be tricky because there are a few look alikes, as I discovered, so it is always recommended to go mushroom hunting with experienced individuals to ensure you don’t accidentally pick up one of the poisonous imposters. Having my friend verify my photos as a reference point, I decided to wander the rest of my property to see if we had other morels available.
A morel mushroom can vary in color and size significantly, yellow, grey and black are common, so it’s hard to use those features to distinguish if you have found a real one or it’s imposter. A true morel has a cap that is elongated, much like a Smurf hat, is pitted like a honeycomb and, to my untrained eye, resembles that of the platygyra coral. If you cut the mushroom lengthwise, the inside of the stem all the way up to the cap should be hollow, and the cap should be attached to the stem from the top to the base. There is a type of morel called the half-free where the cap is only attached from the cap to about halfway down the stem and is free like a skirt near the bottom. According to my friend, the half-free morels are also only half as tasty.
Harvesting a morel is simple, use a clean knife if you have it, or your fingertips if you don’t, and slice cleanly at the base of the mushroom. Do not pull a mushroom up out of the soil because you run the risk of damaging the mycelium underground, which will reduce your potential harvest next season. Morels are also sensitive, so it is recommended to harvest using a canvas or paper bag, not plastic. Mushrooms contain a lot of moisture and you don’t want them to go soggy by placing them in a plastic bag as you may be out hunting for hours.
The false morel that was identified on my property was likely a verpa, verpa bohemica. These mushrooms are generally smaller and the cap is only attached to the stem at the top and the rest of it hangs free like a bell. The stems are occasionally hollow, but more frequently have a wispy, think cotton-like membrane inside. There may be pits in the cap on occasion, but usually there are small folds running the length of the short cap. The stems are also much thinner than that of a true morel. The edible nature of the verpa is debated amongst the mushroom enthusiasts, but being a newbie in mushroom hunting, if I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, I left it alone. Which, given the lethality of selecting the wrong mushroom, is a wise recommendation.
Another good rule of thumb, if the mushroom doesn’t look intact or has some strange discoloration, it’s best to leave it for the deer. As you can see in the image below, this mushroom had a hole in it that had a white powdery substance around it. While some experienced hunters may decide to trim the mushroom of the damaged area, I felt it best not to harvest this type of mushroom.
Having enjoyed spending the afternoon wandering around my property for morels, and not being a mushroom connoisseur, I reached back out to my friend to find the best way to preserve them until we saw each other next. The best way to preserve mushrooms is to dry them.
Drying Your Morel Harvest
First, prepare your mushrooms for drying by slicing them in half lengthwise and soaking them for 2-4 hours in a saltwater preparation. I used about 2 cups of water and 3 tablespoons of salt. You want your water to be just warm enough to dissolve the salt, but not hot. The saltwater solution will kill off bacteria and any bugs that might have been calling your mushroom home, so it’s important not to skip this step. Be sure to gently agitate the water occasionally while doing the soak, that will also dislodge any dirt left on the mushroom.
After soaking, place the mushrooms on a cookie sheet and place them in the oven at 150 degrees for one (1) hour. If your oven has a convection option, be sure to turn it on for this process. · After drying for an hour, turn them over and place back in the oven to dry for one (1) more hour. By this point the mushrooms should be about half their original size and rubbery, so be careful when you turn them over. As you can see, they are easy to tear if you aren’t gentle.· After drying for an hour, turn them over and place back in the oven to dry for one (1) more hour. By this point the mushrooms should be about half their original size and rubbery, so be careful when you turn them over. As you can see, they are easy to tear if you aren’t gentle.
After drying for an hour, turn them over and place back in the oven to dry for one (1) more hour. By this point the mushrooms should be about half their original size and rubbery, so be careful when you turn them over. As you can see, they are easy to tear if you aren’t gentle.
If after hour two of trying is complete and they are still a little leathery or rubbery in texture, leave them sit to air dry for a couple of hours or overnight. This will pull the rest of the moisture out without cooking them further. By this point, your mushrooms will be about one third of the original size.
Before packing to store, make sure your mushrooms are firm and crisp. Place them in an airtight glass container, such as a canning jar, and store in a cool dark place until ready to use. Or, in my case, until gifted to a mushroom loving friend!