words by: Melissa K. Norris
Some kids have memories of family vacations, going to theme parks, or road trips to the beach. Not me. Growing up, we didn’t take family vacations because my father worked all year long. However, we did go foraging in the spring for morel mushrooms.
Foraging was a term I learned long after I learned the art of it. Every spring, we would anxiously wait for the tell-tale signs that morel hunting was ready to begin. They usually pre-date the pasture, so on our way to feed the cows, we’d take advantage of the ever-lengthening days this side of the winter solstice and set off into the woods.
While unofficial, it was a contest to see who would spot the first morel. I’ve always been a tad competitive, but it was many a year until I was the first to best my dad.
We’d set off under the cottonwoods, my hand in Dad’s as we climbed over downed logs and brush to reach them. “Now sis, watch where you’re stepping, you’re as likely to step on one before you see it. Look under the side of the cottonwood with the longest branches, there’s always one side with longer ones than the other. The morels favor that side.”
Here in the Pacific Northwest, morel season is from the first of April to mid-May, depending on the weather. If we dry out too soon, the season is cut short; but oh, for those few weeks, we hunt and dine on morels like kings in a castle. And if you’ve ever seen the prices in stores, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating the kings in a castle part.
Little kids enjoy Easter egg hunts, but, to me, mushroom hunting is better than an Easter egg hunt, and it’s one I never tire of. Though I’ve often wondered if I would enjoy them so much if we could have them all the time. Is it really the flavor, or is it because it’s so rare?
A few rules of morel hunting and foraging in general.
Never go foraging on private land. If you’re unsure, don’t go. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I’ve more than once had to ask people to leave my father’s property who were on it without permission, despite the no trespassing signs.
Morels are a mushroom and fungi. They prefer moist and cool temps, especially leaf-littered forest floors. Here in our neck of the woods, they prefer cottonwood stands, old burn areas, or the edge of pastures.
One of the first things I do is look for leaves that are poking up. Not always, but often I’m rewarded when I lift the leaf with a morel’s wrinkly cap greeting me.
The best method I have found is to scan the ground in a grid-like pattern. Inspect the area as you would a map. Look at it from every angle, scanning the area a few feet in front of you, and then move out with your eyes while walking slowly.
Pro Tip: If you find one, look closely. They usually have a mate!
Harvest—Carefully cut or pinch off the morel leaving the stem intact. This leaves the root in the ground and allows it to produce morels again. If you pull up the stem and roots, you cut into future harvests.
Carry—I like to carry a mesh bag with me so the spores repopulate the area while I continue searching. Be sure not to overfill whatever container you choose to place the morel mushrooms into. The weight of too many can smash the mushrooms and ruin them.
Clean—When you get the morels home, you will need to soak them overnight. Since they grow in the forest, they might have small bugs or worms on them. If you can see lots of worms or bites, it’s best to discard them. Place the mushrooms in a bowl of cold water and sprinkle them with salt. Cover them completely and store them in the fridge overnight.
Morel mushrooms have a very distinct look and come in all sorts of colors. I have never found black morels, but I have found white and yellow.
Look for mushrooms that have a cone-shaped top with lots of deep crevices resembling a sponge. They will be hollow inside if they are true morel mushrooms. (There are false morels—make sure you’re certain they’re correctly identified before consuming, and always cook them.)
Our favorite way to cook morels is after an overnight saltwater soak, cut them in half and rinse them in cold running water. Lay on an absorbent towel to dry.
Beat a couple of eggs together in a medium bowl. In another bowl, measure out a cup of flour or so, lightly sprinkle with seasoning salt, and combine.
In a large cast iron skillet, melt some butter on medium heat. Once the butter is hot, take your prepared mushroom and dip it in the beaten egg and then dredge it through the flour. Fry for a few minutes on each side. Lightly salt with garlic salt when you remove them.
This is a simple dish, but you will be surprised by the delicious flavor profile that hits your taste buds.
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Melissa K. Norris is a 5th generation homesteader who married a city boy… but that city boy quickly became a country boy and turned into a bonafide farmer when they moved to Melissa’s family property. With their two children they believe in keeping the old ways alive. She is an author, blogger, and podcaster. Learn more by visiting: www.melissaknorris.com.