Mushroom Foraging 101
Our Spring Favorite: Morels
Do you have an interest in mushroom foraging but aren’t sure where to start? You’re not alone. Learning about mushrooms can be daunting, but we’ve got you covered with some basics to point you in the right direction to finding this season’s tastiest mushroom—the morel!
Morel mushrooms are some of the most highly sought-after edible mushrooms, and for good reason: they’re both difficult to grow commercially and tough find in the wild. Since all true morels are nontoxic when cooked and they have few poisonous lookalikes, they are an ideal starter mushroom for new foragers. With the right research and tools, even first-time foragers can learn how to find the elusive Morchella.
Where And When To Find Morels
Morels grow all over the world, including the U.S. You can find them throughout the west and east coasts, the south, and even parts of the Rockies. While they grow in many different regions, their growing preferences tend to be the same. They pop up in the spring and stick around until early summer (depending on your area). They prefer moist environments with air temperatures in the 60s and 70s and soil temperatures in the 50s.
Morels tend to grow under and around poplar, elm, maple, sycamore, or fruit trees, and they most often appear in areas where the ground has been disturbed, such as logging or landscaping sites or in burn zones. After a good rainstorm you can often find a flush of morels in one spot. If you do stumble on a secret morel spot, drop a pin on google maps on your phone or on an app and save it so that you know where to return to the next season. It’s also helpful to make a note with the aspect, elevation, and the types of trees in the area that you found the morels.
Tapping into a local mycological society or an online mushroom hunting group in your area will help you learn about where to find morels in your area. Don’t expect a fellow forager to tell you where their secret spot is, but sometimes folks are happy to offer up helpful information like the specific county and elevation. Using apps like iNaturalist or Forager Diary also allow you to check areas around you that others have spotted mushrooms, making it helpful for planning and keeping track of your own foraging spots. Researching past burn zones can help steer you in the right direction as well and there are several people that sell curated burn maps each season, a quick search on google will lead you to many different sites.
Tools Of The Trade
Whether you are a beginner or veteran, a mushroom identification book is a must have. One of the best pocket field guides is David Arora’s, All That The Rain Promises and More. Once you find a morel, there’s a surprising amount of debate regarding how to harvest. Some discourage picking, but since mushrooms don’t have roots like plants there’s not a lot of proof that picking will cause harm to the mycelium.
If you go with cutting down morels, a small foldable or retractable knife will do, and you can bring along an old toothbrush to help brush off any dirt. While any sharp knife will work there are knives that are specifically made for foraging, the Opinel No 8 Mushroom Knife is a good choice. While you can use any bag to carry your mushrooms it’s recommended that you use a mesh bag or basket with holes so that while you are walking around you will continue to help spread the spores of the mushrooms throughout your gathering process.
Bushwhacking through the forest can be a dirty job, especially if it’s in a burn zone, so it’s advised to wear pants and shoes while foraging. In some areas, ticks tend to show up around the same time morels do. If you are in tick territory, wear long sleeves and pants, and make sure to check for ticks after your hike.
In the PNW, search and rescue team are often called to go look for missing foragers, which makes a lot of sense seeing as most foragers are constantly looking at the ground, and walking around for long periods of time. It’s easy to get turned around and forget which direction leads back to the road. Using a tracking app like Gaia can help you retrace your steps if you ever get lost. Lastly, like with any outdoor activity, make sure to bring plenty of snacks and water to keep yourself well fueled while foraging.
One of the reasons morels are difficult to find is because they are so good at blending into their environment. From a distance, they look a lot like a pinecone with a honeycombed texture and showing up as brown, black, grey, or yellowish in color. They grow slowly, taking a few weeks to reach full size. Morels tend to grow in spaced out groups, so once you’re able to find one often a whole host of them might be nearby, you just have to stop and look.
One of the most important things to know when it comes to identifying morels is that they are all hollow on the inside—from the cap down through the stem. The cap of the morel is also always attached to the stalk, never looking like a skirt or umbrella. Good morels that you want to take home should be firm, slightly moist and somewhat springy, pass on any that are super dry, crumbly, or slimy.
Storing And Eating Morels
Every forager will have a different way of cleaning and storing their mushrooms. Some will say to never wash morels and to only dry brush them clean, while others prefer to soak them in salt water or give them a quick rinse for a couple of minutes to draw out bugs and dirt. Only rinse or soak the ones you plan on eating immediately and dry them gently with paper towels after. If you plan to eat them within the next 4-5 days then you can keep them in the refrigerator unwashed but make sure you store them in a paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel, not a plastic bag, so that they can breathe.
You should never eat wild mushrooms raw, thoroughly cooking them will help kill toxins and make them more digestible for human consumption. While there are many different ways to cook morels, such as in pastas or on pizza, the basic tried and true method is to sauté them in butter and garlic. If you have washed them first then dry sauté them before adding the butter to get the moisture out.
Dehydrate your morels for long-term storage. If you don’t have a dehydrator you can just as easily dry them in the oven. Place them on a tray or rack and set the oven on the lowest possible setting (lower than 140 if possible), with the door open a crack. Leave them in there for about 4-6 hours, or until they feel cracker dry. You can also dehydrate them in the sun by running some string through the morels and hanging them. Store your dried morels in mason jars or some other type of airtight container. When you are ready to use them, soak them in water or broth to rehydrate.
Foraging for mushrooms not only provides you with food but also forces you to slow down and spend more time observing the natural world around you. Moving through the forest keeps your body active while learning about new ecosystems and vegetation challenges your mind, making it an all around relaxing and family friendly activity.
Alexandra (Ali) Lev is a freelance writer and content developer on subjects ranging from the outdoors to mental health, the environment, and social justice issues. Originally from Salt Lake City, Ali now lives in Portland, OR, and spends her free time in the backcountry with her husband and their two Siberian huskies. Follow her on luckyalexandra.com or at @luckyalexandra.