The North American morel is a culinary delicacy. In fact, these wild mushrooms are one of the most sought-after foods in the world. We’re fortunate to live where they can be found in abundance and are free for the picking. They’re only in season for a few weeks each spring which only increases the demand for these delicious, elusive fungi. Since no one has figured out how to cultivate them, each one must be foraged from the wild and harvested by hand. That’s why they cost upwards of $40 per pound.
In order to find morels, it helps to understand how they grow. While they look like individual morsels sprouting up from the soil, they’re really not. Think of them as the fruit of a large, underground fungal colony. When all of the conditions are right, those colonies produce the part of the fungus that we eat, the mushroom.
The largest part of the fungal body, the root-like mycelium, establishes a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of certain trees. The mycelium absorbs carbohydrates produced by the tree. In return, the tree is able to absorb more moisture and nutrients from the soil thanks to the increased surface area provided by the mycelium – a win-win for both organisms. Morels also feed on dead or dying timber. In northeastern Kansas, look for them around the bases of decaying elm, ash or cottonwood trees.
Morels can be extremely hard to find, but don’t get discouraged. Focus your hunting on warm, spring days immediately following a rain shower. You’ll find the first morels of the season when the daytime temperatures reach in the 60s and the nighttime lows stay above 40 degrees. The trick is to walk slowly and look for patterns. Mushroom spores are dispersed by the wind. When you’ve spotted the first one, others are likely nearby. Take your time and the clusters will reveal themselves.
Once you’ve found a productive site, they’re likely to sprout in that same area year after year. It’s generally considered impolite to ask others for specific locations of morels. Most people will only disclose their favorite spots to close friends or relatives.
Of all the wild mushrooms, morels are the easiest to identify. They’re blondish-yellow with a distinctive honeycomb, sponge-like body that’s completely hollow from the base through to the cap. If you have any doubts about a mushroom’s identity, don’t eat it. Morels must be cooked thoroughly before eating and they’re best eaten right away.
Just what is it that makes morels so special? One word – umami – which is Japanese for delicious. Umami is roughly described as the fifth taste, in addition to salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Imagine the most perfect state that any food can achieve, completely satisfying, needing no further enhancement. That’s umami. Few foods meet this incredible standard: caviar, truffles, chocolate, foie gras, shellfish and of course, morels. If you’ve never eaten a morel, you can’t possibly know what I’m talking about. These uniquely shaped mushrooms have a hearty, meaty texture and a rich savory flavor that satisfies while leaving you wanting more. They’re best when prepared simply. Just slice and saute in butter until golden brown. Enjoy.
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org