For as long as hungry folks have wandered into the woods in search of a meal, people have foraged for mushrooms. Much of North America is temperate enough to support a diverse crop of edibles, and the Midwest and Pacific Northwest are particularly celebrated by mycology enthusiasts. In the state of Wisconsin, it’s all about morels.
Come morel season, generations of families come together to hunt, cook, eat, and celebrate my absolute favorite mushroom. And when I learned the hilly, rural Driftless region had a whole festival devoted to morels, I started looking up flights to Madison.
Strains of morels can be found all over Europe, Asia, South and Central America, and the Middle East, but, according to Britt Bunyard, PhD and editor of Fungi Magazine, the "highly prized culinary mushrooms" originally arose "from a common ancestor in western North America...about 174 to 100 million years ago." In 2011, Nancy Weber of Oregon State University reported that "since then, morels have evolved into 177 related species." They can be as tiny as a grain of rice or over a foot tall, and range in color from yellow to grey, brown, or black. Despite these variations, morels are easily identified by their completely hollow body and their honeycomb textured caps.
Since all true morels are nontoxic when cooked, they are an ideal starter-mushroom for budding mycologists. Travel and nature photographer and two time Midwestern Morel Mushroom Hunting Grand Champion Liza Wallner explains that the morel is “one of the easiest fruiting bodies to identify. Their pitted cap exteriors and hollow interiors with the stem attaching directly to the cap make them rather foolproof.”
They’re also ideal to forage because the mighty morel refuses to be tamed. While a patent for cultivating morels has existed since 1986, growers have struggled to produce a mushroom with the same nutty, meaty, slightly smokey flavor as the wild ones, so foraging retains its appeal.
In Wisconsin, morel hunting is a source of both connection and competition. The Wisconsin Mycological Society hosts regular forays: friendly group outings to find and identify morels and other edible fungi. But plenty of members prefer to guard their hunting grounds and techniques. WMS president Steve Shapson tells me that "Group forays are a great way to learn how to forage, but now we go out by ourselves when we're foraging for serious bounty. We still love to forage in groups, as the camaraderie is very rewarding."
A few days before the festival in Wisconsin, we met up with Shapson, Madison chef Jonny Hunter, and two WMS members, landscape architect Jeremy Holmstadt and environmental scientist Lynn Diener. Sworn to secrecy about their hunting grounds, we set out to poke around the wooded paths in search of those signature rippled caps. After a tense 45 minutes or so of nothing, Jeremey glanced off the path, seized up to squint into the brush, then jumped into the air with a startling “Wup, wup! Right there!”
Ten feet off the trail, there was a path of perky yellow morels, nearly the size of my palm, magically camouflaged but plain as day. As we gathered them up, Jeremy admitted that he’d “been losing sleep all week,” worrying that we wouldn’t find any so late in the season. As we meandered back to the road, it seemed like there were suddenly morels everywhere we looked—nearly four pounds in less than an hour.
The small town of Muscoda, in the hilly Driftless region of the state, takes competitive morelling to another level. During the weeks leading up to the festival, locals watch the weather and obsessively comb the surrounding areas for morels. Volunteers from the local American Legion buy them at a wholesale rate and store them until the annual 3-day Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival. The festival features a tasting room of morel products (Morel beer! Morel brats!); forager prizes for the largest and smallest morels, most morels on a single clump of earth, and “most unusual”; foraged food cooking demos; butter-fried morels; a steak-fry; and a morel parade. The American Legion sells bags of the morels and the proceeds go to the Legion’s youth scholarship program, baseball league, and upkeep of the town’s Veterans Memorial.
The festival is Muscoda’s biggest event of the year; many locals participate, and morel enthusiasts from all over the state make the pilgrimage. Liza Walner comes in from Milwaukee every year and when she met up with Matt and me there, she was undeterred by the unseasonably cold and rainy day.
After buying several bags of fresh morels at the festival—she tells me they are priced much more reasonably here than they are at morel auctions and farmers’ markets back in Milwaukee—we all get in line in the rain to wait for our little cups of butter-fried morels and cans of Miller Light. The morels are slippery with salted butter, warm and absolutely wonderful, but not nearly enough, and the beer reminds me of my freezing sandaled toes. Fortunately, Liza has the goods on a café not officially affiliated with the festival that serves whole deep-fried morels.
When we walk around the corner into Vicki's Cozy Cafe, a frazzled waitress tells us the wait for morels will be over an hour, but Wallner lifts her chin and grins with pleasure at her own preparedness. She had put our order in hours earlier, and we are able to sit down to plates of crispy fried morels almost immediately. They are lightly breaded and very peppery; the most delicious, umami-filled chicken nuggets of my dreams.
When I ask Wallner about differences in flavor she has noticed between strains of morel, she tells me that “the younger morels have a more intense woodsy mushroom flavor. Their tissue is more dense as well. A musky tasting version can be found in the black morel. Some people prefer them over the grays... Young fresh grays have a subtle sweetness that is exquisite when fried in seasoned flour. Very old school but very delicious.”
All the Mycological Society, folks we spoke with had their own favorite morel recipes to share. After our earlier foray in Madison, Jonny Hunter had brought us back to his charcuterie commissary, Underground Meats, for a tour; he ground our haul of mushrooms into a batch of pork sausage with spruce tips and ramps. While eating at Vicki's, Wallner shared that she likes to chop her morels up, sautee them with onions, and mix them into bison meatballs. Holmstad emailed me once I was back in New York to suggest making a simple risotto with morels, peas, and asparagus; Shapson likes a recipe for morel ragout over polenta from the upcoming Mycological Society cookbook.
So long as you’re cooking them thoroughly, there is really no wrong way to use them. I’ve known chefs to suggest soaking them to remove any grit or bugs from the textured caps, but the WMS folks all agreed that that is a silly way to end up with waterlogged, flavorless mushrooms. Instead, they all suggest cleaning them with a soft brush or clean towel.
When I asked Holmstadt why foraging for morels was so popular in his home state, he explained that “the rural, farming, and game hunting cultures in Wisconsin are important to this. Many people are exposed to morels at a young age, and it creates this affinity for them...Morels are common here due to the rainy climate, lime-based soils, and favored tree species. With that abundance combined with their popularity and early childhood exposure, many people...love, and eat them.”
As a busy test cook and recipe developer, I don’t have much opportunity to interact with people outside of the food business, and it was heartening to be welcomed into a new cult of enthusiasts with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. And even better: I hear there are some parks here in New York where I might find some next spring. But I’m not going to tell you where they are.
Tips From the Experts: How to Forage for Morels
Dress the part: When preparing for a foray, The Wisconsin Mycological Society advises, "The terrain will vary so wear appropriate shoes. Not all sites have groomed trails so be prepared for hilly, muddy, rocky, or rough ground. Use a sturdy container such as a wicker basket or plastic bucket to carry your specimens. Use only paper bags, wax paper bags and tin foil for delicate specimens. Do not use plastic bags; use separate bags for each specimen."
Play it safe: Guidebooks like Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, and 100 Edible Mushrooms are a great introduction to safe identification, but the New York Times suggests, "In addition to reading books, novices should always hunt with veterans and never eat a mushroom without professional identification. The mantra is: when in doubt, throw it out (and remove it from other discarded foods that a cat or dog might scavenge)."
Look out for imposters: "False morels" is a term that refers to several different species including Gyromitra esculenta, Gyromitra caroliniana, Verpas, and Helvellas. They are mushrooms that look like morels but are not. Most false morels are toxic, but they can easily be distinguished from true morels because they are not hollow all the way through the stem and cap. Don't eat them!
Avoid polluted areas: Steve Shapson, president of the Wisconsin Mycological Society, reminds foragers that "One doesn't want to forage morels or any mushrooms on roadsides where many motorized vehicles are dispersing poisonous gas fumes." Stick to the woods!
When and where: Morels tend to grow under and around ash, poplar, elm, maple, sycamore or fruit trees, and they most often appear under trees that are dying or recently dead. Most of the morel fungus exists underground and it only sends mushrooms up to reproduce when its ecosystem—the tree—is somehow threatened. Wisconsin Mycological Society member Jeremy Holmstadt explains that, "with elm, it's important that the tree is dead for at least a year or two but not "too dead" where the trunk has completely lost all of its bark. With ash, the best producing trees seem to be with clusters of other ash nearby."
Travel and nature photographer and two time Midwestern Morel Mushroom Hunting Grand Champion Liza Wallner prides herself on her morel hunting skill, but acknowledges that patience is essential:
“When deciding where to hunt, I use areas that I have previously scouted during the summer and fall mushrooming seasons. Finding the right trees is critical. Finding lots of them takes work and long hours on the trail. I am usually out hunting other species but am always mindful of where the dead elms are...
When to hunt is a bit more tricky. This depends on a trinity of factors: ground temperature (50 degrees), precipitation and gentle/slow spring heat (60's-70's). Social media is a great outlet for watching the fruiting as it begins south in Georgia in early March. Folks are proud of their morel finds and post them on many different mushroom sites along with a location. It becomes easy to track the morel progress online nowadays. Depending on the weather morels seem to travel north at about 100 miles per week thereafter. With the unpredictability of temperatures in recent years I have picked morels from early April all the way until early June in Wisconsin. Peak season though is usually around May 15th. I like to go out after a big rain. Usually when humidity is high and lots of little frogs are hopping about the mushrooms will be up."
Be patient if you don’t find them right away; Holmstadt reassures budding mycologists, saying that “you may need to look at a hundred different trees before you find a morel. Think of it like fishing or hunting, where you may go away empty-handed. When you’re lucky enough to find one, stop and look for others before you carelessly stomp toward it; there are often more mushrooms hiding nearby. And after you see that first one, then you see the rest all at once. I live for that.”
Don't pull! The morels that poke up above the ground for us to enjoy are only a small part of an elaborate underground "mycelium" system. Yanking at the mushroom can potentially damage the rest of the organism and prevent morels from growing back in that place. Either cut or pinch them at the base of the stem to harvest.