Foraging in Minnesota: Morel Mushrooms

Signs of spring are everywhere. Snow has melted, bird migrations are heating up, and online mushroom foraging groups are buzzing. There, novices seek advice and veterans argue amongst themselves. Much of that talk revolves around morel mushrooms, and rightly so. 

Morels are delicious, though some claim they don’t live up to the hype that surrounds them. It hardly matters because along with other forest products like ramps and ostrich ferns, they represent a triumph over winter and a kickoff to the long foraging season ahead. 

~Learn how to predict the morel harvest: Morel Forecasting Tools~

Morchella, spp. and Look-alikes

Foragers of morel mushrooms will often speak of “gray morels,” black morels,” and “yellow morels.” Some probably believe these color categories delineate between species. However, there are many morel species, and color is anything but definitive. For those interested in learning more about the many morel species, the Mushroom Expert website has an excellent taxonomic key.

For those who intend to eat morels, positive identification is necessary. Fortunately, this is fairly easy, as morels have few poisonous look-alikes. The characteristic “pits and ridges” of morels are a primary identifier. Also, a hollow cross section—stem through cap—and stem attachment at or very near the bottom of the cap, are helpful. 

Yellow Morels

In the eastern U.S., Morchella esculentoides is widespread and common. It probably makes up the bulk of “yellows” collected each year. Responsible for the heart of the morel season in Minnesota, it is found in the Driftless area, farmland, and much of forested regions, and has a strong association with elm trees. Formerly known as Morchella esculenta, it is the Minnesota state mushroom since 1984.

Black Morels

copyright Roy Heilman

Another common morel species in Minnesota is Morchella angusticeps. It is darker and likely “pointier” in appearance than M. esculentoides. In northern Minnesota, Morchella septentrionalis could also be encountered, but is reportedly difficult to differentiate from M. angusticeps

Half-free Morels

Some Morchella species are called “half-free” morels because their caps attach to the stem partway up through the cap instead of at the bottom. These include M. punctipes and M. populiphila. Half-free morels—positively identified—are reportedly edible. Personally, I don’t bother with them when I find them. They tend to be small. After cooking, they are hardly big enough to skewer with a toothpick. No thanks. 

False Morels

There are several mushrooms called “false morels.” This term does not apply to a species or even genetic group. It is a catch-all term for things that novices may mistake for actual morel mushrooms. It is good to be aware of these, as they have the potential to induce severe adverse effects, if consumed. Fortunately, identifying characteristics of true morels are few, and still make morels a good mushroom for beginners. 

“False morel” species include those from the Verpa genus, which may resemble “half-free” morels. Some make claims about their edibility which are disputed. I will not address those claims here, other than to raise awareness.

More false morels come from the Gyromitra genus. They can be large, conspicuous, and commonly encountered during morel season. However, it is my opinion that they should not easily be confused with true morels. If for no other reason, the “pits and ridges” characteristic of morels does not apply to Gyromitra. Again, some make claims about edibility, but I will not address them. In my opinion, true morels are far more worth pursuing

Where to Find Morel Mushrooms

When it comes to foraging, I continue to beat the same drum: foraging is highly regional. Generalizations are hard to make, especially between states and regions of the country. In the case of morels in Minnesota, this is also true. 

In all but the heavily forested parts of Minnesota, most morel foraging revolves around dead elm trees. The morel organism lives in a state of symbiosis with elms while they are alive. When they die (or sometimes are near death), the unseen underground organism produces mushrooms. Knowing how to identify elm trees is essential to finding morels. 

The vast majority of discussion among Midwest foragers, with respect to morels, revolves around elms. But they are not the only tree that produces morel mushrooms. Many sources claim morels will also grow in association with ash, poplar, aspen, and apple trees. This may be true. But again, the vast majority of morels in Minnesota are probably found near dead elms. 

~Learn more here about identifying elm trees~

In northern Minnesota, morels can be found in association with pines. These are likely to be the “black” varieties. There is not much mention of this phenomenon out there. Whether due to the secretive nature of mushroomers, or because it is not generally known, it’s hard to say. But I have found black morels in association with Red pines (Pinus resinosa) in Itasca, Lake, and Cook counties. 

Morels on ”South Facing Slopes”

Some foragers swear by the value of south-facing slopes for finding morels. This tidbit is repeated a lot, but guess what? There is no particular magic in the dirt of south-facing slopes. Morels also grow on east-facing slopes, and west-facing slopes, and no slopes at all. They can be anywhere. My morel spots are mostly downright flat.

If you want to find morels, concentrate on finding the right trees. They grow on all the slopes.

Cooking and Eating Morel Mushrooms

As with all wild mushrooms, consult and understand several reputable sources in order to come to a certain identification before eating. 

Please be aware: In the case of morels, even a positive ID may not guard against poisoning. Many people turn out to be allergic to morel mushrooms, which results in gastrointestinal upset (perhaps severe). For them, eating morels is simply not worth it. When consuming any wild mushroom for the first time, it is wise to try a small amount in case of unknown allergy. 

Cooking and Eating Morels

It seems there are as many preferences for preparing and eating morels as there are morel pickers. There is no possibility of covering them properly, so I’ll only outline my own. 

In the field, I look for morels that seem fresh, moist, and flexible. I inspect them visually, and try to blow off debris and bugs on the spot. Those that have begun to turn orange or seem crumbly are likely old and not worth trying to transport. 

At home, I try to wash morels only as much as necessary. After that, I prefer to slice them longitudinally. (A fish filleting knife’s thin profile is ideal for mushrooms, by the way.) This leaves bigger pieces to work with, which is nice since they will shrink in the cooking process. 

Sautéing in butter is the first step. If you watch closely, you’ll probably observe a subtle color change as they heat through. If not, they will shrink visibly. Flip them once. Total cooking time is probably 4-5 minutes, depending on temperature. For me, that is long enough in the pan. There is no advantage to cooking them longer; flavor won’t improve and they will only continue to shrink. After this step, they are ready to prepare further. 

Morels are good in scrambled eggs, soup, quiche, and anywhere else you might like ordinary mushrooms. It’s best not to overwhelm them with strong flavors, however. So keep it simple. 

Morel Pizza Recipe

If you’re lucky enough to have harvested ramps with your morels, you could make something that celebrates both, like in soup or pizza. I love doing this. However, the timing doesn’t always work out. Here is a simple recipe for pizza that will showcase your morels, but should be easy and quick to execute. 

Cooking and eating morel mushrooms, morel trees

Naan Pizza with Morels

-Naan bread

-Red sauce

-Mozzarella cheese

-Sliced deli ham, cut into smaller pieces

-Halved, sautéed morel mushrooms

I buy the naan bread from Aldi (4pk) for an easy, tasty crust. It’s readily available and cheap. If I don’t have a suitable sauce on hand, I mix some tomato paste with olive oil and Italian herbs for a quick DIY sauce. I use shredded mozzarella, or opt for hunks of fresh mozzarella for something a little more exotic. 

Spread sauce over naan bread as desired. Add ham in desired amounts. Distribute morels and cover with mozzarella. 

Cook in oven heated to 425 degrees, until cheese melts and starts to brown. Use a pizza stone, or put directly on oven rack for a crispier crust. 

I would advise using at least a dozen mushroom pieces per pizza, so it doesn’t seem too sparse. Use more if desired. The good news is, you can make a viable pizza with as few as 6 morels!

If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.

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