05/17/2010 12:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Morel Hunt

I was told to wear the colors of the forest and that there'd be a 100-yard stretch we'd need to crawl. The crawling turned out to be a joke, but the camouflage was not. Mushroom hunting knows no property rights. And last weekend, my guide and I ventured onto someone's forested upper Midwestern property in search of morels. Those earthy, early-spring fungi so special and strange that they sell for upwards of $40/lb in city stores.

Though I'd been cooking with morels for years, this was only my second mushroom hunt. The first had taken place the prior weekend, with other guides, in another upper Midwestern state. On that trip, we found one lone mushroom. One lone mushroom that had been dropped on the path by an earlier hunter. It would have been disappointing if it hadn't been so delicious.

This second hunt began in much the same way. Slowly. Have you ever thought about how much there is to see in the forest, as compared to the tiny slice of forest you actually see? If you think about this while morel hunting, you will begin to ask yourself big questions about your place in the universe. Big, uncomfortable questions whose answers can be not only discouraging, but distracting to the task at hand. There's a lot to see. I began to look for patterns. And I tried to make some sense.

My guide suggested I look for may apples (morels grow in the same conditions) and dead elms (morels are said to grow near them).

May apples were easy to spot, but--for me at least--dead elms were not. I failed the leaf identification test in the 9th grade. And these dead trees were leafless! I stumbled back into big question-land. I stumbled across a few shotgun shells (yikes?). And then, I stumbled onto some ramps.

My guide was somewhere just out of sight, collecting pounds and pounds of morels, I was sure. But there, at my feet, were the bright green leaves and purple stems of spring's most illustrious wild alliums. I had not gone looking for, and had certainly not expected to find, ramps. I tried pulling on a leaf but realized quickly that the bulbs needed to be dug up. So I dug. There were tons of ramps! I kept digging until my guide reappeared and suggested we head to a nearby area to look for more morels. He hadn't found any either.

But finding those ramps seemed to be the concrete kick I needed to bring myself back down to earth. Unsure of what was elm, I carefully searched around every dead tree I could find, brushing aside the low growth with a long stick. After maybe half an hour of this slightly more targeted (and much less existential) search, I spotted two large white morels at the base of a living tree. Ten feet away were another three.

These ended up being the only morels we found that morning. The previous week, my guide had found 32. Perhaps the season was waning. But our slender yield was encouraging nonetheless. Back at home, I made a ramp-morel omelet and felt very satisfied. And I can't wait to go mushroom hunting again next year. It's lovely just to be quiet and attentive in the spring woods.

So, I'm no expert, but I did pick up a few tips (fellow morel hunters, share yours in the comments!):
  • Morel season takes place in early-mid May.
  • They grow in not-too-wet, not-too-dry-or-sandy, forested conditions.
  • Like I mentioned, they grow in conditions similar to may apples and near dead and dying elms.
  • When you pick a morel, tear its stem, don't uproot it, so it will grow again next year.
  • There is such a thing as a false morel; be sure of what you're eating.
  • Morels will rot if you try to store them in plastic.
  • To keep morels, dry them in the sun.
  • To cook with dried morels, reconstitute them in warm water for 15 minutes or so before using.