Turkey season opens April 13. That means it’s time to hunt morels.
Morel mushrooms, that is.
Morels are one of the wonders of the spring woods. They seem to appear overnight and are a culinary delicacy.
Unlike turkey season, which is set by state fish and wildlife officials, mushrooms appear at the whims of nature, their arrival driven by weather, soil temperature, moisture and a few secrets the natural world keeps to itself.
Optimal morel conditions, however, are simple: a warm, wet spring.
“When you have a week of 50-degree nights and some rain, then morels should be coming any time,” said Joe Lacefield, a private lands biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and a dedicated mushroom hunter.
Not all mushrooms are created equal. Many are toxic. A few can be fatal. Morels are neither and, fortunately, they are fairly easy to identify. Still, Lacefield suggests that novice mushroom hunters accompany an experienced hunter the first time out.
“It definitely takes some experience,” he said.
Morels can range from thimble size to something close to a 16-ounce soda bottle, although the large ones are rare. Early ones are often black morels and are about the size of your thumb. Gray or yellow morels usually appear later.
Morel mushrooms have a conical cap that is pitted and ridged and appears honeycombed. Morels are also hollow, an important distinction from what Lacefield described as “false morels,” which somewhat resemble the tasty, edible, much-sought-after variety but are not hollow.
“Morels have a wrinkly cap, and really there isn’t anything that looks like them except that false morel, which isn’t hollow,” he said. “In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons people like to go for the morels is because they are so hard to confuse with anything that will make you sick.”
Early-season mushroom hunters should focus on westward-facing slopes, which are generally afforded warmer soil temperatures. Morels often appear near sycamore, hickory, ash and elm trees. Fruit trees frequently harbor them, too.
Why morels grow near some tree species and not others is unclear, Lacefield said.
“There’s some mystery concerning morels,” he said. “Are they a symbiotic species that basically is tied into a root system of (a) tree? Or are they just in the soil? But they’re usually always associated with trees.
“Apple trees are a favorite host of morels. An old orchard that happens to be in the woods is often a productive area.”
Morel growing season usually reaches into mid-May but rarely longer.
“It a pretty short-term season,” Lacefield said. “You’re looking at a month, generally. After mid-May the herbaceous vegetation kind of obscures them. You don’t see them as easily. But they are much, much less frequent.”
Morels literally can appear overnight but will grow for a couple of weeks if left undisturbed. When hunters locate a morel, however, they usually collect it.
“They pop up pretty quick and will grow and develop for as long as 21 days,” Lacefield said. “But when people see them they generally pick them, so they don’t get a chance to develop.”
Successful mushroom hunting generally comes to those who have developed some woodsmanship skills – primarily the ability to identify trees.
“Morels are pretty camouflaged,” Lacefield noted. “You have to develop an eye for them and key in on what you’re looking for.”
Morels are next to impossible to produce commercially, which adds to their wild value. Mushroom hunters guard their spots as closely as deer hunters or bass fishermen. And like deer and bass, morels are often found in the same general areas year after year. But also like deer and bass haunts, spots that produced last year might not surrender anything this season.
“People will have spots where they’ve found morels and they will know to go back to those spots in similar conditions the next year,” Lacefield said. “But if the weather isn’t right or there is not enough moisture in the soil, they might be diminished.”
In general, trees are the key along with soil temperature and rainfall. That’s one constant and two variables. Morel hunting is an inexact science.
The western portion of Kentucky is usually the better producer of morel mushrooms, says Lacefield, who lives in the Bluegrass region.
“I find more of them when I would go to Western Kentucky. Fort Campbell, the Pennyrile Forest, Land Between the Lakes and Fort Knox, even. But I’m skunked here so far this year. I’ve put in a lot of miles and haven’t found any. Not yet.”
Morel munching: Mushroom hunters treasure wild morels because they are tasty. The typical way to prepare them is battered and fried.
Kentuckian Michael Pendley, who pens a food column for the Realtree online publication Timber 2 Table (www.realtree/timber-2-table.com), advises thoroughly cleaning the mushrooms before cooking.
“Immerse them fully in water to chase out any small critters that might have taken up residence inside the open cells of the mushrooms,” he said. “I am always surprised at the number of insects that float out.”
Thoroughly dry the mushrooms before cooking.
Pendley says one of his favorite ways to enjoy morels is to cook them in a cream sauce by sautéing them in melted butter and flour. Salt generously. Serve over venison or turkey.
“But the classic, and by far the most popular, cooking method is simply to slice lengthwise, dip in light egg wash and seasoned flour, then fry in butter until crisp and brown,” he said. “There may be no better food on earth than a mess of fried morels and wild turkey breast strips, a true gift of the spring woods.”
Both will be available soon.
More at http://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table/grilled-venison-loin-with-morel-mushroom-bourbon-cream-sauce.
Turkey season: Kentucky’s statewide spring turkey season will open April 13, and run through May 8. The season bag is two gobblers or two turkeys with visible beards. No more than one bird may be taken per day. Special regulations apply to some areas.