The Secret Life of Morels

Rachel Tepper Paley
·Editor

Photo credit: Neil Setchfield/StockFood

There’s something about morels that drives people to madness.

That’s according to Chris Matherly, a self-described “morel obsessive,” who we spoke to when he was midway through a four-month-long hunt, chasing the hard-to-find mushroom from Georgia to Washington State. Matherly left his Kennesaw, Georgia home in late March; he won’t return until early July, at the tail end of the morel growing season.

Because they’re elusive, “there’s something about the morel mushroom that just drives people crazy,” Matherly explained. “They get addicted.”

Even amongst the curious-looking oddballs of the mushroom kingdom, the morel sticks out. With its tall, honeycombed cap, it has the look of a Martian roe sac. Its unique appearance is both a blessing and a curse: There’s little chance of confusing a morel with any other mushroom (including a poisonous one), but its shape and coloring blend effortlessly into its forest-floor surroundings, making it difficult to spot.

Once located, however, the morel is a treat. “The flavor of them is just very unique, kind of nutty and earthy,” Matherly mused. 

Chris Matherly, with morels he foraged in Illinois. Photo credit: Chris Matherly/Facebook

Among its fans are the hordes who follow Matherly into the woods at each stop along his morel-chasing route. Over the course of his trip, Matherly will host at least 10 guided morel hunts, each with a group of up to 30 fervid mushroom hunters. Matherly organizes the trips through his website, Morel Mushroom Hunting Club, which he started in 1999 and which boasts roughly 1,500 members. He says he’s booked solid through the fall. (During the year, Matherly hosts up to 50 foraging trips for other mushrooms and herbs.)

Morels can be found all over the United States, and each region’s season typically lasts for three or four weeks. The warmer the area, the earlier its morel season begins, Matherly explained. In Georgia, the first morels spring up in late February. By April, morels are beginning to sprout up the East coast, all the way up to Vermont. In May, they’re in northern Michigan, Oregon, and Washington.

All told, morels can be found somewhere in America right through the end of August. If you’re interested in finding some of your own, do your research and check Matherly’s Mushroom Report, which compiles morel sightings all over the country. (Right now, Ohioans, you’re in luck!)

Photo credit: Chris Matherly/Facebook

Morels generally like to grow in the shady earth near the roots of trees, Matherly said. The type of tree depends on the region: In the flood plains of the Southeast, morels grow under ash trees. In the Midwest, they’re often found under dying elms. In the Pacific Northwest, morels favor firs, and in Kentucky and Tennessee, tulip poplar trees. And on and on.

And what exactly is a morel? “The mushroom that we pick is the fruiting body of an organism that grows underground,” he expounded. Morels “have a symbiotic relationship with certain trees… [they] get nutrients from the roots, and the mushroom’s root system gives trees extra moisture during droughts.” 

Despite these subtle differences, all morels boast that tell-tale honeycomb cap and an earthy flavor. ”I never get tired of them, and I never get tired of hunting them,” Matherly said wistfully. “By August, I know that’s one of the last morels of the year. I start getting depressed. I’ve got to get back home to reality.”

Many morel-enthusiast websites (of which there are many) swear that the only way to properly enjoy morels is to sauté them in butter, so try this simple recipe from Food52, which calls for sautéing the mushrooms and thyme in butter until tender.

 And whether you’re foraging your own morels or purchasing them at your neighborhood farmer’s market, take care to savor the season—morels will be gone before you know it.

Photo credit: Food52

Morel Crostini
From Food52
Serves 4

1 fresh baguette, sliced thin
extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
6 ounces fresh morels, cleaned and sliced lengthwise
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
3/4 cups leeks, sliced thin, white and pale green parts only
2 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Goat cheese, to taste

Make the toast: Preheat oven to 350. Place sliced bread on a baking sheet. Brush each piece with olive oil. Bake until bread is lightly toasted, 10-15 minutes. Arrange toast on a serving tray.

Sauté morels: In a large skillet, melt butter over medium high heat. Add morels and saute 2-3 minutes. Add thyme and season with salt and pepper. Saute until morels are tender, about 3 minutes.

Add leeks to mushrooms and saute until soft, 3-4 minutes more. Stir in the lemon juice and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour mixture into a serving bowl and then place the bowl on top of the serving tray with the toast. Place goat cheese on the tray. Let everyone assemble their own crostini: smear a bit of goat cheese on toast, then top with a spoonful of morels.