Morels: the hunt is on
June 16, 2010
Two things are proverbial after hard rains: rainbows and mushrooms.
Two things are proverbial after hard rains: rainbows and mushrooms. Most valley residents have had little trouble finding rainbows recently; local mushroom hunters say the same holds true for a rare delicacy called the morel.
“As long as people look, they’re going to find them this year,” said Tye Tilt, co-owner of Mountain Valley Mushrooms in Driggs. “In a year like this, almost all the creeks and riparian areas will hold morels.”
Tilt said morels are the only choice wild edible mushrooms growing right now in Teton Valley. But thanks to the epic rains recently, they’re abundant.
“There’s mushrooms almost everywhere,” Tilt said. “It’s just starting here in the valley – in the last five or six days they started to go off.” Now is the time to look for them, Tilt said, because morel season will probably only last another week or two.
Mushroom hunters are usually secretive about the locations of their favorite patches, but the best way to find morels (and to learn how to identify them) is to go with an experienced morel hunter, Tilt said.
“It’s hard to say what’s their habitat,” said Derek Ellis, a botanist who works for Intermountain Aquatics in Driggs. “Different years they like different things.”
Ellis said he’s had success in recent weeks finding blond morels among the cottonwoods lining the South Fork of the Snake and said they seem to be prevalent in grassy, open aspen stands and around mixed coniferous stands. As for the more elusive black morel habitat, he said, “It’s still a mystery to me.”
“The blonds are more predictable,” he said. “I’ve spent some time looking for black ones, and I’ve never done all that great.”
Tilt said along Teton Creek and in Darby Canyon are both good areas to look for morels, particularly under aspens and cottonwoods. On the other side of the hill, he said South Park in Jackson is covered with morels right now. Tilt cautioned that mushroom hunters should ask permission before searching on private land.
Morels are typically found in or around tree stands because they’re saprophytic, Tilt said, meaning they feed on dead organic matter.
“They’re a secondary decomposer,” he said. “They chew on stuff that’s underground – dead trees and shrubs, pieces of cottonwoods, pieces of aspen. The mushrooms are essentially breaking down that woody material.” How to find morels
Finding the right habitat is tricky, but that’s just the beginning, Tilt said.
“Hunting mushrooms is way different than anything else you do in the woods,” he said. “It’s like birdwatching more than anything else, but you’re looking down instead of up.”
“You have to find one, and your eye gets trained to look for them,” he said.
“I usually walk three or four paces, then stop and scan the ground,” said Tilt. “Once you see one, you’re in a patch, and that’s when you really start looking.” Tilt said he usually searches in concentric circles around the first morel he finds, because mushrooms grow in patches, and where there’s one, there are usually more.
Once you’ve found a patch, Tilt said it’s good mushroom hunting etiquette not to take all of the mushrooms, to allow them to reproduce and grow more. How to identify morels
Tilt said there are three types of morels commonly found in Teton Valley: black, yellow and false.
Yellow morels are generally easier to find, but Tilt said the black ones taste better. “The harder they are to find, the yummier they are,” he said.
False morels are poisonous, he said, and frequently mistaken for the real thing. Fortunately they are easy to distinguish.
“If it’s easy to find,” he said, “it’s probably false.”
Differentiating between a true and false morel is not difficult, he said.
“It all has to do with how the stem attaches to the cap,” said Tilt.
On a false morel, the cap hangs down over the stem, like an inverted cup; a true morel’s cap is connected to the stem at its base, like the bulb on a turkey baster.
Ty Mack, an avid mushroom hunter and the co-owner of 460 Breads in Driggs, said another distinctive characteristic of true morels is that they’re hollow when cut in half longitudinally; false morels, he said, are either solid or contain filaments inside the stem.
Although Tilt said true morels are “very distinctive,” he advised, “unless you’ve been out with somebody that knows morels, or you have a field guide, you shouldn’t pick mushrooms.”
Tilt recommended several good mushroom guidebooks, including Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms; he said his favorite is a book called All That the Rain Promises and More, by Dave Arora. Eating your morels
Morels, like most wild edibles, should be cooked before they are eaten. Opinions vary on what the best way is to prepare them, but Scotty Button, Mountain Valley Mushrooms’ other co-owner, suggested visiting a website called thegreatmorel.com. On the recipes page of that site, you’ll find dozens of recipes and preparation tips.
“With some raw cream, they’re the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat,” said Tilt. “All the nooks and crannies, and the hollow stem, it’s like they’re crying out for cream sauce.”
“They’ve got a really nice, rich flavor,” Mack said. “You can smell the mushroominess even when they’re fresh. If you just sautee them in butter, you can’t go wrong.”