Spring and summer tend to arrive on the Door Peninsula somewhat later than they do in the rest of the country. People who pine for warm days before June are usually granted a few, but the 45th parallel that pierces through the middle of the county tends to repel eighty-degree weather until July. The cold water that surrounds the peninsula also helps in defending the area from an early arrival of summer climate. It is these conditions that help make Door County an ideal habitat for morel mushrooms, and a great place to hunt what many consider to be the most delicious of wild fungi.
These spongy-looking mushrooms are generally easy to recognize and can be found while hiking, walking the dog, or even mowing your lawn. They can also be purchased fresh at many farmers’ markets throughout the county (when in season). Morels are a delectable enhancement to many types of cuisine. However, many morel purists prefer to sauté them in olive oil or butter and enjoy on their own. All this helps to make morels the most popular wild mushroom in Door County.
During spring and into early summer morels are found on the ground in a variety of peninsula habitats, including moist woodlands and orchards. Many factors such as ground temperature and rain levels dictate their growing cycle and how bountiful the crop. If you have never hunted the morel, it’s advisable to make your first expedition with someone who knows what good morels looks like and how to distinguish them from other mushrooms, especially the false morel.
Morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, but hunters should be careful not to mistake them for false morels. Although many have enjoyed them without ever knowing the difference, the false morel does carry the danger of causing sickness and (in some rare cases) death. The false morel grows in generally the same climate and season as true morels, but can be distinguished in a couple of ways:
First, the cap surface has lobes, folds, flaps or wrinkles, but it does not have pits and ridges like a true morel. Some describe the caps as bulging outward instead of being pitted inward.
Second, the bottom edge of the cap of a false morel hangs free around the stem, like a skirt. On true morels, the bottom edge of the cap is attached, and appears to grow directly out of the stem.
Don’t take chances. If you’re not completely confident that your mushroom is a true morel, throw it away.
If you ask, “where can I find morels in Door County,” you may discover that many hunters are somewhat secretive about their information. Morels can take time to find and some hunts may consume hours and yield nothing. Those that discover a sweet pot where morels can be found year after year may want to keep it to themselves.
If you do plan to hunt morels this year, outfit yourself with a mushroom-friendly collection bag. Mesh bags like the ones used in packaging onions are great. These bags help to keep the mushrooms cool and dry after they’ve been picked. They also help to spread the spores of the morel, which promotes future crops.
Most experienced morel hunters, however, are happy to provide guidance. Some will tell you that hunting in untended apple and cherry orchards can produce good finds. Still others claim to have had good luck under elm, pine, and even cedar trees. If you plan to hunt for morels in areas other than your own property or public parks, make sure you do so with the permission of the landowner of the area you will be scouting. Don’t be surprised if they ask for a cut of your finds.
Preparing morels for cooking means cutting them in half to check for insects. Rinse them carefully with cold water before cooking. Because of their incredible taste, they can be found on the menus of fine dining restaurants throughout the country, and can usually be found in sauces, soups, and stuffing.
There are three types of edible morels:
- The Common Morel (Morchella esculenta): When young, this species has white ridges and dark brown pits. As it ages, both the ridges and the pits turn yellowish brown, and it becomes what many call the “yellow morel.” If conditions are right the yellow morel can grow into a “giant morel,” which can measure 12 inches in height.
- The Black Morel or smoky morel (Morchella elata): The ridges are gray or tan when young, but darken with age until nearly black. The pits are brown and elongated.
- The Half-Free Morel (Morchella semilibera): The cap of the half-free morel is usually attached at about the middle. These morels have small caps and long, bulbous stems.
1 Quart of Fresh Morel Mushrooms (or 2 oz. of dried morels, rehydrated)
4-1/2 Cups stock (beef, chicken or rehydrated morel juice)
Juice of one lemon
8 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons white onion, chopped
1 Small clove garlic, chopped
1/2 Cup heavy cream
5 Tablespoons flour
Chop morels and sprinkle with lemon juice. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan and cook the onion and garlic in it until soft and yellow. Add morels and cook until the mushrooms absorb juices. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a large saucepan or stockpot. Stir in the flour then add hot stock, gradually, stirring constantly to avoid lumps (or blend in food processor). Simmer 20 minutes. Add the mushroom mixture and simmer an additional 15 minutes (minimum). Adjust seasoning as needed. Raise heat for 3 minutes, and then remove from heat. Stir in cream. Serve hot. Makes 4-6 servings.