Editor's note: This story originally published March 18, 2015. We think the information here is timeless, especially as Southern Illinois weather starts to get warmer and wetter each April and the earth gifts us with the treasures that are morels.
Warm spring days in Southern Illinois find many of us yearning for a walk in the woods. While some Southern Illinoisans are content to look at spring wildflowers, others are searching for that elusive culinary delight that is the morel mushroom.
Morel mushrooms like rain and warm weather. They start to pop up in the woods when daytime temperatures climb to near 60 degrees, with nighttime lows around 40. In Southern Illinois, the season usually begins in late March and runs through April.
Several types of morels grow in Southern Illinois. Some are edible, others are not. Some are deadly.
Novice mushroom hunters should do their research. Numerous books and online resources are available to guide you; however, the best way to learn the difference is from an experienced mushroom hunter. Some message boards and Facebook pages are geared toward morel hunters and will identify the variety from pictures posted to the site.
Finding an experienced morel hunter who is willing to help a novice learn is not an easy task. The “golden rule” of morel hunting is: Keep your favorite spots a secret. With some persistence, you may be lucky enough to find a mentor who will help educate you.
Morels grow near ash, elm, apple and even tulip poplar trees, especially fallen trees or in old apple orchards. Step carefully because they are often camouflaged by leaves and natural debris.
Pick the mushroom from the bottom of the stem. Mushrooms are best carried in mesh bags. (Some hunters believe this practice helps spread spores that grow new mushrooms.) Some dirt and debris will fall through the bag as your hunt continues, making cleaning a little easier back at home.
Most mushrooms need only a quick brushing, but the pitted texture and hollow core of the morel may trap dirt and small creatures. A quick rinse under cold water will get rid of any dirt. Put the morels in a colander and swish around in a large bowl filled with cold water. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Drain the morels and place on towels to dry.
If you aren't the outdoors type, you can buy Southern Illinois morels at the Neighborhood Co-op in Carbondale.
Morels have an earthy flavor and are considered a gourmet delicacy. They can sell for as much as $20 per pound.
Morels must always be cooked before eating. The mushrooms contain a toxin that is destroyed by cooking. Eating them raw can cause gastric distress. When consuming morels for the first time, eat only a small amount. If there are no ill effects, enjoy the tasty morels.
Morels can be cooked like any other mushroom – fried, sautéed or grilled. Since their flavor is unique, most morel hunters suggest simply frying or sautéing. Try sautéing them with olive oil or butter and a little garlic.