Sheri Hess grew up at Marion County Lake, so she knows the joys of exploring the woods, but this spring, her husband Keith and 10-year-old daughter, Emmy, have encountered treasure in the woods, and along with Hess, are enjoying the delights of eating morel mushrooms.
“My dad taught me about finding the right ones and where to look,” Hess said. “But my husband, who grew up in Pennsylvania, didn’t know about these, and my daughter just last year learned how much fun it is to hunt for them. We’ve really had fun this year and have had a lot of success finding them.”
Morel mushrooms are a springtime delicacy, shaped like a sponge on a stem, found only for a few weeks of the year when there is plenty of moisture in the ground and the temperatures stay above 50 degrees at night.
They are a fungus and are difficult to cultivate intentionally, but mushroom lovers around the world know where and when to look to find them.
“I always look in wooded areas, especially under old cottonwood trees,” Hess said. “We’ve had real good luck the past two weeks because of the rain and the warm temperatures.”
Hess said the time to look for morels depends more on temperature than actual time and date.
“We found some earlier this year than ever before,” she said. “I’ve found more than 10 lbs. already, and we started the last weekend of March.”
Prior to this year, Hess said the earliest she ever found morels growing was at the end of April and into May, but this year many mushrooms are producing early.
“I can count on finding them when the stingweed is about ankle high,” she said.
Finding morel mushrooms is only half the fun. Cleaning and cooking them is the true reward for mushroom lovers.
Hess, like many other morel experts, simply cleans the fungi with water and splits them in half lengthwise. Then she dips them in an egg and water mixture, coats them in cracker crumbs or breading mix for chicken or shrimp, and fries them in butter.
“They are so good,” she said. “We eat all that we can find. It’s hard to describe the taste. They are just very good.”
Hess, who also owns the Wagon Wheel Express in Marion along with her husband, said that they sometimes cooked them at the restaurant but did not sell them to customers.
“I might give someone a free sample,” she said. “But we don’t know what the regulations would be about wild mushrooms and don’t want to get in trouble that way.”
Hess said morels make a perfect complement with steaks or taste good chopped up in a salad.
Morels should not be served raw and care must be taken when finding them to make sure not to confuse them with other types of poisonous fungi.
Morel mushrooms are distinguishable by their sponge-like or honeycomb tops and their stems are always hollow. They come in several different colors ranging from gray to bright yellow, depending on species variety and weather conditions. They should be clean and free of decay matter when prepared for human consumption.
Hess said the best time to look for them was in the evening, when the soil had heated up during the day, and after a recent rain.
“My daughter is really enjoying finding them this year,” she said. “Every evening for the last two weeks, it’s been ‘C’mon let’s go hunt.’”
The morel season lasts only three weeks each spring, so time to find them is about over.