The hunt is on for morel mushrooms

Roseanne McKee
On Easter day 2014, Darin McKee found 36-quarts of morels on his family ranch in southern Oklahoma in Carter County. Courtesy

While Easter egg hunts were popular last week, some folks hunted for spheres of another kind — morel mushrooms. And, it is the most favorable season for morel hunting in years.

These wild edibles, a delicacy served in the finest restaurants, currently retail for $57.50 to $59.50 per pound according to the Earthy Delights website

Pioneers and American Indians have long understood their value. Like wild onions, one of the first edible greens to appear, morels are a rite of spring in Oklahoma.

The morel season is short, making their harvest all the more special. They appear as temperatures in each area reach optimal level.

Morels appear in southern Oklahoma in mid March, at the beginning of April in mid-Oklahoma and reach northern Oklahoma by mid April. Morels sprout up in Kansas by May. Morels thrive when there is sufficient rain, warm nights and temperatures between 45-50 degrees, said Edmond morel hunter Marty Lee on an Outdoor Oklahoma episode hosted by Todd Craighead, which is posted at…/how-hunt-morel-mushrooms.

Darin McKee grew up on a ranch in southern Oklahoma in Carter County. He said when he was about 8, when he found a morel while out exploring and brought it home.

“My dad carried it to the Pioneer Restaurant [in Velma] and asked his friends what it was. Somebody at the restaurant knew they were edible,” he said. “Dad brought it home and mom rolled it in flour, fried it, and we had it for dinner. It was good so I got more after that. I looked for them every year after that, but I didn’t find them every year.”

Typically hunters find fewer in years that are dry.

McKee recalled a special Easter Sunday in 2014 when he went out looking for pigs to shoot and instead found a mother load of morels.

“I filled a 36-quart cooler full of morels. There were some brambles and I’d knelt down under them to see if I saw pigs, and instead I saw mushrooms — dozens of them.

“It was pretty far off the beaten path. They’d never been picked so they just dropped spores and made more every year. I think I was the first person to wander up on that spot,” said McKee.

On April 17 while driving in Sand Springs, McKee spotted a morel in a grassy area. He stopped the car and gathered a dozen morels in plain sight at the entrance to a residential area.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. Offering tips for finding morels, McKee said, “[w]hen you find one, stop moving and start looking because you’ll find them under leaves. They blend in. They’re camouflaged. Once you pass through an area turn around and pass back through. You’ll find ones you missed.”

One of McKee’s friends from childhood, Darrin Harris, has also become a morel hunter, and they both hunt morels annually on public lands near Stillwater.

Harris said, “I can remember my dad hunting them … but I don’t remember hunting them. Probably 20-25 years ago, I started hunting them. It’s fun to go out with a friend or family. Me and Allie and Callie (his wife and daughter) went out last night, and we found about 80.”

Describing the hunt, Harris said, “it’s like playing ‘Where’s Waldo.’ You find one and look around and there’s 25-30 of them.”

The size of morels ranges from grape sized, to egg sized to saucer sized.

Edible morels come in several varieties — yellow, grey, brown, white and black.

However, there is one morel that should not be eaten — reds.

“Reds are false morels,” McKee said. “They have a toxin in them, and if you’re sensitive to it, it will make you sick. On a false morel, the stems are solid and kind of pithy whereas a regular morel has a hollow stem.”

There is a right and a wrong way to harvest morels.

Lee said it is best to cut the morels at the base horizontally so they will grow back. Also, if you take them by the roots they won’t grow back as easily and you will add dirt to the whole bag, which is then hard to clean.

McKee uses a special pocketknife with a brush for cleaning dirt off the mushrooms and a bag specially designed to carry mushrooms, made from a loosely woven burlap material.

As for where to find morels, McKee said he finds them “under dead elm trees — not live ones.”

Lee advises looking under elms, cottonwoods, sycamores and ash trees. He also finds morels near dying or damaged trees, he said.

That may be because morels are actually part of a greater underground system called mycelium, which feeds off dying trees.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments (hyphae).

Morels have both saprotroph and mycorrhizal fungi characteristics, according to the website Saprotrophs are scavengers, organisms that feed off the dead tissue of other beings, while mycorrhizal fungi enter “symbiotic relationships” with plant roots.

To clean morels, brush off the dirt and bugs, rinse them in water and pat them dry. Then leave them in a bowl of salted water for 15 minutes or longer and dry them again. McKee sautees the stems in butter and batters the mushrooms in flour, salt, pepper and fries them.

“The way we cook them is I clean them and then I dry them off and I use Zaterain’s Fish Fry seasoning (without flour) or just flour and seasoning salt and fry them in oil in a frying pan,” Harris said.

“When I end up getting a bunch of them, I wash, dry and flour them on a sheet pan and put them in the freezer. Then I put them in Ziplock bags and get them out and they’re like French fries. If you take them frozen and dump them in that hot oil, they’re as good as the day you picked them.”

Although morels work well as a side dish with fried fish, Harris said, “I’ll fry them and end up eating them before everything else is done — as an appetizer.”

However you decide to prepare them, here’s wishing you a successful morel hunting season.