Searching Ohio for morel mushrooms, a culinary delicacy

Jacob Bryant, who lives in Oxford in Butler County, and his partner, Ami Schulte, cooked dinner entirely from foraged foods, plus some chili peppers from a garden. The dish had ramps, garlic mustard, fiddleheads, and morel mushrooms. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE
Jacob Bryant, who lives in Oxford in Butler County, and his partner, Ami Schulte, cooked dinner entirely from foraged foods, plus some chili peppers from a garden. The dish had ramps, garlic mustard, fiddleheads, and morel mushrooms. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE

Tasty — and free — fungi can be found in nearby wooded areas, if you just know where to look

For about a month in late April and early May, squishy fungi with cone-shaped caps pop out of the ground all across Ohio and the rest of the Eastern U.S., available to anyone with an eye to find them. Thousands go looking.

A close relative to truffles, morel mushrooms are a culinary delicacy that sell for $160 a pound online. Known for their elegance, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli even called morels “the sacred mushroom,” in an interview with Food Network.

Last year, when the world was in quarantine and everyone picked up new hobbies like baking, knitting and exercise, my hobby became searching the woods for morels. The idea of finding luxuriously tasty — and free — mushrooms appealed to both my taste buds and my college undergraduate wallet.

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But finding morels is no easy task. The porous-looking, hollow fungi, about the size of salt shakers, are few and far between and their tan-brown or light gray color closely resembles the winter-aged leaves that cover the ground, making them difficult to spot.

I was disappointed to find only five morels last year during the entire four-week season.

Meanwhile, experienced mushroom hunters, like those in the Ohio Morel Hunters Facebook group, posted pictures of hauls of dozens each weekend and references to their “spots” — places where they reliably find several morels, year after year.

New to hunting mushrooms, I was missing something. I didn’t have a spot.

But finding a spot doesn’t have to be just about luck and visiting the same place every time. For experts like Jacob Bryant, it’s just about knowing where to look.

Morels are porous-looking, hollow fungi with cone-shaped caps. They are a culinary delicacy that grows in Ohio across the rest of the Eastern US for a short time in spring. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE
Morels are porous-looking, hollow fungi with cone-shaped caps. They are a culinary delicacy that grows in Ohio across the rest of the Eastern US for a short time in spring. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE

Finding a spot

Bryant, in his 20s, is a botanist who forages in his hometown of Oxford in Butler County for wild plants and mushrooms. This summer, Bryant will begin working as a researcher in the herbarium and as a botany teaching assistant at the University of Cincinnati, while he pursues a graduate degree in botany.

At his home, Bryant has piles of field guides jammed full of handwritten notes and he has a personal herbarium with over 100 types of plants and fungi, labeled and organized by species. He talks about them with the excitement and knowledge that avid sports fans display when they rattle off their favorite players. He drops Latin scientific names into conversations with ease: to Bryant, ramps (a wild cross between garlic and onion) are Allium tricoccum, oyster mushrooms are Pleurotus ostreatus, and morels are three different varieties of Morchella.

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Recently, Bryant and his partner, Ami Schulte (also a botanist), cooked a dinner made up entirely of plants and mushrooms they’d found in the woods that day, plus some chili peppers from their friend’s garden. Among the finds in their dish were ramps, garlic mustard, fiddleheads, dryad’s saddle … and, yes, 10 of those hard-to-spot morel mushrooms.

Bryant said the key to finding wild mushrooms is knowing what trees they’ll be near. “Plants developed in tandem with fungi, since they washed up on the shores of the terrestrial Earth,” Bryant said.

Jacob Bryant, a botanist from Oxford, Ohio, identifies wild mushrooms. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE.
Jacob Bryant, a botanist from Oxford, Ohio, identifies wild mushrooms. CONTRIBUTED/AMI SCHULTE.

In the evolutionary history of life on Earth, mushrooms and trees share a close relationship and continue to do so to this day. That relationship can sometimes (like in the case of morels) be mutually beneficial when plant roots and fungi develop associations, called mycorrhizae.

A fungus consists of a weblike structure underground, and the fruiting bodies (like mushrooms) that emerge are just part of the organism, with the purpose to drop spores for reproduction. In mycorrhizal relationships, the underground weblike structures of fungi, which are called mycelium, grow around and work with plant roots. The fungus uses the web to transport important nutrients (similar to those found in fertilizers) from soil directly to the plant’s roots, while the plant roots supply the fungus with carbohydrates to help it grow. In turn, the fungus helps the plant and the plant helps the fungus.

The first plants that lived on land 700 million years ago, during the Cambrian period, relied on their relationships with fungi because they had not yet developed roots, and those associations between plants and fungi persist to this day. A 2015 study, “Mycorrhizal ecology and evolution: the past, the present, and the future,” which was published in the journal New Phytologist, said species of plants can rely heavily on mycorrhizae, with some even needing fungi for up to 80% of their Nitrogen and Phosphorus supply. And while as many as 90% of land plants continue to rely on these relationships, specific types of fungi and plants have preferences for each other.

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Bryant said he knows where to search for morels based on what trees are nearby. “It’s important to know fungi are specialized so they only colonize specific species of trees,” Bryant said. “When it comes to morels, they love elms — they grow on dead elm roots. Or, they associate with apple trees or beech trees.”

Don King, a chef and wild food enthusiast in Northern Ohio, said he, too, has learned where to find morels based on nearby trees. “Apple. Cherry. Poplar. Hickory. Sycamore. White Pine. And dead and dying elm and ash trees,” King said, listing the trees he looks for when finding a spot. “For a long time I wasn’t finding morels because I didn’t know my trees.”

Cooking morels

King is known as The Mushroom Hunter in Northern Ohio. He curates a website dedicated to wild foods education and he leads groups on educational how-to mushroom hunts for $50/person. And his popular claims to fame are his wild food cooking shows that have appeared on Cleveland’s Fox 8 local news station.

King said morels are an easy mushroom to cook compared to some because they taste just as good (or maybe even better) when they’re overcooked. He said the ideal way to cook a morel is to keep it simple. “They’re just coming out of the woods — they’re in prime quality. Let the mushrooms speak for themselves and don’t try to cover them up with too many flavors,” King said.

His go-to recipe is to cut the morels in half, coat them lightly in flour, and then fry them in a pan with butter until they become caramelized and crispy. He sprinkles them lightly with salt and pepper and enjoys — he calls it the meal he “always wants to eat at least once a year.” King said morels also pair well with cream for a sauce to go over pasta.

Getting started safely

Despite their taste for morels and other wild foods, King and Bryant both warned that any wild mushroom hunt should be approached with a degree of caution. There are some wild mushrooms that could be poisonous, so it’s important to confirm a species is safe. Despite morels having a distinctive look, there are some false morels. King has a page on his website, www.thegreatmorel.com, dedicated to showing how to identify false morels like Verpa helvella and the beefsteak mushroom.

Bryant said when he first started mushroom hunting it was difficult to tell species apart. It took time and research before he really could identify the vast variety of fungi. He recommends new mushroom hunters start off with the easy-to-identify species, like morels and chicken of the woods mushrooms that have distinctive features. People should also do their research and consult field guides, which can be found online.

Bryant said learning to forage morels and other wild foods raised his awareness of the diversity in Ohio’s forests. When people step out into the woods without a knowledge of everything they’re seeing, Bryant said it’s easy to suffer from a “green haze,” when everything in nature looks the same, but that with eyes attentive to biodiversity, over time that green haze fades. The various relationships, like the mycorrhizae that form between the fungi and the trees, begin to come to light.

“The forest really does open up to you in a lot of ways,” Bryant said. “It’s like looking at the different characters of a story as you walk along the trails.”

Blake Boyd is a graduate of Miami University who is currently pursuing a master’s degree at John Hopkins University.

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