HARVESTING MOREL MUSHROOMS
There are several types of morels that are all equally good, and a couple of false morels that should never be eaten under any circumstances. A true morel will have a hollow top and hollow stem. For the sake of simplicity, you should focus on Morchella elata (black morel) and Morchella esculenta (yellow morel), which are the most common. For the purposes of simplicity, avoid the verpa morel which is not actually a morel but is actually called verpa bohemica. This is the only look alike to avoid because it can cause stomach upset in some people.
Although books frequently only show a few of the many varieties of morels that there are, use a mushroom guidebook to help you identify your find. If you are in any doubt, consult with an expert or take it to a mycologist (mushroom expert) shop or farmers market that sells them.
When to harvest morels?
In northern Ontario morels can be harvested as late as July. The season in the south of the province usually starts around April.
How to harvest morels?
When you find a morel patch, don’t leave it until the next day to harvest, because it likely won’t be there. Humans are not the only hunters. Reach down with a sharp knife and cut just above the soil. Some morels have long stalks. Although they taste great, they do not have the same perceived value. So no more than 20% of the total size of the morel should be stem. Save the rest for yourself!
Do not pull it out of the ground, as this is unnecessary and adds dirt to the work. Cut, inspect for dirt and brush any off and move on to the next.
Where to harvest?
Where mushrooms appear can be important. After a fire the previous year, they can come up covered in ash. Others come up with sand on the surface. Still others can appear at the same time as cottonwood (and other similar poplar) are in bloom and can coat the mushroom in fluff. No one wants to eat or buy these mushrooms. If the mushroom is looking a bit worse for wear, flopped over and soggy, leave it where it is, as its spores will help with next years harvest.
Handling the morel mushrooms
The main problems associated with picking morels has to do with how they are handled. Wicker baskets are the best container to use. Or use a bucket and empty onto a tray where they can breath as soon as possible. Never collect morels, or any other mushrooms, in plastic bags. They will start to rot within a few hours, especially if it is hot.
When you have collected the morels that you are planning on selling as fresh mushrooms, make sure that they stay out of direct sunlight and try to keep them as cool as possible, but no frost.
Storing and drying morels
To store briefly, if that’s even possible, place in a paper bag in the fridge. They should be happy in there for a couple of days. For longer dry storage, if it is wet or damp inside and out, spread them on clean surfaces and put them in the oven at a low temperature (about 120 degrees F.) Or, preferably, use a food dehydrator. If the weather is not too damp, simply place a fan on them and let them air dry. Another good solution, if you have good sunlight, is to spread on a clean dark surface (a really clean tarp). Do not leave where dogs or other animals can leave hair or fur. Do not do this around chemicals such as gasoline, as mushrooms take in smells around them. Keep the mushrooms clean and away from any contamination (like inside where people are smoking). For the sake of clarity, treat them as if you were going to eat them yourself. In the commercial marketplace, these are high-end foods. Handle them carefully and respectively and they will pay well to harvest.
Finally, bag up the dry morels in plastic bags that are new. If you are able, try to do an accurate estimation of the level of moisture in the final dried product. This is not quite yet an exact science. The best, optimal percentage content of moisture in the finished product is about 6%. Depending on the state of the mushroom you pick, generally, you can expect a 10 to 1 change from fresh to dried. So 10 lbs. of fresh mushrooms should dry to 1 lb. of dry mushrooms.
By far the most important thing to avoid, is over drying morels, and other mushrooms. If the fresh mushrooms are put in a high heat oven and dried to zero percent moisture, they will be cooked. This will destroy the flavour when they are re-hydrated and will be valueless. Dried mushrooms should be kept dry, cool and dark.
Morels are a sought-after food product. They are revered in many cultures. This means that every year there will be demand for them. Price from year to year may vary, but long term prospects indicate steady high prices for good quality product. At present, there are no commercial operations in Ontario. This provides an opportunity to establish a long-term business in this field. Morel mushrooms are considered one of the stars in the NTFP sector, and an early impetus for those people interested in developing serious income over the seasons.
Jonathan Forbes, May 2013
More information online:
- Morels may come up in abundance in areas that had wild fires the previous year. To find out about these locations in Ontario, view the maps or contact MNR here.
- View this video on the morel harvest by My North, a northern Michigan lifestyle magazine. The video discusses the difference between false and true morel as well as where to look for the morels (e.g. in places with disturbed soils, poplar trees, ash). Most of the video discusses how to cook morels.
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