This Ultimate Guide to Hunting Morel Mushrooms will explain everything you need to know to get started hunting morel mushrooms. This guide will cover morel mushroom identification, where to find morel mushrooms, when to hunt for morels, cooking with morel mushrooms and several ways to preserve morel mushrooms.
Morel mushroom hunting is one of our favorite springtime activities every year. I first learned how to hunt for morel mushrooms when I was in college in 2001. In the years since then, I’ve expanded my morel foraging skills and learned the secret to how to find morel mushrooms in river bottoms and wild fire burn scars.
Morel mushrooms are a delicacy and one of our favorite types of wild mushrooms to forage. I wild harvested morel mushrooms for the first time over twenty years ago and I’ve been hooked on hunting for them ever since!
Once you find one morel mushroom, you can’t stop. It becomes addictive, searching for the next one like a treasure hunt in the forest. During morel mushroom season, I often joke that I have “morel fever” like some people have “gold fever”!
When my kids were babies, I packed them in a carrier on my back when I was out hunting for morel mushrooms. They learned how to forage for morels as soon as they could walk. My kids love to join in the search for morel mushrooms every spring, especially my six year old. He has a keen eye for mushrooms and during morel mushroom season goes on the hunt every chance he can get!
Morel Mushroom Identification
Morel Mushrooms, scientific name Morchella, are an easy wild edible to start foraging for because they are so unique looking and easy to identify. The cap of a morel mushroom has a honeycomb pattern and the shape reminds me of a gnome cap. The only mushroom remotely similar, the False Morel, is easy to distinguish the difference (see section below on the False Morel).
The cap of the morel mushroom grows solidly into the stalk with no gills or veil. If you cut a morel mushroom in half vertically, the inside of the cap is hollow.
There are two main colors of morel mushrooms we forage: Golden yellow morel mushrooms and dark brown to black morel mushrooms.
Yellow Morel Mushrooms
The yellow morel mushrooms are a golden yellow to light brown color. These morels are typically found in Montana in the spring and early summer in old growth cottonwood and aspen stands along the river or creeks in the valley bottom.
Sometimes yellow morel mushrooms are camouflaged in their surroundings and hard to spot. Last spring I was morel hunting with my six year old and he pointed out a golden yellow morel mushroom right next to my boot that I hadn’t seen and almost stepped on!
Yellow morel mushrooms are the biggest morels I’ve ever harvested. A couple years ago I found one bigger than my hand!
Black Morel Mushrooms: Fire Morels
The dark brown to black colored morel mushrooms are the ones most commonly known to grow in an area burned by a forest fire. In my experience, black morel mushrooms are smaller in size than the yellow morels found growing in the river bottoms.
The last few summers, thousands of acres of forests burned in western Montana where we live. This means that there have been epic amounts of morel mushrooms popping up in these burnt forests in our region.
We’ve even found morel mushrooms growing in an area four years post forest fire so it doesn’t have to be a first year burn.
What is a false morel mushroom?
There is one mushroom to be aware of when hunting for morel mushrooms: the False Morel. According to my mushroom ID book by David Arora, some of the false morels are “dangerously poisonous, especially if eaten raw.”
The cap of a false morel mushroom looks more like a reddish brown brain and does not have the honeycomb structure of the edible true morel mushroom. False morels are not hollow on the inside. If you cut open a false morel, it will have a cottony interior in the stalk instead of being hollow like a true morel.
Once you see a false morel mushroom, it is easy to determine the difference when out mushroom hunting. To see pictures comparing a true morel and false morel, the Mushroom Huntress website has a great comparison.
When to Hunt for Morel Mushrooms
In Montana, morel mushroom hunting season is usually mid April through early summer at lower elevations. Once the snow starts melting, spring rains start falling and the ground temperatures are starting to warm up then it’s prime morel time.
The key to when to hunt for morel mushrooms is when the ground temperatures warm up to around 50-55 degrees F and the day after it rains. Moisture + soil warmth=Morel mushrooms!
The first morel mushrooms we harvest each year are yellow morels growing in the valley bottom near the river or creeks.
As the temperatures start to warm up and the snow starts melting off the mountains, then the morel mushrooms will start to pop up in the burned fire scars in the mountains.
We’ve even found morel mushrooms mid summer at higher elevations up in the mountains where the ground takes longer to warm up.
Where do Morel mushrooms grow?
We find yellow morel mushrooms and black morel mushrooms growing in distinctly different habitats in our region of western Montana.
The Secret to Finding Yellow Morel Mushrooms:
The first morel mushrooms that start to pop up each spring are the yellow morel mushrooms. Yellow morels often are found growing around the following trees:
In Montana, Aspen and Cottonwood trees can be found growing around bodies of water like rivers and creeks.
River bottoms and riparian areas around creeks are the best areas to hunt for golden yellow morel mushrooms in the spring.
Look for stands of cottonwood and aspen trees then start your mushroom hunting search. I’ve learned that the older the trees, the more likely you are to find morel mushrooms growing.
The Secret to Finding Black Morel Mushrooms:
In our area, black morel mushrooms tend to start popping up a little later than yellow morels since they are most commonly found in forest fire burn scars at higher elevations. The higher elevation areas take longer for the snow to melt and the ground to warm up for the perfect temperature for morels to start growing.
Black Morel mushrooms growing in forest fire burn scars can be found in a variety of places. Locations I commonly look are:
- south facing slopes
- near or under the edge of a downed tree
- around the base of trees
- around tree stumps
When hiking around morel hunting in a forest fire burn, you have to be cautious of downed trees, burned/unstable standing hazard trees and holes in the ground.
A tip I learned from a local mushroom expert years ago is that if you see Fairy Cup mushrooms, you are in the ideal habitat for morel mushrooms.
Sometimes it looks like you are in the ideal habitat, proper burn temperature zone, seeing Fairy Cup mushrooms but absolutely no morel mushrooms. It can be so frustrating!
When this happens, we try to look at lower elevations since maybe it is not quite warm enough in that area for the morels to start popping up yet.
We’ve been out mushroom hunting in years past hiking all over burned areas, thinking we were in the perfect area with perfect temperature but found nothing. Then driving back down the mountain road we spotted morel mushrooms popping up in an old burn area that we never expected.
We’ve also found morel mushrooms growing right along the hiking trail where it didn’t seem to have burned much at all. So like I said, it’s a treasure hunt in the forest!
Once you find one morel mushroom, there are often more close by. It’s always a good idea to stop and look around very closely when you find a morel mushroom.
Morel Mushrooms can be camouflaged and hard to spot but a keen eye will be rewarded with more morel mushrooms to harvest!
Gear Needed to Hunt for Morel Mushrooms
If you are planning to harvest morel mushrooms from public lands, you need to make sure you check regulations and obtain any required permits. There are also specific regulations in our region about morels harvested for personal use needing to be sliced in half vertically.
Mesh bag or basket:
It is recommended that you use a fine mesh bag or basket so the miniscule mushroom spores can sift out of the bag back onto the ground in hopes more mushrooms will grow there in the future.
It is important that the holes in the bag or basket are tiny so if you find some small morel mushrooms they don’t fall out and you lose your precious goods (yes, I’m speaking from experience on this one!)
Best practice when harvesting morel mushrooms is to cut the mushroom off at the base just above the surface of the ground. This leaves the base and mycelium in the ground which should help with future mushroom growth.
When my kids were too young to use a sharp knife, I taught them how to gently grasp the morel mushroom cap with one hand and gently twist while pinching the base with their other hand. This method worked well for young kids to help in the fun adventure of hunting for morel mushrooms.
Mushroom Identification books:
It is always helpful to carry a mushroom ID book when out foraging. My all time favorite mushroom ID books are by David Arora.
The biggest book, Mushrooms Demystified, I don’t haul around in my pack in the woods since it’s huge but it is an excellent reference at home or in the car.
The smaller pocket guide, All That the Rain Promises and More. is always in my pack when foraging for mushrooms since it has a handy quick key chart inside the cover.
If you also live in the Rocky Mountain Region, my other favorite mushroom identification book is The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms by Habitat. This book is helpful in identifying other mushrooms that may be growing in similar habitats to morel mushrooms.
There are other edible wild mushrooms growing in our region, like Boletes, that are growing in similar areas and seasons as the morels. Having a good field guide with you when out foraging can help you safely harvest other wild edibles.
A couple years ago I was out foraging a friend’s property and found morel mushrooms and Boletes growing only a few feet apart and close to a patch of nettles. Those mushrooms cooked up into a delicious wild mushroom nettle soup which is a recipe for another day!
How to Clean Morel Mushrooms
To clean morel mushrooms, I usually give them a quick rinse and use a knife to trim off any dirt that won’t come off the bottom of the stem. Black Morel mushrooms I’ve foraged in burned forests have not had major issues with bugs but the yellow morels I find in the valley bottom almost always have tiny ants hiding up inside the mushroom cap.
If you have concerns about bugs in your morels, cut them in half and soak them in a bowl of salt water for 3-5 minutes to flush out the insects. Then rinse the mushrooms off and they’re ready to use or preserve.
Cooking With Morel Mushrooms
All my mushroom ID books recommend cooking morel mushrooms before eating them. Even then, there may be some people who cannot digest them and will get an upset stomach. With any wild edible, it’s recommended to try a small piece first to make sure it agrees with your body.
When cooking morel mushrooms for a burger or pizza topping, sauté the morels in butter and they are so delicious!
If you’re looking for a variety of morel mushroom recipes, Practical Self Reliance has a great list of 50+ morel mushroom recipes.
Preserving Morel Mushrooms
I’ve preserved morel mushrooms several ways over the years. I’ve tried air drying, dehydrating and freezing.
I learned a tip from a local mushroom hunting expert: heat the morels in an oven or dehydrator at 165 degrees for one hour to kill off any insect eggs you may not be able to see in the mushroom.
I started doing this as a precaution since it would be devastating to find a hatching of bugs in my jar of dried morels!
The first time I foraged for morel mushrooms was in college in 2001. I lived in a rental house with roommates so did not have a lot of space.
I used a needle and thread and threaded the middle of the cap of each morel mushroom into one long garland of morel mushrooms. I left an inch or two of space between each mushroom and strung it across my bedroom for a week or two to air dry.
A few years after that a friend and I harvested so many morel mushrooms it would have been too time consuming to string them up.
Instead, we took the screens out of my windows and propped the screens up between some chairs. We spread the morel mushrooms out on the screens and let them air dry.
If I have a small amount of morel mushrooms to dry, I air dry them on a wire rack in the kitchen on the counter.
I now have my amazing Excalibur Dehydrator and it makes dehydrating to preserve quick and easy. One big batch of morel mushrooms took about four hours start to finish in the dehydrator instead of a week or two air drying in the house. Dehydrating is definitely my favorite way to preserve morel mushrooms!
This method is my least favorite for morel mushrooms but comes in handy if you don’t have the time or space to dry or dehydrate them. To freeze morel mushrooms, place the clean morels in a zip top bag, gently press the air out, seal and freeze.
I’ve also heard of people putting them in a freezer safe container with water. Once the morels thaw, they are a little slimy but still taste delicious once they are cooked.
Storing and using dried morel mushrooms:
I store our dried morel mushrooms in glass canning jars. I label the lids with where they were found and the date. We store the jars in a cool, dry place out of the sunlight.
To re-hydrate dried morel mushrooms, soak them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes. Then use them as you would if they were fresh.
I recently found a jar of dried morel mushrooms from three years ago that had been pushed to the far back corner of our storage pantry. They were in an air tight jar stored out of sunlight and looked fine.
I rehydrated the morels, cooked them up and they were just as flavorful as the dried morels I harvested last year!
Learning More about Foraging for Wild Edibles
Are you interested in learning more about how to forage for wild edibles? Check out all our other foraging articles for tips and recipes for foraged wild edibles like dandelions, rose hips, berries, medicinal herbs and more!
A great way to deepen your knowledge of foraging for wild edibles is the Herbal Academy’s Botany and Wildcrafting Course. I’ve taken several online courses from Herbal Academy and love that I can access their high quality educational courses from our rural Montana homestead!