How to Pick Wild Morel Mushrooms Safely
Morel mushrooms are a prized delicacy and it is well known that the best way to find them is to search through burn areas during the spring(s) following a wildfire. Recent fire seasons out west have been unprecedented, so it’s safe to say that morel hunters are drooling about this coming spring.
With that excitement and with the likelihood of hunters having lots of success, there will be plenty of newbies out in the woods looking to harvest their own morels, and we think that’s awesome! Who wouldn’t want to go for a walk in the woods and bring home a big bag of fresh, delicious food?
Before we get started, we have to say that this post is NOT all you need to read to safely identify morel mushrooms. In fact, there is not a single article on the internet that can teach you how to identify morels. Learning how to ID mushrooms is an enjoyable process and should be done in real life with a real teacher. This can be a through a trustworthy mentor or a structured class. No amount of YouTube videos or blog articles can substitute for the safety of in-person learning.
That said, we think that morels are a relatively safe mushroom to harvest and we’d like to share the main tools that we use to make sure we are harvesting safely. Many of these tools can be used with other species as well, so lets get started.
1. First of all, we’ve noticed that sometimes new mushroom hunters underestimate the diversity of mushrooms in the wild.
We’ve seen this classic mistake numerous times – A new hunter heads out into the woods looking for chanterelles. They know they’re looking for an orange mushroom, so when they find one they assume it’s a chanterelle. They might even notice that it doesn’t look quite right – maybe the gills are a little different or the stem isn’t exactly like the pictures they saw. But hey, it’s orange and gilly, so it must be a chanterelle. In reality, they simply don’t realize that there are dozens of species of orange mushrooms.
On some days we may bring home 3-4 edible species, but we’ve come across dozens of species that aren’t edible or that we couldn’t identify that day. Just knowing and appreciating that there are many, many species of mushrooms is an important first step in mushroom hunting, which leads me to my next tip.
2. Identifying mushrooms can be difficult and it’s a learning process that should be treated that way.
It isn’t something you look up real quick on YouTube and then get to eating mushrooms. If you are interested in harvesting wild mushrooms, be prepared to enter a learning process that will take time and energy. You need to buy books, learn from others, and consider taking a class. I was extremely fortunate to work outside every day in the mushroomy woods with several experienced mushroom hunters (thanks guys!).
Our favorite book to get practicing is called “All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms“. It’s a great book because it has all of the common mushrooms that you’ll run into, its small, and it has awesome pictures of strange mushroom hunters. This is a thing you’ll come to appreciate more and more, even after you’ve picked so many that your fingers turn into mushrooms.
3. One of our philosophies about mushroom hunting is to stick with species where mis-identification won’t result in a fatal mistake.
There are mushrooms out there that can kill you and there are also mushrooms that can make you unpleasantly sick, but you’ll survive. If you research and know what you are looking for when you look for morels, and you make a mistake, it won’t kill you. A common lookalike, “Verpas”, aren’t recommended for eating but they won’t kill you. If you go hunting for a white mushroom with gills that grows on the ground and you make a mistake, it could be fatal.
We stick with species that are pretty hard to misidentify – like hedgehogs.
4. Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer
This is sort of true with mushrooms. There are several species of “false morels” – species that look sneakily similar to a morel. Get to know these too so that when you find them in the woods you have a better chance of knowing that they aren’t morels. The mushrooms in the photo below are “Verpas”, a morel lookalike that we don’t recommend eating. It’s good practice with any mushroom to know what lookalikes you might run into. Books like “All That the Rain Promises…” do a good job of indicating what lookalikes you might run into.
5. Cut it in half!
So you’ve read the books and done the research and found what you think is a morel. Cut it in half from top to bottom.
One of the most telling signs that a morel is a true morel is that it is hollow from the bottom of the stem to the top of the cap. Notice the mushroom on the right has a gauzy-filled stalk…Not a morel!
Here is a picture of one of our first morel harvests, 8 years ago, when we cut every mushroom in half to make sure it was hollow. This type of paranoia is healthy when you first start hunting mushrooms. An added bonus to cutting them in half is that they dry faster if you’re dehydrating them. They are also easier to clean when you can take a good look inside for any sneaky dirt clods or hitchhikers.
6. Look for a “honey comb” texture and expect a variety of colors
The way I think of it is that true morels always have a “honey-comb” textured cap, while false lookalikes often have more of a folded, brainy texture. True morels can exist in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Anything from golden yellow to black is possible. Take a look at the first four images shown below. Notice the variety of colors but the similar honeycomb cap with sharp edges. Then, take a look at the falsies below.
Check out these false morels with their weird, gauzy stalks and folded, brainy caps. They have real morels next to them for comparison.
7. Double check every mushroom when you get home.
Even when you are 100% confident in identifying a certain species of mushroom, it’s possible to put the wrong mushroom in your bag. When you’ve been grabbing handfuls of mushrooms on your hands and knees all day like a crazed zombie, it’s actually somewhat easy to accidentally put the wrong mushroom in the bag. Maybe it blended in to a clump of good mushrooms, or maybe it just looked similar.
Either way, when we get home we like to spread them out on the table, bust out the mushroom book, and double check everything. It’s a great time for more dorky photos.
8. If you’re not 100% confident, don’t eat it. Take good pictures and consult with a pro.
This goes for every type of mushroom. If you aren’t sure, it’s not worth getting sick or worse. While we usually avoid social media and don’t recommend seeking all of your advice for mushroom hunting online, we DO recommend joining some mushroom hunting social groups on Facebook. On these pages, you can post pictures of mushrooms that you have found to see what others think they are, and you can follow along to learn about mushrooms from the community. There are lots of very experienced hunters on these groups so if you’re careful, it can be an excellent resource for identifying mushrooms you have found.
While this article definitely wasn’t all-inclusive, we hope these tips were helpful. If you want more general information about finding morels, check out this article. And here is another article we wrote about training your eye to find them in the field, with a fun activity to get you even more mushroom hunting ready!
Please feel free to comment or message us with any questions, and thank you for reading!