Hunting Mountain Mushrooms

With their spongy, brain-like appearance and mottled brown coloring, morels look more like a discarded bathroom loofah than a gourmet treat. However, these wild North American mushrooms are prized for their nutty, steak-like flavor and are worth up to $20 a pound in local markets. In the springtime, this decadent fungus pops up in woodlands throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

After a long, snowy winter, morel hunting is the perfect way to get outside and enjoy the warm weather. Morels propagate in late March through April, and need day-time temperatures of around 60 degrees to grow. Found in high-elevation forests, these wild mushrooms tend to sprout near dead and decaying trees or in places where there has been a recent wildfire.

“The most common species of morel found locally is the black morel.””

Numerous wildfires, sparked in part by four years of dry, crispy summers, have created many burn-areas in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. A burn-area is ground-zero for morel hunting. The King Fire near Pollock Pines, California, scorched over 97,000 acres of woodlands, decimating the forest, yet creating a vast and perfect habitat for wild mushrooms.

One of the reasons morel hunting is such a worthwhile endeavor is because they are so easily identifiable. The most common species of morel found locally is the black morel, and they have a very distinct appearance.

Growing at a height of one to six inches, black morels look like a sea sponge with deep, pitted pores and when sliced in half, are completely hollow. They also tend to grow in small clusters on the forest floor. If you spot one, most likely, there are other morels nearby and it’s a good idea to slowly search the area.

Once you’ve collected a handful, it’s time to reap the rewards of morel hunting with a flavorful, earthy meal. There are a variety of ways to cook these wild mushrooms: you can dice them into a pasta sauce, mix them in your omelets, or merely sauté them in butter and garlic for a simple, yet delectable appetizer. However you prepare this wild, sustainable food, morel mushrooms are a savory addition to any dish.