Here in Northern Michigan, spring means we’re hunting for morel mushrooms, and one favorite spot is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A tell-tale sign foraging season has begun? Cars parked alongside M-22, their occupants walking toward the hills, ridges and clusters of trees with perforated bags in hand.
You’ll find morels are most prevalent in the national lakeshore starting at the end of April and lasting into late spring. Avid foragers will tell you May is usually the best month. While finding a patch of morels takes time—a healthy dose of patience is always necessary given this mushroom’s well-known elusiveness—the rewards are not only tasty (should you stumble upon a few) but also cathartic. After all, at the very least, you’ll be enjoying time in the woods as winter’s chill gives way to warmer breezes and bright pops of color.
Mushroom Hunting Etiquette 101: Keep your distance from fellow foragers. Everyone’s fairly protective of their favorite spots, but with thousands of national lakeshore acres to explore, there’s plenty of space for all.
The Magic of Morels
The pad of butter hits the pan with a sizzle and, in my mind’s eye, slides to the side as it melts in the hot cast-iron skillet. From the other side of the room, where I sit with my legs tucked beneath me on the worn orange-brown sofa in the living room of our lakeside cabin, I glance up to see my stepdad in his element, standing stove-side and happily preparing his bounty for us. I return to my chapter book, content to know what we’ll soon be eating, as the savory aroma of sautéed morels fills the kitchen.
My memories of morels—those delicately flavored, widely-loved and sometimes elusive fungi—take me back to late spring days when I’m 8, 9 and 10 years old. Always, my stepdad is present, showing us what he found in the woods, telling us just how good these particular mushrooms will taste “with just some butter and a little salt and pepper.” I was skeptical at first—Mushrooms? Eww—but my pre-teen self bravely gave them a try. They were, in fact, a delectable treat. Right then and there, I decided these mushrooms were different.
While I’ve admittedly not done nearly as much foraging as I’d like in the many years since my stepdad first introduced me to the magic of morels, I’m determined to up my mushroom game, especially as I’ve grown even more interested in cooking and preparing homemade, locally-sourced meals for my family of five.
If you’re also in search of these tasty mushrooms, here’s everything you need to know to hunt morels at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Foraging Morels at Sleeping Bear Dunes
Bring the Right Gear
Wear clean footwear and gear before and after foraging in the woods to reduce the spread of invasive species, which can be carried on your shoes. Be sure to use morel-appropriate bags for your bounty. Onion sacks work well; the holes allow mushroom spores to release while you walk, bringing new morels next year. A walking stick or pole can be helpful, too, since you’ll be crouching down often to the forest floor and wanting to gently turn over leaves and twigs in search of the fungi.
Pro Tip: Be sure to bring a map and mark the spots where you find morels. You’ll want to keep track so you can return at a later time for more.
Pick Your Spot
I checked in with one of my oldest friends, Jill Grenchik, to learn more about the best spots to find morels in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Jill, along with her husband, is a certified mushroom expert handler through the nonprofit Midwest American Mycological Information (MAMI). “We recommend seeking out woods populated by old-growth oaks and poplar trees for the black morel, and old apple orchards for the white morel,” says Jill, a Northern Michigan native who is able, through the MAMI certification required by the state, to identify and sell wild-foraged mushrooms. “However, the last couple of years have thrown us for a loop. My theory is that due to the decline in ash trees because of the emerald ash borer beetle, morels have been pursuing new host trees and popping up all over the place.”
Follow Foraging Rules
Gathering morels in the national lakeshore must be done by hand and for personal use only (non-commercial). The park limits the amount of morels per person to one gallon per day. Note: You may also come across ramps—a wild plant related to leeks and shallots and prized for their unique flavor—but collection is not permitted on park property. Keep in mind, too, that there are false morels. These are mushrooms that resemble true morels but aren’t all in one piece; instead, they have the familiar gill-like underbelly similar to other mushrooms and a stem. Learn how to identify morels and those that may be similar—look-alikes may be poisonous.
Pro Tip: When you do come across a morel, there’s sure to be more nearby. Resist the temptation to pick every single one in the patch. Leave one or two so they can spore out properly. And never remove the root from the ground; pinch the stem and pull, leaving the little ball at the end in the ground. Don’t bother with the morels that are less than an inch in size—you can always return at a later time when they’ve grown a bit larger—and definitely leave those that are dried out or contain bug holes.
How to Store & Cook Morels
Before eating, you’ll want to soak the morels in salt water—not too long, though—to remove any debris and bugs. Store them in a bowl in your fridge, a damp towel draped over top. Your morels will keep like this for a couple of days. When you’re ready to cook them, cut them lengthwise and place in a pan with butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy them on top of pasta, steak, chicken or your favorite protein. Mix with asparagus, another delight this time of year, for a true Up North meal. Just be sure that you’re not overpowering the morel with any other flavor. You may also want to try deep-frying your morels by lightly flouring them first before adding them to hot butter. Either way, your morels don’t have to cook long, 5 to 10 minutes should do it.
Want to learn more about mushroom foraging? Jill and Aaron Grenchik, who own Northern Michigan-based Great Lakes Treats & Catering, teach mushroom classes through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. As certified mushroom expert handlers, they’re able to sell wild-foraged mushrooms. Find them at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market in Traverse City, which opens for the summer season on May 1. Jill expects to have morels on hand. “We’ll be doing our best to stock our stand,” she says. “Get there early as we sell out fast!”