When rain falls and temps begin to climb, the morel hunt heats up. But you don’t have to hit the woods to score these magical mushrooms.

By Alicia Underlee Nelson
February 20, 2020

This article was published in the March/April 2020 issue of Midwest Living just before coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect nationwide. Please look at websites for the current status of dinners, festivals and farmers markets—and if your favorite event has been cancelled for this year, be sure to check back in 2021!

Morels are marvels. The wild mushrooms enjoy a symbiotic relationship with deadwood. And no one has quite cracked cultivating them in a controlled environment to achieve their complex, earthy flavor. So each spring, foodies and foragers take to the woods. The scarcity of the mushrooms and the seasonal quest to find them only intensifies the lure and lore.

Credit: Greg Scheidemann

“We jokingly refer to it as the gateway mushroom,” says Mike Kempenich, owner and “Chief Fungi” at Forest to Fork, a wild-food grocery in St. Paul. For avid fans, this fruit of the forest is the paramount harbinger of spring. Some swear they can smell them in the air.

“There’s something almost mystical about morels,” says chef Lasse Sorensen, who helms Tom’s Place in DeSoto, Illinois. “I have never encountered any morels more flavorful than the ones we have in the Midwest.”

The short growing season peaks in April and May. A limited supply and foragers who fiercely guard secret spots can send prices to $60 a pound. Thus buying or tasting a morel can be its own treasure hunt. So mark an X on these spots and line up now to get your fungi fix.

Chef dinners

Across the Midwest

Forager-chef Timothy Fischer hosts Northern Foragers Experience Chef’s Tables at Cosmos in Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Held year-round, the intimate meals feature seasonal morels and other wild ingredients. At Skogen Kitchen in Custer, South Dakota, try morels on Joseph Raney’s soft-egg ravioli or other Tasting Menu dishes (Wednesdays and Thursdays, starting in April). Chef Ethan Hasbasco at The Rowe Inn in Ellsworth, Michigan, serves morels year-round and a five-course morel dinner May 13.

Forest to fork

St. Paul

When Minnesota chefs need the choicest morels, they go to Mike Kempenich. Now home cooks can too. Carrying morels six months of the year, Kempenich’s sleek shop in Keg and Case Market specializes in just-picked mushrooms and other wild foods. It’s also a portal to a full-fledged mushroom obsession. Sign up for mushroom identification classes or vote for the chef who deserves the Golden Morel trophy at the Wild Food Fandango June 7.

Keg and Case in St. Paul.
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Harpole's Heartland Lodge

Nebo, Illinois

A bustling Morel Mushroom Hunting Weekend April 24–26 features a guided hunt with mushroom expert Chris Matherly, but guests can forage in the forest April through mid-May. The rolling hills contain more than 1,200 acres of fertile mushroom ground. “It’s kind of like Easter egg hunting,” says owner Gary Harpole, who grew up collecting morels nearby. “And once you’ve experienced it, it’s addictive.” After the hunt, take a sunset hayride, make s’mores over a bonfire, or book a relaxing massage, manicure or pedicure. Luxury cabins and cozy rooms start at $79.

National Morel Mushroom Festival

Boyne City, Michigan

This big-time mushroom festival focuses on morel dishes. (The 2020 event has been cancelled but organizers hope to bring it back in May 2021.) Activities are both fungi-focused (a morel seminar and morel breakfast) and more broadly fun—carnival rides, a craft beer block party and a concert. Newbies can embark on a guided morel trek, while experienced foragers get bussed to a top-secret location for a competitive hunt. Local chefs showcase the bounty in innovative creations at the Taste of Morels event on Saturday.

Farmers' Markets

Across the Midwest

Mushroom-lovers in Des Moines start searching for the morel vendors at the Downtown Farmers’ Market just after dawn. When the cowbell sounds at 7 a.m., the rush is on. “People buy as much as they can get their hands on,” says market director Kelly Foss. Fungi fans also stalk the stands at the Iowa City Farmers Market, Indiana’s Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market and the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis. In Michigan, try finding morels at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market in Traverse City or the Boyne City Farmers Market.

At least eight vendors carried morels in 2019 at Des Moines’ Saturday farmers market (while supplies lasted). Lines typically form at Rinehart’s Family Farm stand long before the market opens.
| Credit: Brie Passano

Untamed Mushrooms

Credit: Dennis Becker

Mushroom expert Michael Karns helps readers safely identify and forage for morels and other Midwestern mushrooms, showcased in lush still-life photos. Co-author Lisa Golden Schroeder features fresh fungi flavors in 100+ recipes, including lake trout heaped with morels (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $18).

Credit: Dennis Becker