Mushroom King: Kansas, Missouri morel season looks to be good in 2021
The 2021 morel mushroom season is looking to be a good one, according to one of the Midwest's foremost fungus experts.
St. Joseph, Mo., resident Thomas Weipert, better known as "The Mushroom King," says this year's crop in Kansas and Missouri is coming in later than it has in past years, and that the mushrooms should benefit from the weather we've had so far this spring.
“This year, by my research, is pretty close to a normal mushroom season,” Weipert said of the later start. “The past 10 years we’ve actually gotten earlier and earlier and earlier. We would be almost done with morel season in my neck of the woods. It’s a really on-spot season as far as morels go.”
Weipert said he thought the peak of the morel hunting season in Kansas and Missouri probably began this week and will continue through next week.
“This year will be a really good year because we’ve gotten moisture that we haven’t had in the past,” Weipert said.
The morel season appeared to be off to a fine start a couple weeks ago when a sudden freeze covered Kansas and much of the Midwest in several inches of snow.
He said you might have a few mushrooms that get a little “frost bite” on them, but normally the freeze actually helps the mushroom growth and can even lead to bumper crops thanks to the introduction of nutrients in the soil.
“You know, freezes — depending on the severity of the freeze and how far along we are in the season — sometimes it may play a little factor on some of the mushrooms that are already up,” Weipert said. “Generally, the snow actually insulates the ground and makes the ground warmer. You wouldn’t think that, but since the ground was already 55, 56 degrees when the snow hit, it never froze the ground. The ground actually heats up and put a little more nitrogen on the morels. It should be a pretty good season."
In that way, a good freeze is much more preferable to mass flooding, such as what the Midwest saw in 2019.
“Some of the flooded areas are doing all right,” Weipert said. “When floods happen, if you’re in the zone where it’s silted in and things like that, it’s often hard to find mushrooms that tall a year after the flood. So the 2019 flooded areas, some of them are really doing pretty good now because it’s been a couple years and the mycelium’s had a chance to grow back up through.”
Hunting for mushrooms in the Midwest
The Mushroom King has made a name for himself as someone who is able to find literal truckloads of mushrooms, seemingly anywhere he goes.
Weipert, who told The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2019 that he began picking morels with his father before he was even big enough to tie his own shoes, has turned the hobby into a lifestyle, earning the "Mushroom King" moniker from his peers in high school.
He has lived up to that name, traveling roughly 50,000 miles each year chasing various types of mushrooms year-round across the United States, beginning with morels in the early spring.
“Generally, when we hunt morels, we look for the redwoods to be bloomed and the lilac bushes also to be blooming,” Weipert said. “Mayapples are another precursor. When mayapples are up and usually have their flowers on them, it’s warm enough to hunt morels.
“There are several — some of them are wives' tales or whatever — but just a lot of things you go by, like oak leaves the size of a squirrel’s ear. Dandelions — not by the sidewalks, but in the middle of your yard.”
Weipert says he collects thousands of pounds of mushrooms per year, including not only morels but also chanterelles, black trumpets, oysters, Hen of the Woods, lobster and hericium varieties.
Safety is also an important issue when mushroom hunting, and Weipert recommends wearing protective clothing to shield yourself from thorns and needles — particularly after a recent trip to the hospital.
“Well, I was out mushroom hunting, and I’m not sure if it was a locust tree thorn or a cedar tree, but I got hit — and it might be several times,” Weipert said. “I wear protective gear now, I didn’t use to wear long-sleeved shirts and things like that. The older you get, the more you get scratched up. ... I was just out by the river looking to get some mushrooms and I know a tree hit me. It punctured and broke off a piece of stick.”
He said a couple days later he developed what felt like a boil on his cheek. He lanced it and got the stick out, but soon his face swelled up. He went to his dentist, who told him to go to critical care because it looked like it could be a staph infection. He was then recommended to the emergency room and put on antibiotics.
Tips for cooking mushrooms
Weipert is also an experienced chef and loves to share his knowledge of cooking mushrooms with everyone he can.
Of course, just about everybody loves eating fried morels, but there are multiple ways to cook the earthy morsels.
“Frying is one way,” Weipert said. “I like to grill them. I like to take the charcoal grill outside and toss five fat morels in olive oil, salt and pepper, onion powder and garlic powder and then cook them like a steak on the grill and then throw them on top of the steak and eat them that way.
He said another good way to use them is to cook them in butter and then throw them on a pizza when it’s almost done cooking.
And there are plenty of other recipes that can utilize the tasty fungi, as well.
“I stuff them, fill them full of crab meat, cream cheese and bacon or whatever, sausage and cheese,” Weipert said. “Or you can cut them up, sauté them in butter and then make a cream and make fettuccini morel alfredo out of them. Frying is just one way.”
He also dehydrates the extras he collects and sells them to be used as ingredients, or uses them in his Cream of Morel Mushroom Soup Mix.
But you don’t become the Mushroom King by only chasing morels, and he has become famous for trekking across the country searching for a wide variety of mushrooms.
Some of his favorites include chanterelles, blewits, Hen of the Woods and candy caps — a type of mushroom that grows in California and tastes like maple syrup.
If you're a fan of mushrooms, it doesn't get much better than that.
Another of his great recipes is his all-purpose breading, made of crushed up mushrooms, which works great as a breading for fish, but also works on anything from scallops to shrimp to hamburgers.
"I experimented with my basic seasoned flour mixture and discovered it actually sweetened the flavor of the fish," Weipert told The Capital-Journal in 2019. "It browns to a lovely caramelized finish and has a real staying power on fish of any kind. No doubt it is the perfect morel flavor that compliments the item being breaded."