Real Food Encyclopedia | Morels
As the natural world slowly creeps back to life after the vernal equinox, so does morel season in the U.S. Just spotting them, popping up like spongy cones amongst the leaf litter, is the gourmet equivalent of striking gold. Difficult to cultivate and highly delicious, morels are so rare they command upwards of $30 a pound, depending on the market. But if you’re lucky enough to live in morel country, you can forage this mushroom delicacy for free.
Morels, or Morchella, have been around since the dinosaurs and don’t look that different from their prehistoric ancestors. Study of their DNA has revealed that they have evolved little in the last 100 million years. Other than that, not much is known about their history and relationship to human tastes, which seems fitting for something foraged in the wild. Someone very long ago must have been fairly intrepid to discover that morels made for a delicious springtime feast. They also discovered, probably through trial and error, that — like their spring brethren, the fiddlehead — they must be cooked as they can be poisonous when raw.
Morels can be found all over the northern hemisphere in locations where there are deciduous forests and temperate climate so long as the weather isn’t too dry or too swampy. People hunt them in Europe, America and Canada. The mushroom is abundant in the northern Midwest states and can be found as far north as Alaska under the right conditions.
There are at least 50 different varieties of Morchella around the world, with North America home to 19 of them. The most common species are the common morel or true morel (Morchella esculenta), the black morel (M. elata) and the white morel (M. deliciosa).
Fun Facts about Morels:
- Morels are referred to as “true” morels, as opposed to “false” morels. These fake versions look nothing like true morels, but apparently look enough to fool a less informed forager. False morels are also toxic. And a good way to distinguish the two is that true morels are hollow inside while false ones are not.
- It’s said the darker the morel, the more intense flavor.
- Humans are one of the few species who eat morels. One of the others are slugs.
- Morels are related to truffles. They are both from the phylum Ascomycota, which differs from the common button mushroom so readily available in supermarkets.
What to Look for When Buying Morels
Morels are actually the fruiting, reproductive part of the mycelium, which is the thread-like fungus that sprouts underground. When you find morels, they are likely in clumps and can be found near ash, elm, poplar and apple trees. They can be distinguished from other wild mushrooms, namely the false morel, by their conical shaped mushroom cap and spongy, honeycomb-like texture. They can grow upwards of six inches high.
Whether in the wild or your local gourmet food store, morel caps typically come in three different colors — white, yellow, gray and black — atop white barrel-shaped stems. It is claimed that the darker the color, the more intense the flavor. Black and gray morels appear first in the season followed by yellows, which are typically larger. Avoid morels that are discolored, splotchy or slimy. If the mushroom cap looks red, it’s likely a false morel. And above all, educate yourself on the difference between true and false morels, the latter of which is poisonous. (And only go foraging with a mushroom expert, as mistakes can be deadly.)
Sustainability of Morels
Tromping through the woods in search of wild bounty can have an environmental impact if it is not done with some care and thought for future mushrooms to come. Make sure you use a knife to harvest at the base of the stem, leaving the root intact so that it may sprout for future seasons. And don’t be greedy! Leave some morels behind. If you’re not foraging for morels yourself, you can as your grocery store or farmers’ market representative how they were foraged.
And a hunting tip — don’t ask fellow foragers where they found their haul lest you want to get a funny look. No one is going to give up the location of their prized morel hunting grounds.
Morels favor temperate climates and appear as early as March and into May. It’s said that a wet or snowy winter makes for a bountiful morel season as they thrive in damp conditions. Morel season can extend into June in northern latitudes like Alaska.
You’ll want to eat your morels as soon as possible, but if you are blessed with more than you can eat in one go, they can be stored in the fridge for upwards of a week. Just store them in a paper bag rather than a plastic container, and don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them, as moisture speeds up spoilage.
Cooking with Morels
Whether you forage for your own or pay a pretty penny at the farmers’ market, your morels will need to be cleaned before eating. Insects have known to camp out in the hollow center of the morel and in the sponge-like exterior, so here’s a tip. Put your morels into an airtight plastic bag, pressing out the extra air. If you let the bag sit for a few hours, the lack of oxygen will draw out any insects or bugs from the mushroom. Then you’ll want to slice them lengthwise and give them a quick rinse. Some people advocate soaking the morels in salted water to release any insects, but there are others who fervently argue against this saying that the salt affects the consistency and flavor of the mushroom. Also, if you remove the stem, it makes it easier to dry your morels as the center of the mushroom is hollow.
General consensus is that the ideal way to eat morels is sautéed in butter with salt. Morels pair well with tarragon, cream, eggs, and various cuts of meat. Toss into some pasta with sautéed ramps and slices of fresh asparagus and you have yourself a springtime feast. Another common preparation is breading and frying sliced morels.
By far the most common ways of preserving morels is freezing and dehydrating, although it seems dehydrating is preferable as the flavor of the morel remains intact. One clever idea, once the mushrooms have been cleaned and excess moisture removed, is to string them up to dry. All you need is a poultry needle and kitchen string to sew them together like popcorn garland. Hang them in a dry, well ventilated room and they should be dehydrated after a couple of days.
If you’d rather freeze them, there are several different techniques. The preferred option is to slice your clean morels in half and quickly sauté them, par-cooking them. Lay them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to an airtight container and store in the freezer.
Morels contain a fair bit of iron in addition to smaller percentages of Vitamins D and B.
A word of caution: Morels contain small amounts of hydrazine, an inorganic compound that is highly poisonous. Cooking removes the toxin, so never eat them raw — you could damage your liver or worse. Alcohol is known to exacerbate sensitivity to the toxin and can trigger an upset stomach, a heightened sense of intoxication or loss of muscle control, so take care if you’re washing them down with a nice red.
Top photo by Cris Ritchie Photo/iStock.