As the natural world slowly creeps back to life after the vernal equinox, so does morel season in the US. 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-y delicacy for free.
A Brief History
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-y 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).
- Morels are referred to as "true" morels, which I thought was a bit weird until I learned that there are "false" morels. Mind you they look nothing like true morels, but apparently look enough to fool a less informed forager. You'll want to avoid false morels as they are toxic. And a good way to distinguish the two is that true morels are hollow inside while false ones are not.
- The darker the morel, the more intense flavor. Or so they say.
- 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.
Morels are a wild source of food that defy cultivation. That's not to say that there are not those who have tried and you can even purchase starter kits, but they are notoriously finicky to grow on your own and demand host of perfect conditions -- moist soil, nutrients from decomposing organic matter and ground temperature between 55 and 62 degrees F.
Hunting for morels in the springtime is serious business, requiring sturdy hiking boots, a mesh bag to hold your haul (an onion bag works well), a knife for harvesting and other necessities for a day spent in the woods. When searching for them, look for morels around dead or dying deciduous trees such as the elm and tucked under downed branches. They also thrive in apple orchards and have an affinity for burned or previously flooded sections of the forest.
Morels can be hard to spot as they blend effortlessly into their surroundings. The trick is to crouch down low as they are more distinguishable from the leaf litter. If you see one, there are likely more nearby so choose your next step carefully. To harvest, slice or pinch at the base. It's said that using a mesh bag for morel collecting is key as this allows the spores to further propagate. And be gentle with your morels; they can easily get bruised or break while carrying your haul around. Keep an eye out for poison ivy and ticks!
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.
As we learned with ramps, 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.
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 a six inches high.
What to look for
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.
Morels don't have a ton going for it in the nutrition department. They do, however, 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.
What to Do with It
General consensus is that the ideal way to eat morels is sautéed in butter with salt. And again, you must cook them; they can be toxic if eaten raw.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stretching your fresh food dollar through food preservation
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. Other alternatives can be perused here.
If you'd rather freeze them, there are different techniques, with no one seeming to agree on which is best. The one that makes the most sense is to slice your clean morels in half and quickly sauté them. The goal is to only half cook them and freeze them individually on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. After they are frozen, they can be transferred to an airtight container and stored for longer periods in the freezer.
A classic way to prepare morels is simply to sauté them in butter, allowing their complex, earthy flavor to shine through. Sautéed morels make a decadent pairing with steak, can be tossed in with some fresh pasta, or folded into risotto.
Adapted from Whole Living magazine.
1 tablespoon butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 to 1/2 pound morels, cleaned and sliced in half lengthwise
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until soft and golden.
2. Add parsley and stir for 30 seconds.
3. Add the morels and cook, stirring, until they begin to exude their juices, about 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the stock and wine and cook 2 minutes more until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve.