Springtime signals morel season for shroomers, or mushroom foragers, who harvest this popular woodsy delicacy to sell to farmers' markets and fancy eateries. Also known as Morchella mushrooms, pinecone mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, this rare culinary commodity is a favorite among both chefs and mushroom enthusiasts. While morels are popular in French cuisine, they can be found in the states, with a high concentration in Kentucky, Virginia, and Michigan.
Naturally low in calories, morels also happen to be packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and protein. Scroll on to learn why these wild fungi are so expensive, what they look like, how they taste, where to find them, how to differentiate them from toxic twins, and how to store, prep, and cook these delicate, decadent mushrooms.
These 'shrooms are considered top-tier because not only do they taste amazing, but they're hard to find. Fungiculture efforts to grow morels have been unsuccessful, so they're only available in the wild, which means they are all hand-picked. These elusive mushrooms are only in season between March and June, so their short growing window is another reason for their hefty price tag. It takes about seven pounds of fresh morels to make one pound of dried mushrooms, yet another factor that drives up their cost.
Morels vary greatly in shape, color, and size, but you can easily recognize them from their hallmark honeycomb-looking exterior and hollow, white interior. Their shape can range from oblong to bulbous with colors ranging from blonde to gray. These "fun guys" can be as tiny as your thumbnail to as big as your hand. When buying fresh morels, look for damp (but not wet), spongy mushrooms that are plump and feel somewhat soft to the touch. You want to avoid any signs of shriveling or dry stems. Brittle or bruised babies will rot more quickly.
Meaty morels have an intense earthy, nutty flavor. The darker the mushroom, the more earthy it will taste. Freshly picked morels have a funky, woodsy scent. Even people who usually turn their noses up at fungi on their plate may enjoy morels since they don't have the same slimy texture or woody stems of some mushroom varieties.
Fresh morels are highly perishable—their hollow innards make them difficult to transport. For this reason and because of their short growing period, you won't find this fungus in the produce section of your local grocery store. However, dried and frozen morels are available on store shelves and online year-round.
In the wild, morels love the warm, wet conditions of forest floors and riverbanks. Multiple varieties appear at different times throughout the season depending on climate, weather, and elevation. In North America, morels can be found in coniferous forests and under cottonwood trees. They also like deciduous trees, such as ash, sycamore, tulip trees, dead and dying elms, and old apple trees or remnants of orchards. Sometimes they'll show up in a charred forest because they like the alkaline conditions of wood ash and water fostered by forest fires.
Black morels (Morchella elata) show up first, typically in large colonies around ash trees, but you can also find them in coniferous forests, disturbed ground, and recently burned areas. Next are the yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) which can be hard to spot since they're scattered alone or in small groups. These blondies are more apt to be found under deciduous trees rather than conifers. Last are the aptly named late morels (Morchella deliciosa), which have small, yellow caps and are the most elusive of them all.
If you find one in the wild, cut them at the base of the stem and carry them in a mesh bag so the spores can scatter as you carry your bounty. Boom, now you're a mushroom hunter. J/k, you should go with an experienced guide until you know what you're doing since some 'shrooms are poisonous.
Morels don't share the same season as some of the most common poisonous varieties of mushrooms, like the death cap, the sulfur tuft, or the fly agaric. But they do have toxic doppelgangers that are called "false morels" (Gyromitra and Verpa species). Reddish-brown to yellow color, false morels can be differentiated from their true counterparts because they have caps attached to the tops of their stalks as opposed to the classic honeycomb cap of the morel. Still not sure? Slice it open. A true morel is hollow inside.
False morels contain gyromitrin, an organic carcinogenic poison, which turns into literal rocket fuel when introduced to the body. Eating a false morel may not phase you at all, but it could cause an upset stomach, loss of muscle coordination (including the heart), or even death. It's a good idea to try just smidge of a new species mushroom even if you're sure it's not poisonous just to make sure you don't have an adverse reaction. Usually, mushroom poisoning occurs when someone eats a ton of them, they aren't cooked, or they're eaten over a few days.
Before you engage in mycophagy (the act of consuming mushrooms), learn how to properly prepare morels. Brush off bugs and dirt, but don't wash the mushrooms until you're ready to cook. Naturally porous morels soak up water like a sponge and storing them wet will make them perish more quickly. Rinse under cool water, being sure to get the dirt out of its honeycombed pockets, then gently pat dry. If they're super dirty, you can soak them in cold water for five minutes. Don't indulge yet! Morels contain toxins that can cause stomach cramps, which you can only get rid of by cooking.
These mushroom morsels are yummy fried, stuffed, or roasted, but the best way to cook fresh morels is a simple sauté in butter with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Morels make a great addition to meat and poultry dishes, especially braises. Try this savory wild mushroom sauce on top of grilled steak. Springtime companions such as asparagus, ramps, and peas make delicious pairings. Make a morel mushroom pizza or hide them inside ravioli or tortellini. Dried morel mushrooms work well in sauces, stews, stocks, and soups like this bisque. This risotto recipe enhances the mushroom's natural, nutty earthiness with wild rice.
Sealing fresh morels in a bag will actually make them spoil faster. Instead, store them in a mesh or paper bag or otherwise ventilated container in the fridge. Like most fungi, the fresher they are the better they taste, but morels can be refrigerated for up to a week. To prolong their life, dry and store them in an airtight container for up to six months. Morels can be dried in arid climates by laying them out in the sun—just make sure it isn't windy or they could blow away! Or you can use a dehydrator or just dry them in the oven. Simply reconstitute with water when ready to use. You can also freeze the dried mushrooms and thaw them out later as a nice addition soups or purees.