Delicate and elusive, morels are a gourmet prize once limited to those willing to muck around in the wild searching the forest floor for these harbingers of spring. Morels grow in North America and Europe but generally resist cultivation. Instead, they must be foraged and harvested from where they naturally grow in the wild. Today, you can buy them as well. No matter how you get them, morels are definitely delicious when grilled or sautéed, and they can be dried or frozen if you want to enjoy them year-round.
What Are Morel Mushrooms?
Morels are a distinct-looking mushroom with a cone-shaped cap and sponge-like texture. They typically grow between two and four inches tall. The caps stand erect and range in color from pale cream to almost black with a well-defined pitted texture. Morels are hollow and have a white- to pale cream-colored stem. They need to be cleaned, but otherwise, require very little preparation before cooking and are best when simply grilled or sautéed.
These mushrooms are found most often in and around wooded areas throughout North America (particularly east of the plains up to the Great Lakes) and Europe. They most often grow around ash, aspen, elm, oak, and tulip trees; standing dead trees are good places to look as well. Morel mushrooms are extremely difficult to farm, though research into cultivating them has taken place at Michigan State University. There are also attempts in China to farm morels. However, there is a debate as to whether these cultivated morels have the same quality and taste as those growing in the wild. Because wild mushrooms are seasonal, foraged, fragile, and highly perishable, they can be pricey.
Like all mushrooms, morels have deadly imitators. In this case, they are known as false morels, which include a number of species that look similar but are poisonous. Unlike the edible mushroom, these fake morels have a reddish-brown to yellow cap that often hangs to one side, looking limp and disfigured. You'll also notice a brain-like texture rather than a well-defined pitting. False morels are not hollow inside.
If you decide to try foraging for mushrooms, do so with an experienced guide. Mycological societies around the country offer free mushroom walks and mushroom identification seminars to help new wild mushroom enthusiasts get started.
How to Cook With Morels
Morels are delicate, so they should be handled carefully. They also need a bit more cleaning than other mushrooms. Shake them clean, swish them in cold water, lift them out, and dry. Don't clean morels until you are ready to cook them. They will soak up water, get mushy, and go bad much faster than if allowed to await their fate with a bit of dirt on them.
Typically, morels do not require a lot of prep work once clean. The mushrooms can be cut in half or quarters; smaller ones may be left whole. Morels should be cooked; eating them raw can cause an upset stomach, even cramps. It's also best to eat a moderate amount at one time.
Morels are particularly delicious when paired with a fellow harbinger of spring, asparagus. A simple sauté of morels and asparagus is a seasonal favorite when they're both piled high at the farmers' market.
What Does It Taste Like?
Morels have the strange ability to attract people who typically don't enjoy mushrooms. They have an earthy flavor that's nutty and woodsy. The darker the color of the morel, the smokier, nuttier, and earthier the flavor.
Morels are at their finest when sautéed quickly in butter and lightly salted or tossed on a grill. Some people like to bread them as well. Don't worry if you have just a few morels, they make a delicious snack and can add a lot of flavor to pasta or risotto.
Where to Buy or Find Morels
Morels are one of the first signs of spring in the woods, popping up from March through June. The exact timeframe is highly dependent on the year's weather. The amount of rain and temperature fluctuations can delay morel season by a few weeks or shorten it considerably. If you prefer to buy rather than find them, mushroom foragers who have reliable spots will often sell morels by the pound. They can also be found at farmers' markets and specialty stores, and dried or frozen morels are sold online. Though it is difficult and requires patience along with the perfect conditions, it is possible to grow morels at home outdoors. Mushroom kits that are available online are rarely successful.
Look for fresh, plump specimens with cut ends that aren't completely dried out. Avoid mushrooms that feel or look dry or brittle. Also, avoid bruised or softening morels, especially if you're not going to use them immediately since that damage will make them rot quickly.
Store unwashed morels in a paper bag so they can breathe, and use them as quickly as possible. Time in the refrigerator is just going to dry them out, though this can prolong their freshness for up to a week. Plastic bags can accelerate rot.
You can freeze washed morels as long as they are thoroughly dried first. Many people who do so say they last this way through the next winter. When you go to use them, they will have still have great flavor, but the texture will be all mush. This is fine if you are going to mince or puree them anyway, but it's not great for other uses. You can also dry morels to use within six months. They can be quickly and easily reconstituted.
Different varieties of morels appear at various times throughout the spring. In the U.S., black morels (Morchella elata) are the first to arrive, typically in large colonies around ash trees. They're easily noticeable because of their dark brown, almost black, cap. Yellow (or common) morels (Morchella esculenta) are next. Their yellow-colored caps make them more difficult to spot as they're often scattered alone or in small groups among the fall's leaf clutter. To finish the season, late morels (Morchella deliciosa) also have yellow caps and are the smallest and most elusive variety.