orel mushrooms are a source of passion and culinary wonder for thousands, inspiring recipes, and annual spring festivals across the United States. They are known as a chef’s mushroom with an opulent, earthy flavor – and texture -- that builds wonderful, rich sauces. Yet, the flavor of the morel is so complex that it can be enjoyed simply sautéed in butter with a bit of salt and cracked pepper.
Part of what makes them so beloved is the fact that they can be rare and hard-to-find. They are most common in moist deciduous woods, and are often associated with dead or dying elms, sycamore and ash trees, and old apple orchards, though some hunters report finding morels in their own suburban backyards. The pale, grayish or yellow color of the morel often blends perfectly with the dead leaves on the forest floor in early spring.
Morels grow around the world, and often shipments from Turkey and Western Europe precede the first harvest in the United States. As the season progresses, morels are found in diminishing quantities throughout the summer and occasionally the fall. As with all wild mushrooms, much depends on the weather. If it’s a rainy spring morels that have popped up will be ruined by the moisture.
Three species are generally harvested: Morchella conica, Morchella angusticeps, and Morchella esculenta. All have honeycombed, hollow caps ranging in size from two to four inches.
To date, few morels have been successfully cultivated. Those for sale are gathered painstakingly, but with much love, by individual foragers. These mushroom hunters await the morel forage with much anticipation. It’s the first of the season and they patiently look for the appearance of these lovely, tasty treats in “secret spots” that they often won’t tell anyone of. Foragers always warn novices against mistaking the false morel for the real deal—the false morel is toxic and should not be eaten! They are very hard to tell apart, but the cap of the false morel has a wrinkled appearance rather than the honeycomb or net-like appearance of the true morel. Also, the false morel has a cottony substance inside the stem, while the true morel is hollow. If you go foraging be sure to bring a book to identify the mushrooms, and it’s best to have an experienced forager for company.
The black morel appears in forests after a moderately intense forest fire. It is unclear exactly why, but it may be because of the death of the trees as well as the freshly cleared forest floor. Sometimes fires are lit and controlled specifically to encourage the growth of this darker version of the morel.
Cleaning morels is tricky because of their honeycomb texture and all the nooks and crannies in the cap. They cannot be brushed or rubbed. It is not uncommon to find bugs or slugs nestled inside the pits of a morel, so cleaning is necessary. Put morels in a paper bag or colander and shake to dislodge some of the grit. Lift them out and put in a large bowl of cold water (some people put salt in the water) and swish around for a very short time. Take morels out of the water and put on a cloth or paper towel and pat dry carefully. Or rinse under cold running water briefly. Cut in half lengthwise to clean out the center of the morel. Another way to dry out the mushrooms after washing them is to put them in a dry and very hot pan on high heat, then add some squeezed lemon juice. Watch the pan carefully—this process goes quickly, and will evaporate all the moisture from the mushrooms.
Do not eat morels raw. With small morels, fry or cook mushrooms whole. Larger morels should be sliced in half, or fourths, before cooking. The nutty, meaty taste of the morel is complemented best by butter and cream, so sauté briefly in butter and finish with light or heavy cream. White wine can be used to great effect with this unique mushroom. Morels are wonderful with chicken, veal or pork. But most will agree that a fresh morel in season will make any meal just a little more exciting.
Morels dry well in a dehydrator or strung up like beads on a thread (use a needle to “sew” your morels) for a few days in a warm, dry place. Before sealing them up in a bottle or jar, leave them for a few days in a paper bag to allow all reaming moisture to evaporate. Morels can be stored in a dry place to be enjoyed throughout the winter, until the next morel season rolls around.
Another way to preserve morels is to sauté them in butter and then freeze.