The morel mushroom is one of the most sought-after edible mushrooms in the world. Unlike many other mushrooms that can be farmed and mass produced for consumption, morels have so far resisted efforts at domestication and continue to be found only in the cool, damp soil of old apple orchards and forests, especially those recently burned by wildfire. But when the conditions are right and morel mushroom season is officially on, you can bet the mushroom hunters are out in force.
So what are morel mushrooms, and why are they so coveted? Let’s find out!
Morel Mushrooms: The Basics
Morel mushrooms grow in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and belong to the genus Morchella. Members of this genus are also known as the true morels. This is in contrast to the false morels, which bear a certain resemblance to the true morels but contain a toxin called monomethyl hydrazine. The false morels also belong to other genera, including Verpa and Gyromitra.
Even though false morels look a little like true morels, there are some differences that make them easily identifiable. For example, the caps of true morels are elongated and uniformly shaped, have deep pits that look like honeycombs, and are attached to the stem, while false morels are more squat, look more like brains, and are irregularly shaped and hang freely off the stem. And, perhaps most importantly, the stem of a true morel is perfectly hollow, while the stems of look-alike morels are filled with a grayish tissue.
The three most common types of true morels are the black, the yellow, and the white. The caps of yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) appear a yellowish-tan color and are most often found in hardwood forests and orchards.
Black morels (Morchella elata) have a whitish to tan stem, and their caps start out a grayish color and become progressively darker with age. Black morels are the largest of the three types and are the ones most associated with forest fires.
White morels (Morchella deliciosa) are generally off-white, with a tan stem, and unlike the black morels, they can often be found around gardens and orchards.
Like other mushrooms, morel mushrooms are the fruiting body of the mycelium—the vegetative part of the fungus that’s made up of a network of long fibers called hyphae. This is the part of the fungus that absorbs the nutrients the mushroom needs to live.
If you’ve ever seen a piece of moldy bread, you’ve no doubt noticed the mesh of whitish threads that make up the mycelium. In the case of many of the mushrooms that grow in soil or leaf litter, such as the morel mushrooms, the mycelium remains unseen until soil temperature and moisture are right. Then the mycelium produces the fruiting body we recognize as mushrooms.
Finding Morel Mushrooms
Because a foolproof way to farm and mass produce morels hasn’t yet been found, unless you find them at your local farmers market or online, there’s really only one way to get your morel mushroom fix, and that’s mushroom hunting.
And while experts and foragers alike are still a bit mystified regarding what conditions morels require for growth, they do agree that spring is the time of year when most morel mushrooms can be found, especially following rain and a string of 50 °F nights.
Morel hunters also recommend looking around certain types of trees, especially hickory, sycamore, elm, and ash, and even old apple trees. And don’t forget areas that have recently seen wildfire. Whether it’s the alkaline nature of burned soil or something as yet undiscovered, morel mushrooms love areas that have been ravaged by fire.
What Do Morel Mushrooms Taste Like?
There’s no denying that taste is subjective, but the morel mushroom does tend to be a crowd pleaser—even to those who don’t usually like mushrooms. That’s because, unlike the unmistakable taste of fungus that accompanies most mushrooms, morels are tender, meaty, nutty, and earthy.
And even though their flavor is mild enough that it doesn’t overpower a dish, morel mushrooms still manage to stand out, often stealing the show with their distinct flavor and aroma.
What Do Morel Mushrooms Cost?
As you might imagine, the morel’s resistance to traditional farming practices makes it one of the most expensive mushrooms in the world. However, some hope to one day change all this, and at least one researcher in Michigan thinks he’s found a way.
But until such time as packets of spores are sold for planting in the home garden, hunting morels on forest floors and around old apple orchards will continue to be the only way to enjoy these edible mushrooms.
The Health Benefits of Morel Mushrooms
Most people think of mushrooms as, well, fungus. But many species of mushrooms are actually quite good for you. And morel mushrooms are no different. In fact, your average morel is likely to contain a wide variety of vitamins, including folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and E, as well as the highest levels of vitamin D of any mushroom.
Morel mushrooms are also rich in several important minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and selenium.
They’re also a great source of free radical–scavenging antioxidants. Which means they can help reduce harmful levels of oxidative stress, which may lead to inflammation—a known risk factor for many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
And according to one study, morel mushrooms also possess antimicrobial properties and contain compounds that may make them effective against E. coli and the opportunistic fungus Aspergillus fumigatus.
Dried vs. Fresh Morels
Among true morel aficionados, there’s much debate as to whether fresh morels are superior to dried. And though many will tell you fresh is best, just as many will say dried is better.
For one thing, fresh morels are good for only a few days before they begin to deteriorate. They’re also more fragile, and some say they taste a little more musty too. But dried morels are never out of season and keep for months—even years—and many find their smoky flavor superior to that of their fresh counterparts.
How to Eat Morel Mushrooms
Even though morel mushrooms are considered a delicacy, they should never be eaten raw, as raw morels are slightly toxic and can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Interestingly, some people experience the same symptoms when the mushrooms have been properly prepared.
And there have even been some reports of transient neurological symptoms—including dizziness, disorientation, and poor muscle coordination—occurring after eating large amounts of cooked morels.
However, if you cook them properly, don’t gorge yourself, and don’t have issues with other types of mushrooms, you should have no problems with morels.
And you’ll probably find the benefits outweigh the small risk of an adverse reaction. In fact, many say nothing quite compares to the flavor of morel mushrooms sautéed in butter and topped with a sprinkle of salt and freshly ground pepper.
But morels are also delicious tossed in a creamy risotto or pasta with other wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles or porcinis. They’re even delicious paired with fresh peas, asparagus, and herbs such as tarragon, parsley, and freshly chopped chives.
So whether you choose dried or fresh, hunt them yourself or purchase them online, as you can see, there’s much to love about morel mushrooms—a wild edible that packs a world of flavor.