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, such as cremini or oyster mushrooms, morels grow as a result of fungi present in the soil on the forest basin.
Morel mushrooms are some of the most easily identified fungi, although they also vary in size and shape as well as color. They’re wrinkled, and sort of honeycomb-shaped and can be oblong or bulbous. Morel mushrooms are typically either grey or dark brown, although there are some blond varieties. They can be the size of a pen cap, or as big as a light bulb. They possess a superior earthy hazelnut taste complemented by a smoky aroma that is unmatched by other mushrooms.
When you slice a morel in half, you’ll find that it is hollow inside, with a white goosebump kind of texture. The cap of the mushroom is joined to a stem which is either long or short. Usually only available in the spring, dried morels are conveniently available year-round, and to many culinary wizards, often preferred to fresh. More on that in a bit.
The Morel Mushroom
The morel mushroom belongs to the genus Morchella and are similar to truffles in that they sprout from the soil where the fungus is found. More specifically they are the product of the mycelium (in this case an underground fungus) that lives and breathes within the soil. When there is a disturbance to the ecosystem, such as from fire, excavation, herds of cattle, etc., the conditions become perfect for the mycelium to birth the delicious edible morel mushroom.
Morel mushrooms are extremely popular in the United States. They have some silly nicknames to accompany their somewhat silly looks, like the “molly moochers,” “hickory chickens,” and “dry land fish.”
Morels have not been able to be mass produced or even farmed traditionally. Instead, their entire availability is reliant on wild harvesting. Unlike many other mushrooms, morel mushrooms do not form a symbiotic relationship with the ground or trees from which they spring. Rather they spread over the earth through forests throughout the Northern hemisphere.
Fire Morel Mushrooms
In the morel industry, the mushrooms are often referred to as either natural mushrooms, those found in pastures, meadows, or orchards, or fire morels. Fire morels occur and grow in abundance following a year when a fire raged through a forest.
In some areas, morel mushrooms have been known to be the first fungi to colonize areas of forests where a fire may have been.
In fact, many dedicated morel foragers often search fire-ravaged areas for morels. A fire does not guarantee that you will find morels. And several other conditions must be perfect. For example, it must not be an utterly charred area or an area where green regrowth is present. There is some truth, however, that the more mosquitos there are in a region recovering from fire, the more likely you are to find morels.
The ideal timing for morel cultivation is after a fire that burned between July and August, although sometimes morels will not sprout even from these perfect conditions.
The Delicious Morel Mushroom
While taste is easily subjective, morel mushrooms tend to be a crowd pleaser, even to those who might say they don’t like mushrooms. They are often described as earthy and slightly nutty with a hazelnut-like flavor profile. They are meaty and tender at the same time.
Their strong flavor is not overpowering or traditionally “mushroom-y.” Morel mushrooms are not squishy or chewy unless they’ve been overcooked. They don’t overpower the dishes they are added to, and yet they somehow stand out, often stealing the show with their distinct flavor and aroma.
The Cost of Morel Mushrooms
Easily the second most expensive mushroom in the world, morels are costly because of their resistance to traditional farming methods. It’s difficult to replicate the exact environment that is required to grow morels.
Conversely, many morel purists express concern about mass producing the mushrooms, thereby making them more commercially available (and thus potentially less illusive and exotic). Instead, harvesters must rely on natural fluctuations in weather, soil, and climate to forage for morels.
Every morel that you eat has been handpicked from its ideal environment. In many cases, the morel must travel great distances to arrive on your dinner plate or at your local specialty market.
Morel Nutrition Information
Morels grow in nutrient-rich soil packed with essential vitamins and minerals. The actual nutrition can vary depending on the soil in which they are found. Typically morel mushrooms contain a significant amount of copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, folate, niacin, and riboflavin, and quite a bit of potassium, magnesium, calcium, selenium, thiamine, and vitamins E and B6.
Morel mushrooms are also high in fiber and iron, and like many other mushrooms, morel is high in protein, containing more than most vegetables. This protein boost makes morel mushrooms another fantastic alternative for vegan or vegetarians.
Dry Morels vs. Fresh Morels
In the morel community, there is much debate as to which is preferred when it comes to morel mushrooms: dry or fresh?
Fresh morels are by nature, much more fragile. They can crumble during any of the processes of transportation, cleaning, and cooking. They do tend to cook more quickly and have a more delicate texture. They also taste a bit more exotic or even musty compared to dried morels, which seems ironic!
On the contrary, dry morels are much easier to handle. They rehydrate quickly and can be cooked without falling apart. (You can even stuff them after they’ve been rehydrated!) They also tend to be cleaner, as the dehydration process actually kicks off the dirt and debris from the soil as it changes size to be a bit smaller. During the rehydration phase, any remaining dirt falls off in the soaking water.
Dried morels have a more concentrated flavor and even more focused nutrition. Unlike fresh morels, dried morels can be enjoyed all year long.
Morel harvesters tend to prefer dried morels, but it is considered a rare treat to be able to eat fresh morels since they are only available for a short time each year.
How to Eat Morel Mushrooms
It’s not considered safe to consume any mushrooms raw. Morels are no exception and should never be eaten raw. They are delicious with a quick sauté in butter topped with salt and freshly ground pepper. The delicate yet earthy balance of aroma and flavors are best presented in this fashion and will allow you to experience everything the morel has to offer.
Morel mushrooms are also delicious tossed in a creamy risotto or pasta with other wild mushrooms, such as the chanterelle or porcini. They’re even delicious paired with fresh peas, asparagus, and herbs such as tarragon, parsley, and freshly chopped chives.
Fresh morels will keep for about a week covered in the refrigerator. Dried morels can be a financially sound choice as they tend to be far less expensive and last much longer. Dried morels are easily refreshed in filtered water and added to recipes just as you would cook them if they were freshly plucked.