Everything You Need to Know About Morel Mushrooms—Including How to Find, Wash, and Cook Them
Morels are some of the best mushrooms money can buy, but what are they exactly? The dark-hued, blob-shaped fungus doesn't look appealing to the untrained eye, and their short season and high price makes these special mushrooms difficult to come by. However, when you do encounter morel mushrooms, you're in for a splurge-worthy culinary experience.
What Are Morel Mushrooms?
Completely distinguishable from any other type of gourmet fungus, morels are a class of their own, dark, spongy, and uniquely rotund and dimpled. "Morel mushrooms are a group of mushrooms in the Morchella family, sometimes called sponge mushrooms," explains Ron Kerner, the mushroom expert behind the foraging site Indiana Mushrooms. "Morels grow from a fungus that is usually underground. These fungi have symbiotic (mycorrhizal) relationships with trees and help them absorb nutrients and water from the soil by interconnecting with the tree's roots. The fungus, in return, gets sugars—carbohydrates—the tree produces by photosynthesis." Just like us humans, fungi cannot create their own energy like photosynthesizing plants can, so mushrooms must get their energy, i.e. carbs, from other sources. In this case, the source is a tree's roots.
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Kerner compares mushrooms to apples growing on trees: The tree is always living, but the apples only grow once a year during their season. "With mushrooms the tree is always there, but underground," he says. "The fungus underground is made up of fine, thread-like filaments called mycelium. When a fungus runs out of food resources underground, it sends up special mycelium that produce mushrooms. Mushrooms are the reproductive organ of a fungus and produce spores that begin the life cycle."
Where Do You Find Morel Mushrooms?
"Morel mushrooms are found in the woods growing around certain trees. They can be found growing under elm, sycamore, ash, poplar, and several other trees, including pine trees," Kerner says. "Dying elm trees are known to produce large fruitings of morels." Morels are known for being pricey, particularly because they are not easy to find. "Some years morels are relatively abundant, and other years they can be scarce," Kerner adds. "They seem to like wet and warm, hotter-than-50-degree conditions in early spring." In southern Indiana, for example, the best time to find them is roughly mid-April to mid-May.
Morels often average about $50 a pound, which is about the size of a gallon-volume plastic bag. You can find them at specialty supermarkets, online retailers, and also from mushroom hunters. Kerner suggests checking social media to connect with local mushroom hunters for some of the best finds.
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How Do You Wash Morel Mushrooms?
Kerner recommends rinsing your morel mushrooms under cold water, slicing them in half, and then soaking them in salt water. "This helps to get rid of tiny bugs that are usually on morel mushrooms. They are harmless," he shares. Then, dry the mushrooms off and store them in a paper bag. Fresh morels can typically stay in the refrigerator for three to four days.
How to Cook With Morel Mushrooms
Morels have a distinctive, savory flavor that can add a lot to any typical mushroom dish. Kerner is partial to dipping his morels in an egg wash, dredging them with seasoned flour or breadcrumbs, and frying the morels in butter or cooking oil until they are golden brown and crispy.
You can also sauté morels like you would other types of mushrooms, or pan-fry them without breading. Experimenting with different sizes and slices can yield various tasty results, and even chopping or puréeing morels into a sauce or soup can create a spectacularly rich flavor. Morels are better off cooked than consumed raw. Eating raw morels can lead to some stomach pain for those with sensitive stomachs.
"Although subtle, morels have a unique flavor and also a textural component on the palate that makes them unlike any other mushroom," Kerner explains. That said, if you're not up for the $50-per-pound splurge, you can substitute other dark, rich-flavored mushrooms, like portobello mushrooms, knowing that your recipe will not taste 100 percent the same. Another thrifty way to cook with morels is to use half the amount of morels a recipe calls for, and substitute the second half with a more affordable mushroom.
Morel Mushroom Recipes
While substituting morels out of recipes may lead to a flavor deficit, the opposite is also true—adding morels to mushroom recipes where other varieties are called for can lead to a major flavor bomb, yielding a true treat for your tastebuds. Try using morels in this crispy roasted mushrooms dish, add morels to mushroom pot pie, glitz up chicken with mushroom sauce by making it with morels, or go for a restaurant-quality winter pasta courtesy of mushroom and radicchio spaghetti made with morels. As long as you're cooking with morels, you can't go wrong!