Morels are among the most highly prized of all the Wild Harvest Mushrooms. The reason is plain. Their taste is superb!
Part of their great value may also be found in their elusiveness. While they often grow in profusion they may be very difficult to see – especially for the inexperienced.
Morels grow in temperate latitudes around the world, in both conifer and hardwood forests. In North America they usually emerge first along the West coast in Early Spring and later in much of the forested East, from the Appalachians up through the Great Lakes region, with scattered harvests into Summer and Fall months.
Majority of harvest offered for commercial sale typically comes from Washington and Oregon with limited availability from the Midwest, across to the Great Lakes and into the eastern states.
There are many species of morels harvested in North America.
Whatever the species, ALL morels have a honeycombed, hollow, cone-shaped cap ranging in size anywhere from 1 inch to over a foot high! Their color varies greatly, depending on the species and may range from pale golden yellow to extremely dark brown. Some folks prefer one variety over another, but to us, all true morels are a treasured delicacy. They all taste great!
The morel is widely appreciated by gourmets, who savor its earthy flavor.
Morels are marvelously flavorful all on their own and need little embellishment. One of the best ways to enjoy fresh morels is to pan fry them simply in a little butter with nothing more than a pinch of salt and a twist of fresh pepper. Sheer bliss!
Foraging for Morels
Before you attempt to harvest morels or any wild mushrooms, we strongly suggest that you do so with an experienced mushroom hunter as a companion. Never rely on identification using books or the internet only. There are many wild mushrooms that can cause mild to severe gastric distress – or worse! No mushroom is worth the risk if you are not 100% of it. If you don’t know any reliable and experienced mushroom hunters, seek out your local mycological society and find out about joining a foray. There are hundreds of well-organized mushroom-hunting societies across the country and most hold regular forays and mushroom hunts.
Ideally, fresh morels should be clean and (almost) dry to the touch. The aroma should be an earthy woodsy smell. Little bits of the woods (a pine needle or a bit of moss) may be seen – just pick it out. These are from the woods, after all. Occasionally, fresh morels dry out slightly and the delicate folds may darken in color. Don’t worry – this is not the end of the world. When you clean your morels using the saltwater soaking method (see below), they will absorb a little of the water and will “plump up” beautifully.
Morels are highly perishable and must be handled with care. However, you need never lose a single, precious fresh morel to spoilage. The key is to keep them cool and dry, with a little ventilation. One tried & true method is to store your morels in the refrigerator in a loosely closed paper bag. Never store morels refrigerated in a sealed plastic bag! Morels need to “breathe” – plastic bags and other sealed containers trap moisture and invariably lead to rapid spoilage.
There are as many opinions as to the “proper” way to clean morels as there are morel pickers. While some people subscribe to the “never wash any mushrooms” school of thought, we’ve found that the honeycomb structure of morels tends to trap a great deal of debris, gritty dirt and happily freeloading critters, all of which can lead to a disappointing morel experience. Most old-timers go with the tried and true saltwater soaking method. Here it is:
Fill a large bowl with clean, cold salted water (a couple of tablespoons per gallon will do). Immerse only the amount of morels that you plan to consume immediately into the cold, salted water for 20 – 30 minutes, agitating them very gently two or three times. The water will dislodge any dirt or grit clinging to the morels and will also plump up your morels if they have become slightly dried out. The salt will also irritate any bugs or other unwanted hitchhikers, causing them to vacate the premises. Gently lift the soaked morels from the water, place them in a clean colander and rinse gently under cold running water for a minute or two to flush away any remaining grit. Allow to drain well, then place on paper towels or a clean dishtowel. Your cleaned morels are now ready to use in your favorite recipe.
Important: Wash only the amount of morels that you plan to consume immediately. Washing them too far in advance will lead to rapid spoilage. (See “Storage” above)
Morel mushrooms must ALWAYS be cooked before eating! Never, ever eat them raw. Uncooked morels, both fresh and dried, contain naturally occurring compounds which can cause severe gastric distress. Cooking for a few minutes breaks down these compounds, rendering your morels safe to eat (not to mention extremely delicious!).