Morels are one of the safer mushrooms to forage. They have a very distinctive sponge-like cap that’s attached to the stem. (They don’t have the usual umbrella-shaped cap or gills on the underside.)
They appear for a few weeks in the spring and are often found in fruit tree orchards or forested areas after there’s been a fire. Here in Washington, sadly, we’ve had a few of those. Though honestly, I’ve seen morels come up in any number of areas. I think they like to keep everyone guessing.
Let’s Go Hunting!
My extended family members are pros at foraging mushrooms and they are all about morels. So, each spring they watch the weather (a bit of rain and temperatures warming above 60°F). Every so often, someone will take a trip into the mountains looking for the start of the season. When they spot the first few, they share the good news, and everyone takes a couple of days off to forage.
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Morels can vary a bit in size, shape, and color. They are usually in the 1″-6″ range and have a cap shape somewhere between a cone and squished egg. Colors can vary too – gold, brown, gray, and near-black. Their most distinctive feature (and what you are looking for) is the sponge-like cap.
I’ll own that it’s a bit harder than it sounds. The first time I went hunting, I probably walked by dozens before I figured out what I was looking for. The ground is covered in leaves and twigs and they’re all the same color as the mushrooms. It helps if you look at the ground a few feet away from you instead of directly down at your feet. Looking at an angle means you’re more likely to see the conical shape of the morels.
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There’s really only one mushroom that looks anything like a morel and that’s the Gyromitra (sometimes called a false morel).
Related Reading: Wikipedia: Gyromitra esculenta
Read up on this morel look-alike.
It looks spongy-like too (actually it looks more like a blobby brain), but here’s the real test. When you cut open the mushroom is it hollow or solid?
Hollow = morel
Solid = not a morel
That’s it. Easy Peasy.
Cooking and Eating
When you get your haul home, you’ll want to wash off any dirt and cut away any buggy or spoiled bits. A little soak in water won’t hurt. Sometimes it helps to swish them around a bit to get all the dirt out of the nooks and crannies. Set them out to dry and pat yourself on the back. 🙂
Mushrooms that are foraged need to be cooked before being eaten and, in general, cooked morels are perfectly safe to eat. As a safeguard, if you have never eaten them before, it’s wise to eat a very small serving to see if your stomach likes them or not. The probability is that you will find them very yummy and have no problems, but with all things new it’s best to go small.
Morels are excellent simply sauteed or fried in butter, but you can put them in any dish that calls for mushrooms.
Morels will keep for a few days if they are refrigerated. They keep better if you take unwashed mushrooms and put them in a brown bag or you can wrap them in a paper towel in a container. The idea is they need to breathe a bit and they need something that will absorb extra moisture.
Saute and Freeze
I typically saute my mushrooms in pound batches. I melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a skillet and then toss in the mushrooms (whole or cut up). They will give off some liquid (around five minutes) and this is normal. Let the mushrooms and the liquid cool and then put them together in freezer bags. As another option, you can continue to saute the mushrooms for another five minutes or so (some of the liquid will be reabsorbed and some will cook off) before you cool and freeze. When you get ready to use them, defrost them in the fridge.
The other option (and I like this best for morels) is to dehydrate them.
You will need to put like-sized mushrooms on the same tray so they all dry about the same time. You can half them or cut them up a bit if that helps. Run your dehydrator fairly low (around 110-125° F) until they feel dry and crispy.
(This is the dehydrator I use. It’s simple but allows me to set the temperature I want. I usually run it outside so the heat and humidity stay outside.)
Allow them to cool and store them in a glass jar. Cover tightly and store away from heat and light.
To rehydrate morels, put them in a bowl of water (or stock or wine). After 15 to 20 minutes, they will go back to their original shape and have good texture for cooking.
Well, there you have it. Morels are a great springtime forage. Good hunting!
Related Reading: Mushroom Foraging Rules - Be safe, be smart!