What are Morel mushrooms?Morel mushrooms are one of the most loved mushrooms in the universe. Unlike most grocery store mushrooms like Oyster, Portobello, Cremini etc., these beauties are not farmed in that manner but gathered or hunted in the wild. The edible part of the fruit is the fruiting body of the underground organism known as mycelium that has a complex symbiotic relationship with trees. Each spring, foraging chefs, mushroom enthusiasts, and an ever increasing group of commercial harvesters hunt these little forest gems. The Morchella genus has been the subject of the fascination and debate for centuries. Mushroom scientists (Mycologistes) cannot agree on how many subspecies of Morchella there are and the nomenclature is constantly under revision. However, doesn’t “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” Everyone can agree that morels are not only delicious but nutritious.
What do Morels Look Like?Morels differ a lot in appearance. Their shape can be bulbous to oblong (and genetics play a lot in size). Their color can be blonde to grey. Their size can be smaller than your fingertip to larger than your hand. You will agree with me that there most identifiable characteristic is what generally described as a honeycomb like exterior. Bees are more methodical though. The ”pits” or combs pits on the outside of morels can be loose or tight and form an imperfect pattern. The insides of morels are hollow and white’ish and up close you can detect a goosebump-like texture. The base of the cap joins to a white’ish stem which can be tall or short and the hollow of the cap runs continuous into the stem (this is important to distinguish it from some false morels).
Why are Morels so Popular?Aside the US, people from UK, Australia, Germany, and Austria also love the Morelmush breed. Here are two reasons that will make you fall in love too:
They taste damn good
They have a big reputation
Why are Morels so Delicious?Damn! As earlier stated, they are earthly and nutty, woods and toasted. The flavor is deep as opposed to strong and distinct without being weird. Their texture is tender and meaty too. Definitely a satisfying morel of protein but not chewy or squishy. Morels don’t shed palettes or overpower dishes, and yet they stand above and apart. Each bite of a meal with morels is the best bite you can ever do.
Are Morels Good for You?Amazing! Morels come with all forms of nourishment not listed by the required nutrition facts table of Candaian Food labels. Because morels tend to grow in rich soils they come packed with minerals and vitamins. While the nutrition can differ based on the soil they are found in, morels will commonly contain significant amounts of Zinc, Manganese, Copper, Iron, Phosphorus, Vitamin D, Niacin, Folate, Riboflavin and a fair amount of Calcium, Magnesium, Thiamine, Potassium, Selenium, Vitamins E and B6. Morels are also packed with antioxidants, balance blood sugar, and repair liver-damage. Plus, they are high in protein and fibre.
Why are Morels so Expensive?Morels are not farmed; they are hunted. The complex, symbiotic relationship that the morel mycelium have with trees is almost impossible to replicate in an artificial environment. It is commonly attempted, even at the commercial level, but if there were a truly reliable method to cultivate morels, global supply would have increased, demand would drop, and the wild morel industry fall apart. This means that every morel mushroom you have ever eaten and will eat has been hand picked in its natural environment. And chances are someone traveled a great distance, hiked a great deal, perhaps camped remotely for weeks, battled certain elements (rain, drought, horseflies, mosquitoes, etc) and somehow managed to get that delicate specimen back to the city in decent condition for you to be able to purchase. [UPDATE: China has developed techniques to farm morels. There is debate as to their taste and quality (consider the difference between farmed and wild salmon). This will surely have effects on the global morel market over time].
Where can you Buy Morels?Starting mid to late spring you may find dishes at high-end restaurants that have a touch of fresh morel. You may see fresh morels at high-end grocery stores ir at farmer’s markets but they deteriorate quite quickly. Morel mushrooms can last up to a week if properly managed. The huge majority of morels are dried, this is a good thing, and a large number of dried Canadian morels are exported. Global supply for morels hardly meets global demand and other countries are ready to pay top dollar. Domestic consumption for wild mushrooms is low in Canada and the U.S relative to Asia or Europe but is on the rise. Increasingly, you are able to buy dried morels at the retail level and if you you have a connection, you may be able to purchase them buy the pound.
How much do morel mushrooms go for?
It could sell for any price between $6.50 and $8 per pound of fresh morel mushrooms.”
Harvesting Morels“Morels are everywhere and impossible to find” as the saying goes. Morel mushrooms hunting can be a seasonal trade or an occasional hobby. For a beginner forager, learning from someone who knows is the easiest and surest way to acquire the skill.
Starting outIf you have the opportunity to learn from someone, do not misuse the opportunity. On the other hand, if you lack one, start by getting familiar with nature every spring, as the tree buds appear. It’s a amazing how much you learn one year to the next. Take a camera and journal so you can scribble down and build on your experiences. Follow harvesters in your area on instagram or twitter when they are out picking and so you can look for similar soil conditions, trees, topography, and soils. Join a mycological society or mushroom foray if you can find one. Just like anything it takes practice. If you need confirmation from a chef or a book, you are not ready to eat your finds. When you’ve seen morels up close in their natural environment, picked them, handled them, and sliced them, you won’t think twice before eating them. “There are old mushroom pickers and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old-bold mushroom pickers”
SafetyIf you are picking in remote areas, you should have some back country skills. It is advisable that you never pick alone and you should always have a GPS and satellite phone (if you are very remote). Always have water, snacks, , a first aid kit, a lighter, bug spray, and bear spray. Picking in industrial or urban areas is even more dangerous. Do not pick mushrooms by waste disposal sites, heavy traffic, or any heavy industrial processing. It is also advisable to avoid picking mushrooms from farmland or orchard unless you know they are organic. What’s in the soil will be in the mushrooms.
CuttingIt is best to cut the morel with a knife an inch or less of the stem. The stem is delicious and completely eatable, it is just not industry standard to have a very long stem and the longer you go the more likely it will be dirty, gritty, and sandy. If you pluck, your mushroom will be dirty and frayed.
CarryingYou can avoid squishing your morels by placing too many on top of eachother. Place them in buckets or baskets with holes drilled into them so the mushrooms can breathe. Plus, its also good to cover your basket with a towel or cloth so needles and other debris won’t get in.
StoringFresh morel mushrooms can be kept for about a week refrigerated, depending on the condition you found them in. The wetter and hotter they are, the more quickly they will deteriorate. Worms can certainly be an issue. If you do not pick any wormy ones to begin with, you’ll protect the rest of your catch from getting worny during storage. Place them in the fridge, no more than a few layers deep, with plenty of air to circulating around them. Drying is perhaps the best storage option. More on that topic below.
What Makes Morels Grow?Morels are the reproductive organ of the underground mycelium. The mycelium develops its fruiting body when it is stressed or when the spring sap movement brings carbohydrates and energy to the tree. The stress reaction of the mycelial net is often brought on by the soil disturbance whether it be from beetle kill, fire, wind throw, excavation, cattle, orchards, etc. The sap movement is a good condition for the mycelium to give birth to its babies.
When do Morels Grow?Morels are one of the few spring species of mushrooms. In Canada, you want to start looking in April (on the west Coast) or May (in the prairie). If living elsewhere, often a good indicator is when the tree buds show signs of blooming. If conditions remain favourable you can pick into mid and occasionally late summer. This usually means travelling north or up in elevation. A flush on the flatlands or prairies will be brief and intense and many come only once. A season in the coniferous mountains may extend through the summer as the rain, sun, and the winds combine to provide flush after flush of mushrooms.
Where do Morels Grow?They camouflage with pine cones but you can train your eyes to spot them from quite far away. In the mush industry, morels are referred to either natural or fire morels. The naturals grow in meadows, orchards, and pastures. There may be just a few or there may be bucket-fulls. They may also come one year, or for many consecutive years, and then disappear without any obvious reason. On the other hand, Fire morels, will often grow abundantly the spring following the past summer’s forest fire. The preference is for a July/August fire. Now, a fire doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find morels the next year but it’s a god start. Other conditions such as rainfall, heat, sun exposure, elevation all influence the crop as well. Fire morels like spruce, and pine, but if you are in a barn, look on the outer edge, or for patches where the trees are not charred, this is called soft burn. They like where the needle bed is reddish and are often in between tree roots or the shade of fallen timber. You won’t have much luck where regrowth has taken off, that is where the ground has already ‘greened up’. The more mosquitos biting the more likely you are to find morels.
Which Morels Can you Eat? (and are there ones you can’t?)‘True morels’, that is all morchella genus are edible and incredible when cooked. Morels are not to be eaten raw or consumed in large quantities because they contain a mildly toxic substance, which is destroyed in cooking. It is possible and normal for some people to have an allergic reaction to morels. As with all new food, if you are consuming it for the first time a moderate amount is advised. There are also “false morels”, which is a term referring to morel look alikes such as the verpa genus and the more distant gyromitrae genus. A skilled mushroom picker can boldly distinguish them as clearly as a cucumbers vs zucchini. Slicing the specimens in half reveals a lot of helpful information.
- hollow, oblong like interior that sits on top of a hollow stem is morchella
- relatively longer stem that holds a cotton-like tissue and is attached interiorly to the ceiling of the cap is verpa
- a stem that is enveloped by a series of brain-like folds and with an exterior that is less honeycomb like and more wrinkle like is gyromitra
Is Picking Morels Sustainable?Absolutely! This is similar to picking apples off of an apple tree. The tree will continue to thrive, a lot of apples will fall off the ground and rot, and perhaps one of the thousands of apple seeds will eventually yield a new tree. The mycelium is like the tree, but it is underground so you don’t see it. When you harvest morels, just as when you harvest apples, there is no damage to the mycelium just as there is no damage to the tree. A big number of morels never get picked but just disintegrate in the bush, alone. Unlike apple seeds though the spore of the mycelium are rarely visible, come from multiple places, and are airborne, therefore travel like smoke in the wind. Do not worry about the mighty spore getting around folks.
Are Fresh Morels Better than Dry Morels?Some say yes, others say no. We absolutely say no! Fresh morels are fragile, hard to handle. They may crumble when handling, cleaning, and cooking. They cook more quickly and have a slightly more delicate texture. Their flavor is a little more exotic or musty. Fresh morels will keep about a week if conditions are ideal. Dry morels are easy to handle. They rehydrate faster, they do not crumble, they are much easier to stuff. They are also cleaner. When you dry a morel they contract a little, causing dirt, sand, pine needles, moss, poplar fuzz, or other bits of nature to fall off. When you rehydrate them, any remaining bits of nature fall to the bottom of your soaking liqauid. When using your soaking liquid in your dish, leave the last few tablespoons in the bowl. When you dry a morel you concentrate the flavor, think of raw fresh nuts versus roasted nuts. The flavors are quite different. When dried in the sun, the morel absorbs additional vitamin D, like the human skin, and most of us could use a little more of that. Dry morels can be enjoyed all year long. Time and time again, when eaten dried and fresh with fellow harvesters out in the bush, dried is the clear winner. It’s a treat to eat fresh because it’s only possible for a short time each year, but there are food snobs that age their dry mushrooms like wine. Drier and older better? We think so, but decide for yourselves.
How are Morels Dried?Drying morels is a bit of an art you need to master. The elements are time, air flow, and heat. If you are lucky, it is sunny and warm enough that you can let the sun do most of the work. Just lay the morels on screens, with plenty of airflow, and rotate them occasionally. If it is cool, or it rains, or you are drying large quantities, you’ll need to get much more involved. You let the sun work first and you finish with wood heat in a portable commercial drier. The product has a lovely wood aroma and flavor, and you can do large batches that meet food safety standards. Take care not to dry too hot or too fast. You’ll cook the mushroom and you’ll end up with something that is difficult to rehydrate with less flavour. With experience, you learn to adjust the heat, airflow, and drying times to what each batch of mushroom requires.
How are Morels Rehydrated (Reconstituted)?While drying morels is a bit of an art, rehydrating or reconstituting morelsis so easy a 3 year old could do it (as long as the mushrooms were dried properly to begin with). Add some water from the tap and wait a few minutes. Pinch them every now and then and when they are plump they are ready to use.
Cooking with MorelsMorels, like most delicacies and most mushrooms, are best prepared simply so you can really savour them. We recommend a simple sauté with butter. Some purists would scoff over using olive oil or even salt! It depends on how discriminating and curious your palette is. When cooking dried morels, add some of your soaking water back into your pan and reduce. We’re not against using a splash of wine (white preferred) or cream (as most Europeans require). We advocate for cooking low and slow until there is a nice color for the best flavour extraction. Some prefer breaded, fried, stuffed… really the possibilities are endless! You do have to cook them though. Raw morels don’t taste good and are likely to cause cramps or digestive upset. If it is your first time, be moderate.
Morels RecipesCheck out our other pages for several morel recipes. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Wild Mushroom Cream Cheese Spread
- Wild Mushroom Soup
- Wild Mushroom Risotto
- Wild Mushroom Cream Sauce