Gyromitra, scourge of the morel hunter, terror of the spring woods!
I can still remember the first time I saw one, I felt insulted. I knew they were deadly from seeing a picture of them with a skull and crossbones in a guide, even seeing them was scary. They were some sort of desecration of my morel patch, an abomination. I remember stomping on all of them with angry fear, damn right I was going to destroy every single one of them. Afterwords I was even uneasy cleaning them out of the soles of my boots.
Later that year I saw something strange. I’d put up a couple posts on poisonous mushrooms to help round out the collection of basic ID posts on mushrooms I’ve done for this site. The first post I put up was a basic one on Gyromitra, the family of mushrooms known casually as false morels, with a couple pictures and paragraphs, it’s nothing special.
I would expect the post to get more traffic during morel season, which it did, but when I looked at keywords people were using that led them to the site I was shocked, there were a number of combinations like the following:
- “False morel, how to eat/cook”
- “Best way to eat false morel”
- “Cooking/eating brain fungus mushroom” (another common name for Gyromitra)
- “Best false morel recipe”
Popularity of Eating False Morels in Michigan
Even a few searches for eating a poisonous mushroom would be a little odd, but the kicker was the geographic density of the searches. The vast majority of the searches for cooking Gyromitra were coming from different parts of Michigan, and most of them on the Upper Peninsula. Now I was curious. I didn’t understand, shouldn’t they all be dead? What was going on? About this time, I lost myself hunting morels and forgot about the Gyromitra for a couple years, until I had a conversation with my friend Patrick, the most experienced mushroom hunter I know, and a well connected member of our local mycological society.
He told me the story of a friend, an old doctor of Finnish descent, and the family doctor to his wife during her childhood. The doctor, like a lot of people close to their European ancestry, loves hunting his mushrooms. He’s also old enough to have realized a fear I’ve heard a few mushroom hunters allude to: restricted mobility from age combined with increased amounts of knowledge and free time that could be used to hunt, a torturous irony. As famous New York Forager Evan Strusinksi said:
“When I’m an old man and can no longer go foraging, if you hold a chanterelle under my nose, the smell will make me weep”
The doctor’s favorite mushrooms and chanterelles though they’re Gyromitra. He’d told Patrick stories of markets in Finland where dried Gyromitra are piled up to the ceiling for sale, and to boot, Patrick’s wife can remember dining on fried gyromitra in her youth at the doctor’s house with her family. By Patrick’s wager, the doctor has probably eaten the mushrooms every year for around 50 years, and similar stories are not hard to find doing a simple internet search.
The problem, is that there’s conflicting evidence to the tenability of being a long-term false morel eater. Tom Volk is a wealth of fungal information, check out his great article on Gyromitra/False Morels. The problem is that Gyromitra contain a compound that gets metabolized into monomethylhydrazine in the body, which is a carcinogenic compound of rocket fuel that is both contained in the flesh of the mushroom, and apparently gets cast into the air during cooking. This makes false morels the only mushroom I’d heard of that you could get sick from cooking, even if you don’t eat them. As fascinating as the natural bio-synthesis of fuel components in mushroom form may be, they’re probably not that good to have in your body.
Amounts of Gyromitrin Vary Between Species
The danger issue seems to be that the toxin gyromitrin from the mushrooms builds up in your body, it doesn’t kill overnight. To further confuse and compound things, different species of Gyromitra can have very little of the toxin gyromitrin (see G. montana), or a lot. This accounts both for deaths involving eating the mushrooms, and for the anomaly of long time, habitual eaters like our friends in the U.P.
As has been said before, eating them seems to me a bit like Russian Roulette:
If you eat from a species of Gyromitra that’s low in Gyromitrin, you win, and get to eat a great tasting mushroom. If you eat a species of mushroom that’s high in Gyromitrin repeatedly you lose, and may have the potential to develop debilitating health issues like cancer, or maybe just die eventually after you reach a threshhold level of Gyromitrin-related compounds in your body.
Cooking, Eating, and Safety
Taking all that into account, and going against just about every ounce of logic my brain has, I knew my curiosity wouldn’t be sated until I tasted one, so I told my friend Alex, a local mushroom hunting savant to be on the look out for them. A few days later she came around and I had myself some false morels, along with a few sarcastic jeers.
I waited until I had a day off, opened a window, turned on the fan and the hood vent, brought a pot of salted water to a boil with the mushroom, put a lid on top of the pot and tied a rag around my face for fear of the air-borne monomethylhydrazine seeping into my lungs, instantly killing and or blinding me .
I went and sat down in the other room while the Gyromitra simmered away. After a few minutes I could start to smell something in the air, it smelled nice and mushroomy, but that was all. My friend Patrick said that he had walked into the doctor’s house while he was boiling Gyromitra and could smell the rocket fuel in the air, so I wanted to know if it was true, again, maybe the varying levels in mushrooms can smell different when cooked, I don’t know.
After I could tell it was completely wilted and cooked through, I took the mushroom out of the pan, threw away the water, dried it thoroughly (very important since water gets trapped in the cavity of the false morels and will pop and explode in a hot pan), then I fried it in butter and ate it alone, in a dark corner, with a napkin on top of my head to hide my shame from god.
Here’s the thing about forbidden fruit, it isn’t usually forbidden because it tastes bad. I would be lying if I said eating the Gyromitra didn’t taste very good, it’s a bit like eating a giant morel, much better than eating other mushrooms that need par-boiling like Amanita muscaria I’ve had. The folds inside the stem that are usually a hollow cavity in morels catch and hold all sorts of juices, tasting like tender layers of morel.
How to Cook a False Morel or Gyromitra Mushroom
Alan! You’re going to kill people! Why would you tell people how to cook a false morel? The answer brings us back to what lead me to these in the first place. People will continue to eat false morels whether you, me or other mushroom hunters think they should or not. There is a lack of information on the subject though, so I wanted to provide a template with precautions and clear directions people could find to reference.
That being said, there are some rules to cooking these.
- Don’t serve Gyromitra to pregnant women, the elderly, young children, or people with compromised or delicate health conditions.
- Don’t serve Gyromitra to people who don’t know or understand what they are.
- Gyromitra should be par-boiled before cooking to avoid adverse reactions.
- A few tablespoons of unsalted butter
- Salt, to taste
- 3 oz false morel, roughly one large, fist-sized mushroom
- at least 12 cups of water
- Inspect the Gyromitra for bugs, debris, and dirt. Clean the mushroom diligently, leaving it as whole as possible, swishing around in a bowl of cool water as needed to loosen any dirt.
- Try to not cut the mushroom in half, since it will taste better cooked whole. Open all the windows in your kitchen, and use a kitchen hood fan if available, or use a box fan to blow air out of the kitchen.
- Season the water to taste with salt, add the Gyromitra, then bring to a boil and cook until wilted and completely cooked, about 20 minutes. Remove the Gyromitra from the water and reserve, then discard the water. Put the Gyromitra between a few sheets of paper towels and press to get out as much water as possible.
- Heat the butter in a skillet, like cast iron, and cook the mushroom on medium low heat about, flipping once, for about 5 minutes on each side, or until the mushroom is deeply caramelized and browned, then drain for a moment or two on a paper towel to shed fat, and eat.