In the Midwest especially, if you say “wild mushroom”, many people know of only one: the morel.
It’s thought of as one of the greatest mushrooms in the world, and I definitely agree. Minnesota even has it listed as it’s official “state mushroom”.
I can still remember the first time I found one. It was only one, a single lone mushroom. I got very excited though. Over the next few weeks my friend and I ended up running into our biggest patch, the one we still return to every year in the Spring.
For me, morel hunting is more than just getting out and looking for food, it’s a right of spring, and the first chapter in the mushroom growth as a whole for the coming season. After enduring another Minnesota Winter each year, hunting morels is a great way to celebrate the growing season, and the onset of warmer weather.
Morel hunts have also become a tradition with my friend that was with me when we found our first patch. We get up early to avoid prying eyes, then spend a few hours looking together. After our hunts I usually cook them up his favorite way-breaded and fried.
As far as hunting these go, you have a couple options. The old advice of looking around for dead elms is spot on, but there are other ways to find them too. And, since the peak of Dutch-elm death has passed, it’s useful to know different types of terrain where you can hunt so that you’re not limiting yourself by only looking for dead elms.
In Minnesota, I find Morels growing around dead and dying elms, cottonwoods, and old apple orchards in the southern deciduous portion of the state. In the northern conifer forests, I find black, grey and blonde morels in aspen groves. They also like disturbed areas, like aspen groves and other forests that have been burned or flooded. Confusingly, the seem to grow in the presence of dead and dying matter, but also mycorhizally-a natural symbiosis with their surroundings.
Different species of morels
We know a lot more about morels than in the past. Plenty of hunters might say they pick “blondes and greys”. There are many more individual species though. I’m not even going to attempt to directly identify the individual species, but I’ll list a few of the different ones that I notice, since I do think some of them cook up a bit better than others, although the differences are slight. To keep things easy, for my purposes here I’m going to say you can think of morels as 4 different types: blondes, greys, deep woods morels, and black morels.
Typically these are the first morels that I see growing in the spring. They’re smaller than blonde morels, but make up for it with a structure that is more dense. Many experienced morel hunters I’ve spoken to prefer these over their blonde/yellow cousins.
Blonde, Gold, or Yellow Morels
From my experience, these grow to be larger than grey or dark morels. Their larger size doesn’t necessarily mean more is better though. As these grow in size, they tend to get crumbly. The “walls” of yellow morels are also thinner than grey or darker colored morels. As far as morels go, these are probably the most widely available, but If pressed, I would choose grey or darker colored morels over them. These are minute details though, at the end of the day they’re still morels, and they’re great eaters.
“Deep Woods” Morels
Deep woods morels are a name I’ve given to these, since I tend to only see them in the deep woods, as opposed to out in more open spaces. When I’m hunting in large expanses of woods, typically around dead elms and cottonwoods, I see these, they’re much darker than the typical morels I see commercial hunters bring in, and I think they’re a close tie texture wise to the grey morel, if not equal.
Also known as conical morels, blacks are a separate species including Morchella septentrionalis and others. I mention the septentrionalis here as I suspect they’re the ones I’ve harvested, but I can’t be 100% certain. Either way they’re morels and they’re great to eat. Mostly these are known as growing with stands of young aspen/popple in Northern Minnesota.
These are good eaters too, but I’ve separated them into a different post. Their habitat can differ slightly that others where I live in Minnesota. See my post on Black Morels.
Now the most fun part, morels are some of the best eating mushrooms around, but you do need to know a couple things about them:
- Never eat morels raw, they could make you sick
- Browning them will deepen and improve their flavor
- If you find perfect morels, they can be cooked whole, just make sure to inspect inside for dirt or insects
- Some people have allergies, even if they’re cooked through, especially with black morels
- Simple preparations are the best, the more ingredients, the less you will taste the morels themselves
Preservation wise, these are one of the best mushrooms you can find to drying and save for future dishes. Since they’re hollow, they dry quickly. You can easily dehydrate morels in front of a fan or even easier, a dehydrator without heat-my first choice.
I know one guy that sets them up halved on screens in his garage. Just make sure not to use too much heat when drying them, since it can cause them to rot while they dry and turn black, which means they won’t taste as good.
After morels are dried, they can be easily reconstituted by covering with cold water, stock or alcohol. Afterword they’re rehydrated and plumped up, they need to be swished around in their liquid to remove any dirt that hung on to them.
After dirt is removed, just strain the liquid and recombine it with the morels, then add them to whatever you like. Remember too, even after they’re dried and reconstituted, browning them a bit in butter or oil lightly will improve their flavor.
Look-a-Likes: Gyromitra, Half-Frees, and Verpas–all edible. But.
There are a few different species that can be confused with true morels, but mostly when you hear the words “false morel” it’s going to refer to some type of Gyromitra, which fruit at roughly the same time. Some people actually eat Gyromitra, from my experience especially in the Upper peninsula of Michigan. In Europe, they’re still sold dried at markets in Europe, I know Finland for sure. The supposed problem with them is that their supposed to concentrate a toxin in your body that builds over time which can cause some harm, or death, eventually. Now, in our current age, demonizing all Gyromitra has been shown to be false, and many of them are perfectly fine to eat, although I still par boil them personally.
The Big Takeaway
Gyromitra, regular morels, half-free morels, or verpas are all edible, but none of them should ever be eaten raw or undercooked, and some need to be par boiled or otherwise denatured by drying, etc.
Should I soak morels in salt water to remove bugs?
Absolutely, positively, never. Soaking morels in salt water will ruin them, but there’s all sorts of folk advice that recommends it. Technically salt water is a brine. Bugs and debris float to the top of the salt water not because of a magical effect cleaning effect, but because water, and especially water with salt in it causes things to float in it, like the Dead Sea.
What happens if you soak morels in salt water is that the salt will draw out the natural water from inside the morel which “cooks” it in a way. When you remove them, they’ll be flaccid and limp. After frying in a bunch of butter they might taste ok, but if a cook did that to my morels in the kitchen we would be having a serious talk about their continued employment.
Cleaning morel mushrooms
Resources and further reading
Here’s some of my favorite recipes I’ve created especially for morels.
- Ricotta-Ramp Tart With Morel Jus
- Fresh Pasta With Grass Fed Beef and Dried Morel Mushrooms
- Morels And Brick Cheese On Rye, With Ramp Leaf Aioli
- Shad Roe With Pickled Morels And Bacon
- Steak and Morels en Crepinette, with Nettles and Grains
- Roger Verge’s Morel Quiche
- Grecian Black Morels
- Pickled Morel Mushrooms
- Croissant Stuffed With Morels Ramps And Nettles
- Morels A la Normande; With Black Spring Truffle
- Simple Fried/Breaded Morels
- Wild Mushroom Conserve