What are Morels?
Morels are one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are not farmed like most grocery store mushrooms, Cremini, Portobello, Oyster, etc. but gathered in the wild. The part that we eat is the fruiting body of the underground organism called mycelium that has a complex symbiotic relationship with trees. Every spring mushroom enthusiasts, foraging chefs, and an ever growing group of commercial harvesters hunt these little forest treasures.
The Morchella genus has been the subject of fascination and debate for centuries. Mycologists (mushroom scientists) 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 delicious and nutritious.
What do Morels Look Like?
Morels vary tremendously in appearance. Their shape can be oblong to bulbous. Their color can be blonde to grey. Their size can be smaller than your fingertip to larger than your hand. Their most identifiable characteristic is what’s typically described as a honeycomb like exterior. Bees are are more methodical though. The ‘combs’ or pits on the outside of morels can be tight or loose and form an imperfect pattern. The inside 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 short or tall 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?
They are delicious. Even people who say they don’t like mushrooms often fall in love with morels. These people generally find the texture of mushrooms slippery, slimy, or otherwise off putting. Morels are unique with their meaty texture and an earthy and nutty flavour.
They have a big reputation. Morels are a bit of a rock star in the food world because they’re so hard to find, so expensive, and so exotic looking. They are usually reserved for fancy meals with fancy wine and meats.
Why are Morels so Delicious?
Words can only go so far. As described above they are earthy and nutty, woodsy and toasted. The flavour is deep as opposed to strong and distinct without being weird. Their texture is meaty but in a tender way. Certainly a satisfying morsel of protein but not squishy or chewy. Morels don’t offend palates or overpower dishes, and yet they stand above and apart. Every bite of a meal with morels is the best bite.
Are Morels Good for You?
Absolutely. Morels are loaded with all kinds of nourishment not listed by the required nutrition facts table of Canadian Food labels. As morels tend to grow in rich soils they come packed with vitamins and minerals. While the nutrition can vary based on the soil they are found in, morels will generally contain significant amounts of Iron, Copper, Manganese, Phosphorus, Zinc, Vitamin D, Folate, Niacin, Riboflavin and a decent dose of Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Selenium, Thiamine, Vitamins E and B6.
Morels are also loaded 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. The complex, symbiotic relationship that the morel mycelium have with trees is difficult to replicate in an artificial environment. It is frequently 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 that you eat has been picked by hand in its natural environment. And most likely that someone has traveled a great distance, hiked a great deal, perhaps camped remotely for weeks, battled the elements (mosquitoes, horseflies, rain, drought, etc.) and somehow managed to get that delicate specimen back to the city in decent condition for you to be able to purchase.
[UPDATE: Since the writing of this page China has developed techniques to farm morels. There is debate as to their quality and taste (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 farmers’ markets or high-end grocery stores but they deteriorate quite quickly. If properly managed they keep for about a week. The vast majority of morels are dried, this a good thing, and the majority of dried Canadian morels are exported. Global supply for morels rarely meets global demand and other countries are willing to pay top dollar. Domestic consumption for wild mushrooms is low in Canada and the U.S relative to Europe or Asia 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.
“Morels are everywhere and impossible to find” as the expression goes. Hunting morels can be an occasional hobby or a seasonal trade. For a beginner forager, learning from someone who knows is the surest and easiest way to acquire the skill.
If you don’t have the opportunity to learn directly from someone, start by getting intimate with nature every spring, as the tree buds appear. It’s amazing how much you learn one year to the next. Take a journal and a camera so you can reference and build on your experiences. Follow harvesters in your area on twitter or instagram so you know when they are out picking and so you can look for similar soil conditions, trees, and topography. Join a mushroom foray or a mycological society if you can find one. Just like anything it takes practice. If you need confirmation from a book or a chef, 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 hesitate to eat them.
“There are old mushroom pickers and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old-bold mushroom pickers”
If you are picking remotely, 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 lighter, a first aid kit, bug spray, and bear spray.
Picking in urban or industrial areas is arguably more dangerous. Do not pick mushrooms by heavy traffic, waste disposal sites, or any heavy industrial processing. It is also advisable to avoid picking mushrooms from orchard or farmland unless you know they are organic. What’s in the soil will be in the mushrooms.
It is best to cut the morel with a knife an inch or less of the stem. The stem is totally edible and delicious, it is simply not industry standard to have a very long stem and the longer you go the more likely it will be dirty, sandy, gritty. If you pluck, your mushroom will be dirty and frayed.
Don’t squish your morels by placing too many on top of eachother. Place them in baskets or buckets with holes drilled into them so the mushrooms can breathe. It’s also nice to cover your basket with a cloth or towel so needles and other debris don’t get in.
Fresh morels keep 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 don’t pick any wormy ones to begin with, you’ll protect the rest of your haul from getting wormy during storage. Place them in the fridge, no more than a few layers deep, with plenty of air to circulating around them. Drying is an excellent 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 energy and carbohydrates to the tree. The stress reaction of the mycelial net is usually brought on by soil disturbance whether it be from fire, excavation, beetle kill, wind throw, 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 stay favourable we can pick into mid and occasionally late summer. This usually means travelling north or up in elevation. A flush on the prairies or flatlands will be brief and intense and may come only once. A season in the coniferous mountains may extend through the summer as the sun, rain, and winds combine to provide flush after flush of mushrooms.
Where do Morels Grow?
In the industry, we refer to morels as either naturals or fire morels. The naturals grow in pastures, meadows, and orchards. There may be just a couple or there may be bucket-fulls. They may come one year, or for many consecutive years, and then disappear without any obvious reason. Fire morels, will often grow abundantly the spring following the previous summer’s forest fire. The preference is for a July/August fire. A fire doesn’t guarantee you’ll find morels the following year but it’s a good start. Other conditions such as heat, rainfall, sun exposure, elevation all influence the crop as well. Fire morels like pine, and spruce, but if you are in a burn, look on the outer edge, or for patches where the trees are not charred, we call this the 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.
Example of a cluster of fire morels. They camouflage with pine cones but you can train your eyes to spot them from quite far away.
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 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 recommended.
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 could confidently 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
There is ongoing concern and debate about the edibility of ‘false morels’. Verpas are more commonly considered safe, although must be properly prepared. There have been toxic reactions and fatalities reported on gyrometrae, which have great regional variation, but they are considered a delicacy in some countries where they are consumed widely with no ill effect. Again, proper preparation is essential. We certainly don’t advise experimentation and after two decades in the mushroom industry, we still stick morchella.
Is Picking Morels Sustainable?
Absolutely. It is like picking apples off of an apple tree. The tree will continue to thrive, many apples will fall to 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 huge amount of the morels never get picked but just disintegrate in the bush, alone 🙁 Unlike apple seeds though the spore of the mycelium are barely visible, come from multiple places, and are airborn, therefor travel like smoke in the wind. Don’t worry about the mighty spore getting around folks.
Are Fresh Morels Better than Dry Morels?
Some say yes, we say no.
Fresh morels are fragile. They may crumble when handling, cleaning, and cooking. They cook more quickly and have a slightly more delicate texture. Their flavour is a little more musty or exotic. Fresh morels will keep about a week if conditions are ideal.
Dry morels are easy to handle. They rehydrate quickly, they do not crumble, they are much easier to stuff (if your’re chef’y like that). They are also cleaner. When you dry a morel they contract a little, causing sand, dirt, pine needles, poplar fuzz, moss, or other bits of nature to fall off. When you rehydrate them, any remaining bits of nature fall to the bottom of your soaking liquid. When using your soaking liquid in your dish, leave the last few tablespoons in the bowl. When you dry a morel you concentrate the flavour, think of raw fresh nuts versus roasted nuts. The flavours 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 fresh and dried with our 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. The components are time, air flow, and heat. If you are lucky, it is warm and sunny 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 rains, or it is cool, or you are drying large quantities, you’ll need to get much more involved. We let the sun work first and we finish with wood heat in a portable commercial drier. The product has a lovely wood aroma and flavour, and we can do a large batches that meet food safety standards. Be careful about drying 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 Reconstituted (rehydrated)?
While drying morels is a bit of an art, reconstituting or rehydrating morels is 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 Morels
Morels, like most mushrooms and most delicacies, 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 their is a nice colour for the best flavour extraction. Some prefer fried, breaded, stuffed… really the possibilities are endless! You do have to cook them though. Raw morels don’t taste good and are likely to cause digestive upset or cramps. If it is your first time, be moderate.