Normal shmormal. It’s all relative. You like to go to outlet malls in search of sweet deals, I like to dodge deer ticks while trudging through posted property littered with thorny plants in search of morel mushrooms. Whatever floats your boat, right?
So today I’m going to teach you all about morel mushrooms, where and how to find them, as well as what their look alikes are and how to distinguish between them.
This wrinkled and pocked beauty above is a morel! My very first fungal forays as a little girl were for these illusive little bastards. My dad couldn’t have taught me about oyster mushrooms, or easily spotted pheasant backs.
No, the super hard to find highly coveted morel mushroom was my introduction to mycology. Luckily for me I’ve always had a knack for pattern recognition.
To the untrained eye morel mushrooms blend in perfectly with their environment. To me, they pop out as strange sponge-looking things scattered about where there should not be strange sponge-looking things scattered about.
Yes, I undoubtedly miss a few each year, but for the most part they stand out like no other with a certain beauty only a morel hunter and a chef can truly appreciate.
In different areas they grow under different trees but around here (North East, Ohio) they can be found primarily under dead elms, ash, tulip poplar, and sycamore.
Apple trees will yield them as well but you need to be absolutely certain you are not in an old apple orchard. Lead and arsenic from pesticides remain in the soil and are absorbed by the mushrooms. There have been cases of “morel mushroom poisoning” that were later found out to be arsenic poisoning.
The soil morel mushrooms most prefer is damp but not soggy. If you see skunk cabbage in the area don’t even bother looking, it is too wet. They also enjoy disturbed soil and burn areas.
Hillsides are for whatever reason a place they regularly enjoy, perhaps as a result of the south facing hillsides warming up first in the spring. If you see a mushroom at the top of a bank make sure to walk up and scan the slope- they will usually be peppered around below.
Dappled sunlight is their preferred lighting, full sun is a no-go and complete shade usually doesn’t do it for them. Even the elms they grow under have to be the right amount of dead.
Not freshly dead, but not all-the-bark-fell-off level dead either. The tips of the branches have to just be beginning to curl gracefully inward and the majority of the bark needs to still be on the tree.
They’re easily the goldilocks of the mushroom world needing everything to be -just right-. And even then, sometimes you’ll walk up to a mossy hillside, under a perfectly dead elm, with rich damp soil and the perfect sunlight blotched around only to find not a single morel mushroom.
Other times you’ll walk to the end of the road to get your mail and they’ll be scattered around your mailbox in dry gravel under blistering sun. They’re impossible to entirely figure out.
Much like avoiding apple orchards, if you find morels or any mushroom for that matter growing along a road or in a yard, stop and think about it before picking them. Does the yard have any weeds? If not, is that because it is treated? Do you really want to eat something that sucked up the fertilizer that keeps people off their lawns for safety reasons after being applied?
If alongside a busy road do you want to consume the exhaust and oils from heavy traffic? Even along railroad tracks one must consider the toxicity of the railway ties that have been treated with chromium and arsenic that leaches out into surrounding soil.
It can be hard to turn down what looks like a perfect morel but sometimes you have to. Especially if you plan to gift or sell your finds, it’s important to always have good morels.
Now that you have an idea of where to find them, you need to know the how.
By softly calling out to them by crouching low to the ground and scanning the area around you, you’ll see that this angle is much preferable to just looking straight down. They don’t blend in as well when you can see them clearly poking up above the leaves and grass.
Once you find a specimen, don’t go hog wild and rip it out of the ground taking all of the dirt with you. You’re not an animal, have some decorum. If you’d like to skip chewing on dirt and silt later, pinch or cut them off where the stem meets the ground.
For transporting them I recommend using an onion bag or some kind of mesh bag. Giving them a mesh bag to allow spores to fall through ensures more morels will grow next season. This was something I was skeptical about until finding a few stories from people who used onion bags finding morels suddenly growing along the route they had walked year after year without ever having found any there before.
But are you sure you’re picking the right thing?
There are only two look alikes that I find even remotely convincing, but upon closer inspection you should find that there is nothing particularly similar to the morel about Gyromitra esculenta or Verpa bohemica, both often referred to as false morels (Verpa bohemica pictured below). If you’re really stretching you might even confuse Verpa conica which looks similar to V. bohemica but has a smoother cap, usually with few to no wrinkles at all.
Your first clue is outside appearance. All morels (and there are many species, which is why I’m simply saying morel mushrooms rather than giving you scientific names) have a pocked, honeycomb like appearance. Their look alikes instead have folds giving them a brain like appearance in some cases.
In younger morels it can be hard to tell if what you’re seeing is pocks or folds, but that’s only one part of identifying them. Upon cutting your mushroom in half remember that morels are hollow, while the various false morels usually have a cotton-like webbing inside the stem. You can see it inside the stem in the picture above. The stem in morels attaches right at the base of the cap (in all but the half free morel, but we’ll get to that) while the stem in false morels connects higher up inside the cap at the top, as you can see.
If you’re not a total stranger to morels you may be thinking, well wait, then what are dog peckers or half-free morels? Those are Morchella punctipes (in the Eastern part of the US) or Morchella populiphila (in the Western part of the US) and they are edible.
But I wouldn’t recommend eating them until you find and accurately identify a few of them as well as the V. bohemica they most resemble. As the name suggests, their cap is half free, attaching half way up the cap as you can see in the photo above. The half free morel is also more delicate and prone to crumbling than their sturdier counterparts.
Some people will tell you that Gyromitra species (also known as beefsteak or snowbank mushrooms) are edible if par-boiled. As a rule they are not edible regardless of how they are prepared, do not even argue with me on this.
Levels of gyromitrin, the toxin in the false morel, vary widely between populations. Personal thresholds also vary- what may not seriously harm one person may kill another. Lethal reactions can happen even years after one has been consuming these safely. It is unknown if a person’s threshold changes or if gyromitrin can build up in the system, but any one could be your last one. It is not a mushroom worth gambling on.
People will also tell you that V. bohemica are edible, which again I will tell you isn’t the case. They have lower levels of gyromitrin than the Gyromitra species but can have the same effects. There are enough safely edible mushrooms out there that it isn’t worth taking chances on the ones that aren’t.
Preparing Morel Mushrooms
True morel mushrooms are safe if thoroughly cooked. They contain small amounts of hydrazine which is why people are cautioned not to have alcohol with them. A low and slow cooked morel should not have any hydrazine remaining but some people are sensitive to even trace amounts so your first time consuming them should be without alcohol and in small quantity. I once had hastily cooked morels (unbeknownst to yours truly) at a wine tasting. It’s been a while since I did the research but if I understood correctly, I made jet fuel in my stomach. Needless to say that is not an enjoyable experience.
Now before cooking your morels cut them in half and knock out any bugs or dirt. Sometimes this is best done outside so if you open up a mushroom and find a small ant colony or a centipede it will not take up residence in your kitchen.
If they are dry you can give them a quick soak to rehydrate them. Lay them out on paper towels so excess moisture is wicked away. If you over batter your mushrooms in flour, which can easily happen if they are too wet, it can gum up and you’ll end up with some raw flour hiding in the holes of larger morels.
Maybe you’ve picked your mushrooms but don’t plan to prepare them right away. That’s not a problem as they store very well. Always cut and clean them first. Putting freshly picked morels in your fridge for a few days is a great way to have no morels- it’s crazy what a few slugs and pill bugs can do.
Once they are cut and cleaned they can be placed in a ziplock bag with a few dry paper towels. The paper towels help regulate moisture, by sucking up excess water, and returning it to the mushrooms should they get too dry. If the mushrooms were picked fresh they can easily last two weeks in the fridge like this.
If you want to keep them for longer a food dehydrator is a good choice. Place the cut and cleaned mushrooms in the dehydrator and run it until they’re completely dry to avoid them molding.
They can then be stored in glass jars with tightly secured lids. I’ve only ever stored them for up to about a year since I end up eating them all, but if stored properly they should last a few years.
So assuming you’d like to experience this delectable mushroom in all of it’s glory, I recommend a very simple preparation. Nothing beats morels battered in flour then fried low and slow in butter. I’ve found I enjoy rice flour more than wheat flour since it crisps up more.
Just place your mushrooms into a ziplock bag with your preferred flour, gently shake them to cover them, knock off any extra flour hiding in the porous caps, and put them in a frying pan with butter over low heat. I typically fry them up over the course of 15 to 20 minutes, turning as needed. Personally I like the outsides crispy and the insides tender and inviting. A sprinkle of sea salt really intensifies their flavor.
This is my preferred method for appreciating any new mushroom. I like to get an understanding of the flavor, aroma, and texture so I know how to cook with them in the future. It is also useful in case you have any kind of reaction to a new mushroom so you know precisely what caused it instead of wondering if it was something else that you ate.
The caveat, of course.
My last word of caution (and now that I think of it, a future post of it’s own) is beware of deer ticks. Before you set foot in the woods educate yourself about their appearance and when you get home either get a mirror or your BFF and make sure you check every inch of your body.
Lyme disease is no joke and is often misdiagnosed until the damage is so great that it is no longer reversible. Familiarize yourself with the bulls eye rash and other symptoms.
And on that note. No. I will never go foraging with you. I’m not an ass, I’m an introvert. Being alone in the woods is magical and I don’t need you there yammering on about spiderwebs or mud. I’ve given you some solid info to get you started and I recommend researching until you feel comfortable with your knowledge. I’ll happily let you know if you have found what you think you have found, I just won’t go with you to find it.