Tender morel mushrooms are known for their light texture and ease of cooking. Quickly sautéeing them in butter with onions or shallots brings out their woodsy, nutty flavor, which you can then serve alongside grilled steak or incorporate into a pasta sauce or risotto.
What Are Morel Mushrooms?
Morel mushrooms are wild mushrooms foraged from wooded areas during the spring months, usually March to June. The mushrooms grow at the base of dying or dead trees and require rain and warming spring temperatures to grow well. States such as Michigan and Wisconsin are known for morel hunting, but morels are also found in Virginia, Kentucky, the Pacific Northwest, some areas of California, and parts of Europe.
The morels used in cooking are small mushrooms, about two to four inches long. A smooth, off-white stem supports an oblong-shaped mushroom cap that looks like a web of thin veins with pits resembling a honeycomb. The mushroom cap can range in color from light beige to brown and sometimes nearly black.
Morel mushrooms are hollow which is one of their most distinguishable characteristics! Because morels are foraged and have a short season, they can be hard to find, and when you do, they are often expensive, sometimes $20 to $30 per pound. But these mushrooms are also light, which means a small basket at the farmers market, enough to serve one or two, can cost as little as $5.
Morel Mushrooms vs. False Morels
Morel mushrooms should only be purchased from qualified farmers’ market vendors and credible specialty markets, and mushroom foraging should only be done with an experienced guide. This is because there is a risk of confusing morels with non-edible imposters, often referred to as "false morels."
False morels have a similar shape to real morel mushrooms, but the cap is often reddish in color. The cap has a smoother surface with wavy, brain-like veining without the deep pits and honeycomb look of a morel cap. False morels are also not hollow.
Morel mushrooms are edible; false morels can be poisonous.
There are many species within the morel, or morchella family, but the two most common types of morels that you will find to purchase are the yellow morel, Morchella esculentoides, known as the common morel, and black morels, or Morchella angusticeps.
The yellow morel has a cap that is yellowish-brown or yellowish-gray. The ridges can be a little darker or lighter than the pits or the whole cap may be similar in color. Most of the yellow morels you’ll find will be smaller, up to four inches, but this variety has been known to grow to 12 inches tall when it is harvested later in the season.
The black morel can have an almost burnt look to its ridges on the cap with a dark brown to black color and a lighter brown to creamy yellow color in the pits.
Both are true morels, edible when cooked, and hollow on the inside.
What Do Morels Taste Like?
Unlike many cultivated mushrooms such as cremini and portabella that have a robust, meaty flavor when cooked, morels have a much more subtle texture and taste. They are often described as earthy, woodsy, and nutty. The darker varieties can even have a mild smokiness.
Where to Buy Morel Mushrooms
Check out specialty supermarkets, local food co-ops, and farmers' markets to find both fresh and dried morel mushrooms. At farmers’ markets they may be pre-selected and sold in half-pint and pint baskets or in bulk where you can self-select your mushrooms.
Many stores will offer them in bulk with other produce allowing you to select the amount you want to purchase.
How to Store Morel Mushrooms
Select plump mushrooms with no signs of wetness or rotting and store them in a brown paper bag on the countertop for two to three days. The bag can also be stored in the refrigerator if you don’t plan to eat the morels right away; the colder environment will help them last up to one week, but it will also dry them out more than if you were to store them at room temperature for a shorter period of time.
You can also dehydrate morels and keep them dried for up to 6 months.
Morels can be frozen after being washed, but once thawed they will only be good for puréeing into sauces as the freezing process makes them mushy.
How to Prep and Cook Morel Mushrooms
Dirt, and sometimes bugs, can get inside the crevices of the morel cap. It’s important to wash them well but not soak them for extended periods. Soaking will cause them to draw in too much water and make them mushy when cooking.
To clean morels, fill a bowl with cold water and submerge the mushrooms, giving them a shake in the water. Remove and check for dirt, then repeat as necessary until they are clean. Let the water drain from the mushrooms and pat them dry with a paper towel or clean dish towel. Clean your morels just before cooking otherwise they can get soft and go bad before you are ready to use them.
Morels should be cooked before eating. Eating raw morel mushrooms can give you an upset stomach. Before cooking, trim the bottom end of the stems to remove any dried or hard edges. If sautéeing the mushrooms as a side dish or to add to a pasta, small mushrooms can be cooked whole and larger mushrooms can be sliced in half, lengthwise. They can also be chopped into smaller pieces for sauces, soups, and toppings.
Morel mushrooms cook quickly. When sautéeing over high heat in butter or oil they will be ready to eat when they shrink and soften, within about five minutes.
Morels work best in recipes with light flavors that will complement their simplicity and earthiness without overpowering their delicate taste. They're great with other sautéed vegetables or cooked in butter to create a sauce to serve over roasted and grilled meats or pasta. They also make an ideal addition to mushroom soups and can be used as a flatbread or pizza topping.
When fresh morels aren’t in season, dried morels can be reconstituted to replace them. Use your morel mushrooms in the following recipes.