Morel Mushrooms
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Morel Mushrooms are one of the most highly-prized edible fungi in the world, even though, to a botanist, they are not technically “mushrooms” at all.  Morel Mushrooms and truffles are, if you will, cousins to the more familiar mushroom.

Brown-colored, Morel Mushrooms belong to the fungi family Morchella within the Ascomyota phylum, which is derived from “Maurus” the Latin word for “brown.” Interestingly, Linneaus, father of taxonomy, initially called the true morels Phallus esculentus, where “esculentus” means delicious in Latin.  

You may also hear Morel Mushrooms called any of the following: Common Morels, True Morels, Sponge Morels, Sponge Mushrooms, Dryland Fish (halved and fried, their outline is fish-like), Hickory Chickens, Merkels, Miracles, Molly Moochers,  and Morchels (an old German word for Mushrooms).

A classification that we do pay attention to is the difference between True Morel Mushrooms and False Morel Mushrooms. Both True Morel Mushrooms and False Morel Mushrooms, are found in coniferous forests in North America and some of their seasons do overlap. They both fit the model, of the typical mushroom (sporophore) in that they consist of a cap (pileus) and a stem (stipe). They differ significantly in their toxicity, which is why it matters.

True Morel Mushrooms are normally edible if cooked, even though they contain small amounts of hydrazine (a toxin). The cooking heat, breaks down the hydrazine. However, it also means that even Morel Mushrooms should NOT be eaten raw. Mycologists (mushroom scientists) estimate that there are perhaps 22 species of True Morel Mushrooms that occur in North America (Generally, Yellow Morel Mushrooms or Black Morel Mushrooms).

False Morel Mushrooms, like the Beefsteak Morel Mushroom (Gyromitra esculenta) or the Early Morel Mushroom (Verpa bohemica), are bad news. They contain the toxin gyromitrin. They're NOT edible, even if cooked and are potentially deadly.  They frequently grow near spots where True Morel Mushrooms grow.

Eating false Morel Mushrooms, raw or cooked, can make you sick in as little as 6 hours. Symptoms include:  vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, right side abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, muscle cramps, bloating, and fatigue, and these are the early symptoms. Later onset symptoms can go on to include: confusion, delirium, seizures, jaundice, hepatitis and coma.

Though Smart Kitchen does not advise it, Morel Mushrooms are widely foraged in North America, even by novice mushroom hunters who take a risk. Unless you are an expert, or foraging with an expert, we vote against guide book foraging since you may be risking your life based on information from a web site, even this one.

Generally, and for education purposes only, True Morel Mushrooms are distinguished by their spongy shape which is pitted and ridged but not wrinkled or brain-like. The cap and stem of True Morel Mushrooms are joined at the base of the stem or no more than halfway into the cap. They have hollow stems and appear honeycomb-like. They can range in color from dark brown to a muted gray depending on the species and their age.

Ingesting False Morels, such as the Beefsteak Morel Mushroom or the Early Morel Mushroom, is a serious problem because gyromitrin is toxic to the liver and can make you sick, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness, headache,muscle cramps, bloating, and fatigue, in a few hours.

Season

The emergence of Morel Mushrooms generally occurs in the springtime, and Morel Mushrooms are thought of as a “Springtime” Mushroom.  The actual date of first arrival can vary though because there is a high degree of correlation with warmer weather, warmer soil temperatures and precipitation that can hasten their first appearance into March or delay their arrival into June.

Mycologists prepare lists of the fruiting times of various Morel Mushrooms in the wild. The first True Morel Mushroom to sprout is the Half Free Morel Mushroom, followed closely by the Black Morel Mushrooms and then the Yellow Morel Mushrooms. Again, this is generalized advice and not gospel. If you are going to forage Morel Mushrooms go with an expert and don’t rely on a website, even SmartKitchen.com

Availability

Finding good fresh Morel Mushrooms is work since the bulk of the market is currently supplied by foragers who seek out wild specimens in the spring and early summer. To find fresh Morel Mushrooms you have to know these foragers or know of a company or grocery that knows them.

There are at least 2 patented processes for cultivating Morel Mushrooms but as far as we know the operations relying on those patented techniques are either out of business or not producing product at the current time.

Dried Morel Mushrooms are more widely available throughout the year.

Cultivation

As far as we know, no one is commercially cultivating Morel Mushrooms at this time. There have been two patents issued for different processes but one company, Terry Farms, ran into some production issues back in 2005-2006 and closed down and the other, Morel Farms, is working on their production process and not selling product.

Production

Because most Morel Mushrooms are harvested in season by individual foragers who sell their pickings to roadside buyers there is little formal documentation about the size of the market except for overblown claims of its size and promise in territorial/governmental pamphlets.

Each individual forager can pick anywhere from a few pounds to 20 grocery bags worth of Morel Mushrooms a day. The roadside buyers wait for them to exit the woods and then purchase their haul on the spot. The buyers, in turn, sell their inventory to wholesalers, dryers, mail-order companies, grocery stores, etc.

Deciduous trees commonly associated with morels in the northern hemisphere include ash, sycamore, tulip tree, dead and dying elms, cottonwoods and old apple trees (remnants of orchards).

Varieties

We mentioned in the opening that there are True Morel Mushrooms and False Morel Mushrooms. Only the True Morel Mushrooms are suitable for human consumption so we will only detail the varieties of True Morel Mushrooms here in the Varieties section.

There are at least 30 species of True Morel Mushrooms in North America. They are grouped into 3 distinct classes based on their color. Most common in the wild are Yellow Morel Mushrooms (Morchella esculenta, Morchella deliciosa and Morchella crassipes), Gray Morel Mushrooms, and Black Morel Mushrooms (Morchella conica, Morchella elata and Morchella angusticeps).

Purchasing

Fresh Morel Mushrooms

Because fresh Morel Mushrooms are rare and pricey, knowing how to pick good ones is pretty important. First fresh Morels are most likely foraged and found in the late winter through early summer in North America (depending on the weather on any given year). Second, avoid buying bunches or packages of fresh Morels, if possible. Picking your own individual mushrooms allows you to select the best ones. Because they are very moist Morel Mushrooms should have a bouncy, “springy” feel. They should feel firm and dry, without actually being dry or shriveled.  Avoid any that are soft, mushy or moldy.

Finally, it’s your hard earned money. Take the opportunity to smell your product before you buy it. Good Morel Mushrooms will have a fresh, “earthy,” mushroom smell. The stronger the earthiness, the more flavor the Mushroom contains. Sour or fishy smelling Mushrooms should be avoided.

Dried Morel Mushrooms

If you can’t find fresh Morel Mushrooms, it is a good bet that you can find Dried Morels, perhaps at a good Specialty Grocery Store. Because they are dried in bulk, packaged mushrooms will likely be the only option available. They will be sold by in a bundle by weight but because they were professionally dehydrated, inspected and packed, they should be very shelf stable and hardy. Because of the processing, there is also a reduced likelihood of receiving a bad individual Morel. The biggest potential issue to look out for with dried Morels is mold and /or moisture. Look at the mushrooms are any moldy or slimy looking? If so, pass on that box or bag of dried Morel Mushrooms.

The best price that we have found lately for an ounce is Hoosier Hill Farms Dried Morel Mushrooms (this link goes to Amazon).

In general fresh mushrooms have better texture and dried mushrooms have better, more concentrated flavor.

Storage

Within the world of Mushrooms, fresh Morels are among the more delicate and perishable species. They don’t bruise but excessive moisture and rough handling degrades them quickly. Proper storage and handling will help you make the most of your Morels.

Storing Fresh Morel Mushrooms

When brought home from the store they should be stored in their original cardboard container on a shelf in the refrigerator. If you want to remove the plastic wrap, if any, and cover the Morel Mushrooms with a dry paper towel that is fine. Placing them under wax paper, in a paper bag or in a Vegetable Bag is good as well. All of these choices allow air to circulate. 

We don’t recommend using the higher humidity crisper drawer for moisture-sensitive Mushrooms. Stored as described above, Fresh Morel Mushrooms should last about 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator. Stored at room temperature they will only last a day or so. Because of their moisture content, we don’t suggest freezing fresh Morel Mushrooms at home.

If you want to give it a try though, “Flash Freezing” is the best choice. Run the Morel Mushrooms under cold water (or place them in a bucket to soak for a few minutes), then place them on a cookie sheet or pizza pan and place it all into the freezer. Let them freeze through (they should have a slight frozen glaze) and then remove them from the cookie sheet to an airtight storage container. Work quickly and return the container to the freezer. They should last about six to eight months. Be careful when Thawing them though, as the added moisture can result in slightly mushy caps. Thawing them in the refrigerator over the course of a few days is the best approach.

Another option would be to cook the whole (or sliced) Morel Mushrooms first, and then freeze them by Tempering the cooked product and then placing them in an airtight container in the freezer.

Storing Dried Morel Mushrooms

Dried Morel Mushrooms are fairly hardy and can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place such as a cabinet or pantry. Properly held, they should easily last for a year, or longer.  Freezing dehydrated Morel Mushroom can significantly extend their useful life.

If you come across an abundance of Morel Mushrooms and want to dry them at home, Slice them and then dehydrate them in a Dehydrator, or even in an oven at a very low temperature like 150° F – 170° F (66° C - 77° C) Don’t forget that Dried Mushrooms will need to be Rehydrated before use.

Culinary Uses

Morels, like all Mushrooms, can be highly allergic. If you, or one of your guests, are eating cooked Morel Mushrooms for the first time, it is wise to consume only a small amount to minimize any allergic reaction(s).

With that proviso out of the way, the first thing to know about working with Morel Mushrooms is that they naturally contain small amounts of the toxin and carcinogen hydrazine, which means that they SHOULD NOT be eaten raw.  Against our own advice, we have tried them raw, and they have a very un-interesting, soil-like taste. You are not missing out on anything bypassing raw Morels and proceeding directly to cooking them. Cooking heat, in conjunction with Morels, is a “Win-Win-Win” because heat breaks down the hydrazine, enhances the fragrance and flavor of the Morels, and improves their tenderness. Cooking also helps break down the tough, chitinous cell walls holding many of the nutritional benefits to be found in Mushrooms and making them available for our nutrition.

We don’t want to start a class on organic chemistry here in a Morel Mushroom Resource, but you might reasonably be expected to ask “How much heat, for how long?” Well, the real long answer would require a seminar and maybe some original research. The short answer that we work with is “no one really knows.” This is because the two leading studies we have seen contradict one another.* Further, the published work was done on Cremini Mushrooms (Agaricus) and not Morel Mushrooms.

Now that we know the food safety reasons for cooking Morel Mushrooms, the tasty culinary reasons for cooking them should just be gravy, (Mushroom Gravy), to us.  Cooking brings out an earthy, nutty, meaty, Umami flavor in Morel Mushrooms. It also Tenderizes, taking them from a “tough bite” to slightly chewy/Al Dente.  Cooked Morel Mushrooms are completely edible (both Cap & Stalk).

Their flavor and texture can be nicely showcased by a cooking technique as simple as a Sauté with Butter and a little Seasoning. Longer cook times with Moist Heat Methods can be advisable for older, more mature, Morel Mushrooms to break down their fibers and make them a litter easier on your diners (they get darker as they age). Though they are porous, and can pick up surrounding tastes, they can do so without losing their own flavor when cooked, even with stronger flavors such as Beef, Pork or Soy Sauce.

On Smart Kitchen’s Home Plate Morel Mushrooms are Cooked, Tough, Thick, Moist and Lean (C, T2, T4, M, L). Of course, chefs can work with Morels to make them more tender, (cook them), thinner (cut them), dry them, add fat, etc.

Morels are highlighted in many world cuisines, including French Cuisine’s: Provençal where they are often used in Soups, cream-based or wine-based Sauces. Morels are also stars in Italian Cuisine and a frequent ingredient in Pasta or Rice dishes. Another delicious use is to Batter them (or Bread them) and Deep Fry them.

For our culinary purposes here, and not for a dissertation, we think the Cremini Mushroom findings are material: namely that using a Cooking Liquid or Cooking Fat can “leach” hydrazine out of the Mushrooms into the liquid or fat and that higher heat levels over time destroys more hydrazine.

Other studies done on the processing of Mushrooms do contain some good news, namely that the modern distribution system’s use of processing, canning, refrigeration, drying, freezing (but not freeze-drying), etc. all seem to reduce the Hydrazine levels anywhere from 20% to 75%. Any commercially purchased Morels that you are likely to see will start off with reduced hydrazine levels. As with cooking heat, generally, the more extreme the conditions of processing and / or the length of storage; the lower the hydrazine levels will be.

Boiling extracted around 50% of the agaritine content into the cooking broth within 5min and degraded 20-25% of the original agaritine content of the mushrooms. Prolonged boiling, as when preparing a sauce, reduced the content in the solid mushroom further (around 10% left after 2h). Dry baking of the cultivated mushroom, a process similar to pizza baking, reduced the agaritine content by approximately 25%, whereas frying in oil or butter or deep frying resulted in a more marked reduction (35-70%).

Smart Kitchen only advises using the mushroom Pileus(cap) and the stalk of Edible Mushrooms in the kitchen. They tend to grow above ground and are less likely to harbor, anaerobic Botulism. Also some people may be allergic to Mushrooms. Use caution when serving them, or when serving someone their first portion of Mushrooms.

Portion Size

Allow 1-2 oz of Morel Mushrooms per person.

Nutritional Value USDA
MUSHROOMS,MOREL,RAW
Amount Per 100g
Calories 31
%Daily Value*
 
0%
Total Fat 0g
0%
Saturated Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g
Monounsaturated Fat 0g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 21mg
8%
Potassium 411mg
1%
Total Carbohydrate 5g
8%
Dietary Fiber 2g
Sugars 0g
Protein 3g
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Nutrition

In case you have not seen the warning above, Morels SHOULD NOT BE EATEN RAW. Morels naturally contain small amounts of the toxin and carcinogen hydrazine. Hydrazine is moderated by cooking heat, but not completely destroyed, according to the studies we have found. In addition there are not a lot of studies on how many Morels, cooked or raw, are perfectly safe to eat at a time or over the course of a year.

Until we have better data, we advocate moderation in your consumption of both cooked and raw Morel Mushrooms. The basic idea is not to overload your body with more toxic Hydrazine than it can process.

You may still want to know the unknowable and ask “How many cooked Morel Mushrooms is moderate consumption?”  If a rule of thumb is needed, our internal limit is less than 4.4 pounds (2 kg) a year, which is the guideline used by many governmental health departments around the world as the limit for eating Raw Button Mushrooms. That works out to about 1/5 of an ounce a day but it is not an absolute figure, just a guideline we use and again the idea is not to overload your body with toxicity / poison. Eating towards your annual limit in a short span of time is always a bad idea. Luckily price, seasonality and scarcity can help create moderation, what we like to jokingly call “enforced moderation.”

In moderation, once cooked, Morels are a good source of Dietary Fiber, Iron and Manganese. They also have high protein levels for a Vegetable and contain decent amounts of Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K and Vitamin B.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes