Morel mushrooms are the crown jewelry of gourmet cuisine. They are difficult to find, expensive and almost impossible to farm in large amounts. Commercial harvesting of these wild morels is a multi-million dollar industry. Everyone from Michelin Star Chefs to mere mushroom enthusiasts take to the forests every year seeking for these prized ingredients that would improve any dish out there.
For those who have tried them, morels are love at first taste. For those who are still curious about their flavor, their whereabouts and their seemingly exorbitant value, we have put together this short, but comprehensive guide to morel mushrooms!
Also known as Morchella esculenta, morel mushrooms are a type of edible fungi with a distinctive honeycomb appearance. Their bulb-like shape makes them easy to spot alongside forest trails, and some refer to them as “cup mushrooms” or “cup fungi.”
There are about 80 species that mycologists have identified so far. Some of them grow as large as your hand, while others barely make it past one inch in height. Their colors vary from the whitest shade of pale to the darkest shade of brown.
Morels grow in the Northern Hemisphere only. You may find them in heavily wooded areas and prairies from North America, India, Turkey, and Canada among other places. Generally, you may find them far from densely populated zones or agricultural regions.
Morel mushrooms start growing in early spring in most places that have a temperate climate. They may last until the first weeks of June, but they tend to disappear with the first heat waves. In some mountainous regions, where rain is common throughout the year, you may find morels growing up until the end of summer.
There are over 50,000 edible mushrooms and yeasts in the world. While some of them may share the same flavor, the morels have a unique taste. Gourmands and mushroom lovers can easily recognize it even if they only savored it once.
Morels have a nutty, earthy flavor that carries strong aromas of wood, roasted seeds, and burnt leather. Some compare their hearty texture to meat, which is why they enrich the robust taste of so many vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Contrary to other mushrooms, morels are not chewy or mushy. They have a tender, slightly slippery consistency that surprises your palate and leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Simply put, morel mushrooms are delicious, if not heavenly.
Morels trade for about $250 a pound dried and for between $30 and $100 a pound fresh.
So far, we know that morels taste amazing and that they only grow in specific regions and only during certain times of the year. But, so do other mushrooms like the truffles or the Matsutake mushrooms. So, what makes morels so expensive?
Morels are impossible to replicate in an artificial environment. You cannot build or sustain a morel farm similar to how you would do for more commercial types of mushrooms. A group of Chinese scientists recently made progress in this field, but from synthetic cultivation to mass harvesting is a long and strenuous path.
Morels develop through a symbiotic relationship that they establish with elements from their environment, such as trees, the soil and other plants.
People who harvest morels usually go to extreme lengths to procure them. The hunt for morel mushrooms implies lengthy expeditions into the outdoors and camping in harsh weather conditions.
Fresh morels only last for about a week. So, harvesters must return and sell their yield while it is still commercially viable. Otherwise, they will have to store it, dry it and sell it at a later date. All of these factors add to the steep price of mushroom morels.
You should be able to find fresh morels in the menus of high-end restaurants or at farmers’ markets, but only during the spring months and early June.
For the rest of the year, you can buy mushroom morels in their dry form. They are more expensive than fresh ones, but they still pack the earthy, distinctive taste. You should be able to find them at online retailers from North America, Asia and North Europe that provide global distribution.
You will have to go into the forest and look for morels unless you have a reliable source that can harvest them for you.
If you live in an area that features pristine natural habitats, you can try to forage for morels yourself. Study the surroundings and try to find as many details as possible about the environment. Learn about the soil, the trees and the vegetation that grows in that region.
The best morels grow in wooded locations that are far from industrial plant areas, traffic or urban settlements. If you decide to venture in such a region, you should bring a friend along, or at least someone who is experienced in mushroom picking.
Pack a mobile phone with strong GPS signals to easily restore your route in case you get lost. Additionally, you should carry a backpack with water, snacks, a lighter, a first aid kit, bug spray, and even bear spray.
Your mushroom picking kit should include gloves, a knife, scissors, and a bucket. Trim the morels an inch or less of the stem, and place them carefully into the bucket. Cover them with a towel, and make sure not to crowd them to avoid breakage.
You can store fresh morels in the fridge for up to a week. Keeping them for longer than that will see the mushrooms develop worms and lose their quality.
If you live in an area that receives plenty of sunlight, you can leave them to dry out in the open. Otherwise, you can use a commercial drier to help them evaporate the excessive humidity. You can later store them in jars in cool and dry pantries.
To cook with morels, you need to place them in water for a few minutes to allow them to rehydrate and recapture their original form. You can add them to a variety of dishes, but avoid eating raw morels since it may cause severe indigestion.