The elusive morel mushroom is a type of wild edible mushroom found in many parts of North America, specifically Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois. This mushroom is characterized by a honeycomb-like appearance on its cap, which gives it its distinctive appearance. It generally grows around spring and its appearance is hailed with great enthusiasm by mushroom hunters. It is used in many European cuisines for its distinctive but delicate taste. Many people also choose to preserve these mushrooms. Dried mushrooms grace kitchens when the fresh variety is no longer an option. As with all kinds of edible fungi, be very careful before consumption, since poisonous mushrooms can have disastrous effects and have even been known to be fatal. If at all in doubt, don't take the risk.
Following are some characteristic features to identify a morel mushroom. But if you're a first timer, make sure you have an experienced mushroom hunter to take a look at them, or better yet, accompany you on your search.
- A hollow stem―an original morel mushroom when sliced lengthwise, will have an entirely hollow stem from bottom to top.
- The stem will be firmly attached to the cap, however, in half-free morels, the attachment is only partial, that is, the base of the cap is not attached to the stem.
- The stalk is generally lighter in color than the cap.
It's a good idea to acquaint yourself with false morels to make sure you avoid picking these up. The most common false morels are Verpa Bohemica and Gyromitra esculenta or Beefsteak Morel. Although some claim these are edible and can be eaten without any ill effects, they have been shown to contain a carcinogenic toxin which can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, and at times, even death. The following are common signs to identify a false morel:
- The stem is not hollow, it will generally be filled with a cotton like substance.
- The cap is attached at the very top of the stalk, and will detach from the stem very easily.
- The cap will appear more wrinkled than honeycomb-like.
Dried Morel Mushrooms
Many people end up with more than they can handle after a good session of mushroom hunting. There are several methods to preserve them, of which drying them seems to find the most takers. String drying is a popular method for drying mushrooms. Use a long, fairly strong needle to pierce the stalk of each mushroom so that it hangs upside down and string several together in a row, on some good strong twine. Leave these to dry out in a warm sunny place for several weeks. When they appear to have lost all moisture, place them in zip-lock bags and freeze, ready for use later. To rehydrate your dried mushrooms, simply thaw and soak in milk or water overnight and use as you would fresh morels. Food dehydrators are a great tool to help you dry out your mushrooms; place them in there for 24 hours at the lowest setting.
Hunting for morel mushrooms is highly popular, and many hunting enthusiasts keep an eye out for the black morels come spring, since these are the first to make an appearance. The black morels signal the beginning of the morel hunting season. Like most mushrooms, morels grow in damp and dark areas so, shady woods are a good place to look. Keep your eyes peeled towards the bases of ash, elm, maple, and poplar and start out early in the morning. Take care while cutting the mushroom with a knife. Avoid damaging the mycelium, that is, the portion that enables regrowth. It's best to carry a paper bag or a mesh basket to carry your mushrooms, they allow the morels to breathe, unlike plastic bags.
Mushroom hunting is about more than just what you take home in your basket. Enthusiasts find it addictive. The clean, damp spring air and the natural sounds of the woods are peaceful, far from the noise and bustle of the everyday world. So, just get out your hiking boots and take a walk through the woods, you may just be lucky enough to have these mushrooms for dinner.