Morels: Kings of the Woods
Updated: May 4, 2021
In the midwest, no other wild mushroom has captured the attention and the imagination of so many people as has the morel mushroom. It is extremely common to hear folks say “the only mushrooms I know are the morels” or “I’m a mushroom snob, I only eat morels” or things of this nature. Aside from matsutake in Japan and truffles, morels sell at a higher price than about any other mushroom at somewhere between $60 and $80 a lb for fresh yellow morels. They are likely the only mushroom that are accessible enough and common enough to allure the masses, but elegant enough in their flavor and texture and unusual appearance to be served at the finest of restaurants in the world. There is a site called morels.com which is essentially a social media forum centered around morels. You won't find that for any other mushroom! Also, sidebar: if you are not a member on morels.com and you are interested in morel mushroom hunting, join that site after you finish this article. There’s a lot of good wisdom on there.
How to Identify Morels
Morels are in a group of fungi called the ascomycota, which is distinct from the basidiomycota, which contains most of the recognizable “mushroom” looking mushrooms, such as russulas, chanterelles, boletes, etc. Almost all of the basidiomycetes drop their spores from gills, pores, tubes (that look like pores) or folds (that look like gills). These structures are all underneath the cap of the mushroom. Ascomycetes release their spores from little sacs or cups called “asci”. These would be the pits on a morel. Often these asci spore structures are not visible to the naked eye, so other fungi included in this largest division of fungi includes molds, cup and jelly fungi, crusts, and other unusual looking fungi.
There are two main types of true morels that grow in the midwest: black morels (morchella esculenta) and yellow morels (morchella elata). This article will focus specifically on identification of yellow morels. First, let’s start with a few basic facts about morels and when they are found. Yellow morels fruit specifically in the spring when the soil temperatures about 4 inches deep reach around 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In Minnesota, this is typically around the beginning of May. Once soil temps exceed 60 or once there are several consecutive 80+ degree days, it will be too warm for morels to continue to fruit. In Minnesota, this is typically around Memorial day. So generally speaking, morels fruit for about 3-4 weeks in May. With climate change, this may be shifting a little bit, but not dramatically just yet. They are also mycorrhizal mushrooms that grow in association with primarily elms, but also ash trees, sycamores, cottonwoods, and a few other occasional species. Typically, these are soils that are lowlands, close to rivers or streams, but also often on the periphery of farmlands, prairies, or on the slopes of the driftless region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The soil where morels will be most successful are sandy, loamy, well drained soils.
Now I will describe the physical characteristics of a morel. Pictures of morels show a very unique mushroom with a distinct appearance that is difficult to confuse with other mushrooms and I would say that this is true. Often the very erect axially oriented morel pictures people post are not how they are found in the field. Rather, frequently you’ll find them growing sideways or at an odd angle due to debris on the ground pushing them in a particular direction. When morels grow in less characteristic shapes, they can appear much more like the shape of a false morel.
Yellow morels have a white to creamy colored stem, typically about a fifth of the mushrooms overall height, though as morels become older and bigger they grow more at the stem than they do at the cap and the stem can be as much or more than half of the overall height of the mushroom. These are sometimes colloquially called “thick footed morels” and their occurrence heralds the near end of the morel season due to excessive warmth. The pileus, or cap, of the mushroom looks like a honeycomb atop the stem. The holes or pits (these are the “asci” discussed above) on this honeycomb are inconsistent and irregular but are typically round or oval in shape. Sometimes if the morel is growing at an angle, some of the pits on the cap will be stretched and it will flatten the overall appearance. Another important note of the cap is that it does connect to the stem at the bottom. Also, even though morchella esculenta is called the “yellow morel” it can range from dark grey, to pale grey, to whitish, to tan, brown and naturally a sort of straw yellow. Typically the early season yellow morels are hues of grey and folks on mushroom forums will call these “greys”. Gradually, greys turn into yellows, or that’s the common narrative. When you take a true morel mushroom and slice it open, you will see the hollow stem is like a tube that runs the whole length of the mushroom, with the pitted flesh growing off the side of the tube. This hollow stem running the length of the mushroom is a very important identifier of a morchella esculenta.
Other Mushrooms that Look like Yellow Morels
A black morel (morchella elata) is more likely to have grooves oriented axially (from top to bottom) rather than deep dimples the way a yellow morel typically has. Like a yellow morel, a black morel is also hollow and the cap is connected to the stem. It also is considered a delectable edible mushroom, though generally not as highly touted as the yellow morel.
The half-free morel (morchella semilibera) is very similar in appearance to a black morel with a much longer stem to cap ratio than a yellow or black morel when fully grown. Also, the cap is attached to the morel stem in the upper portion, but at some point moving down the stem, the cap and the stem detach and the cap sort of hangs loosely, almost like a tiny umbrella. This is where it gets the name “half-free”. The three photos above are all morchella semilibera.
There are a couple of other mushrooms that look very similar to the half-free morel in the genus Verpa. Verpa conica and verpa bohemica are both in the Morchellaceae family and both are said to be edible, but not nearly as good as morchella semilibera. These verpas are also called “thimble caps” as their hanging cap is much more “free” than the half-free. The verpa conica is a smooth to slightly dimpled cap and the verpa bohemica has very pronounced wrinkles and looks a bit more like a brain than either conica or semilibera. Another distinction of verpas is that they, particularly when young, have a cottony filling in the stem, whereas both true morels and half-free morels do not. Half free morels will typically fruit during early morel season, while verpas will fruit later. Verpas are said to be edible, though they can sometimes have undesirable side-effects. Half-frees are edible and some consider them to be very good, though still not to the same level as black or yellow morels. Half-free morels tend to be too flimsy and not in large enough quantity for me to experiment with them.
The other very important morel look-alike to be aware of is the false morel of the Gyromitra genus. The gyromitra genus contains gyromitrin toxins in all their mushrooms. This toxin is both carcinogenic and also deadly poisonous. Gyromitrin is a volatile chemical that theoretically should cook off, but it can be hard to tell if all of the toxin has been completely removed and so it is advised not to experiment with this. There are a number of species of gyromitra, but the most common of them share several commonalities. Appearance wise, these are that they are fairly large brainlike mushrooms, often with multiple lobes, a dull red, reddish brown or sometimes dark brown pileus with a white, creamy or pinkish stem. When sliced open, the mushroom’s stem is partitioned into multiple compartments, not one long hollow cavity like a true morel.
How to Use True Morels in the Kitchen
Morels, like most wild mushrooms, should be thoroughly cooked before being eaten. A very important thing to do when picking morels (or any wild mushroom) is to be careful to cut their stems, so that big clumps of dirt do not end up in your bag or basket. The pits on the cap of a morel are perfect little receptacles for sand or dirt and can be really difficult to clean out. Once in the kitchen, use a basting brush to get out any dirt and rinse lightly. If the morels are extremely dirty or mud is caked on them, you may want to soak them. If you soak them, just be careful to remove dry them out a little bit before cooking.
If wet when cooking, start with a dry saute. Then one they have released liquid, remove it immediately. You may set aside for a sauce later. Now add some oil to the cooking morels and some freshly chopped garlic, ramps or shallots. Once morels are starting to show a bit of a golden color, add a little butter and a pinch of salt and they’re ready to go. Serve them on pasta, toast, whatever you like! Here’s a great recipe for a morel bisque, morel marsala, or use them in your own favorite mushroom recipes.
Also, if you harvest too many to cook all at once, I tend to dehydrate morels to eat them year round. If you don’t have a food dehydrator, you can take an old window screen, brush it off and lay your morels out on it in the sun for a couple days. Be sure it doesn’t get rained on and that it’s completely dry when you throw the dried mushrooms in a jar. Many folks believe the flavor of reconstituted dried morels is superior to fresh morels. Almost like they have had time to steep in their own aromas and strengthen their magic.
If you're having a hard time identifying elm tree (a big help if you want to find morels), check out this article on Elm ID and if you aren't sure when to go out looking for morels, read this article about signs that morel season is upon us!