ON APRIL WALKS THROUGH THE WOODS, some hikers look for trout lilies or buds on the ash trees as a confirmation that spring has arrived. Some listen for the distinctive songs of warblers or thrushes returned to their warm-weather haunts after a long winter away. Those with culinary thoughts in mind, however, focus their eyes on the ground, looking intently for small, honeycombed heads, like miniature sea sponges on stalks, poking up through winter’s detritus.
When the morels arrive, springtime has truly begun.
“They signify the start of the season,” confirms Jill Weiss, of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, a club for wild mushroom enthusiasts. “When the morels finally appear, it’s probably not going to get too cold again—summer and the rest of the mushrooms aren’t far behind.”
Morels are common in the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia, and they’re especially prolific in the Midwest. They’ve acquired some colorful regional nicknames along the way: sponge mushrooms, butter sponges, pine cone mushrooms, dryland fish (because of their shape when cut), hickory chickens, molly moochers. In the mountains of West Virginia, morels are known as merkels, a colloquial mispronunciation of miracles, a reference to a local legend of a family miraculously saved by eating the wild mushrooms (though perhaps it refers to the annual miracle of finding them at all). Throughout the mushroom’s geographic range, morel festivals—including organized foraging, competitions, auctions and even morel-inspired music—emerge right along with the 2- to 10-inch-long treats.
Morels, which cannot be cultivated, are categorized into three common varieties (black, yellow and “half-free”). Though morel season usually runs from April through June in the U.S., it is nearly impossible to predict exactly where—or even if—they will appear in any given year. “Some say when you have a week of 50° temperatures, it’s time,” Weiss notes, “but they will emerge when the time is right for them, not according to rules, wives’ tales, or crazy theories.”
As for morels—when they’re good, they’re very, very good.
Experienced foragers develop their own techniques for spotting morels. “You look really carefully!” says “Wildman” Steve Brill, a well-known naturalist and foraging specialist. “And you bring kids—they have better eyesight than adults.” In the Hudson Valley, morels seem to favor places near limestone veins or old quarries, and it won’t hurt to be up on your tree identification, either: Morels frequently grow near dead or dying ash, elm, tulip poplar, aspen, oak and apple trees. (While collecting morels in old apple orchards might seem romantic, it can present an unexpected danger: “Be very careful there’s not arsenic in the environment,” Brill warns. “Back before the age of DDT, that’s what they used—and it sticks around.” In fact, the number of cases of arsenic poisoning caused by eating morels harvested from contaminated orchard soil is significant enough to cause concern.)
As for morels themselves—when they’re good, they’re very, very good. “There’s nothing else like them,” Weiss says. “When they’re fresh and you cut [one] and you bring it to your face—it just smells like mushroomy goodness.” As they age, morels sometimes darken along the stems; once past prime, a bad smell, mushy texture and mold should warn you off—an excellent reason to stick close to an expert if you’re planning a foray into morel hunting. Another reason should be obvious: The potentially poisonous “false morel,” whose differences from true morels (a more distinct separation between stem and cap, a cap pattern more convoluted and “brainlike” than segmented and pitted, and often a cottony “filling” inside a multi-chambered stem) are immediate red flags to experienced eyes but still subtle enough for an amateur to miss.
So, you scouted out some ash and dead elms, donned your foraging outfit (long sleeves, long pants), doused yourself with tick spray, made sure you never lost sight of the expert forager and mycologist in your group, and you’ve got a wicker creel filled with fresh morels. Now what?
Morels contain a toxin that is easily destroyed by heat, so they must always be cooked, never eaten raw. Cleaning should be minimal: Swish any dirt off the cap with a soft brush (don’t rinse), slice in half lengthwise (to ensure there are no critters inside), and cook.
Cook? How cook?
“[Morels] are much more intense, flavor-wise, than other mushrooms—they add a rich, smoky meatiness to a sauce, or however they’re presented,” notes Peter X. Kelly, chef/owner of Xaviar’s Restaurant Group, who especially enjoys pairing morels with veal. “Veal has a very mild flavor profile, and morels sort of bring out the elegance of that meat,” Kelly says. “To me, morels represent spring—and so do asparagus—so, at the restaurant, we often serve first-of-the-season asparagus and morels as a first course in spring. I also love the simplicity of just doing a sauté of morels with shallots, finished with brandy and cream over toast points—it’s the ultimate luxury breakfast or luncheon entrée.”
“I would describe the flavor [of morels] as extremely earthy and a little bit resinous—kind of piney, but in a very good way,” adds Chef Kevin Reilly, of Roost, in Sparkill. “Morels are a very dry mushroom, which makes them great for sautéing. They pair well with fat, cream or butter, with shallots, with garlic. They’ll really carry a dish.” For his version of a decadent breakfast, Reilly sears a slab of Manouri cheese until it’s soft and creamy, then tops it with sautéed morels and roasted grapefruit or asparagus.
But Reilly’s favorite preparation is goat cheese French toast with mushrooms and truffle fondue (a staple on his menu), a dish that evolved from the traditional preparation of morels in cream on toast—thick triangles of brioche, stuffed with goat cheese, grilled in a savory egg batter, placed atop sautéed morels (or other mushrooms, depending on season) and drizzled with truffle sauce.
“They’re just incredibly delicious mushrooms—keep your eyes out for them.”
Brill, whose Wild Vegan Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (In the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (And Not So Wild) Natural Foods (Harvard Common Press, 2010; $27.95 paperback) includes a baked morel casserole, also likes the simplicity of morels. “I like cooking them very simply—a little bit of light oil, maybe an unpeeled clove of garlic, a little salt, a dash of pepper.” Weiss likes to sauté fresh morels and serve them over fish, chicken or steak. “You can pretty much do anything with them,” she says. “Some people bread them with cracker crumbs and pan-fry them; some batter and deep-fry them. I’ve even done them stuffed, like a jalapeno popper.” She also likes to rehydrate dried morels in warm cream, then pour the cream sauce over fiddlehead ferns, asparagus or pasta.
One of the best things about morels is the company they keep. “They’re just incredibly delicious mushrooms— keep your eyes out for them,” Brill stresses. “But they shouldn’t be the only thing you’re looking for—there are dozens of other delicious mushrooms and edible wild plants. If you don’t find the morels, you’ll get other stuff you’ll be very happy with.”