What Are Morels and What's the Best Way to Cook with Them?
Learn the best ways to choose, clean, store and cook wild morel mushrooms, one of spring's most popular ingredients.
Just the name evokes decadence: We're talking of course about morels, those hollow, honeycombed fungi that pop up in the United States usually in late March after the last frost, and last only until about May, depending on where you live. The fact that their season is short makes them even more sought-after. And since they grow in the wild, finding them takes work, so they cost more at stores and at farmers' markets. If you splurge on some morels, you'll want to give them a little more TLC than you would more basic mushrooms—here's the lowdown.
Where to find morels
During morel season, you can typically find morels at farmers' markets or specialty grocers. They're also sold dried, which helps them last longer and be available year-round both online and in stores. (Because some mushrooms can cause gastrointestinal distress or even death, you should never eat any type of mushroom unless you are completely certain of its origin, and buying from a store or trusted market vendor is the easiest way to do this.)
Morels can be found throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest: Boyne City, Michigan has an annual morel festival that's been going on since 1960 and features a mushroom-foraging contest. Morels also seem to thrive in ashy locations. In recent years, scientists and foragers have also realized that "burn morels" often pop up after forest fires on the West Coast, sometimes in large numbers.
Pictured Recipe: Spinach Salad with Morels, Bacon & Blue Cheese
Morel health benefits
They aren't green or leafy, but many mushrooms contain important nutrients such as selenium, which may help boost the body's immune response, as well as beta glucan, which is a certain type of fiber (also found in oats) that's thought to help lower cholesterol. According to analyses of wild mushrooms by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, morels are especially high in vitamin D: 1 cup contains 136 IU (3.4 mcg), or about 17% of the recommended daily value of vitamin D.
How to choose morels
Morels should smell pleasantly earthy and feel slightly damp, but never soggy. Look for mushrooms that are firm with a slightly springy texture; they shouldn't feel too soft and they should be free of mold. Since morels have a fairly short refrigerator shelf life (more on that below), buy only what you're planning to cook right away. (Check out our favorite 15 Recipes to Make with a Package of Mushrooms.)
How to store morels
Store unwashed morels in the refrigerator either in a paper bag or wrapped in wax paper. Skip the plastic, since it may cause them to spoil more quickly. They'll keep up to three days, so if you want to keep them around longer, plan to dry them, either in the oven or with a dehydrator. Morels can also be frozen; you'll have the best results if you steam, blanch or sauté them first. Don't freeze raw mushrooms, since they may develop a bitter flavor.
Pictured Recipe: Seared Salmon, Morels & Fava Beans with Green Goddess Sauce
To preserve their texture, wash morels only right before you cook them (and dry them well); keeping damp mushrooms in the refrigerator will cause them to deteriorate faster. Because of morels' ridges and folds, soil and even tiny bugs might hitch a ride home. Some cooks prefer to soak them in cool, salted water for a few minutes (this process encourages any critters to come out of hiding), others simply hold them under running water. You can also use a mushroom brush, which is designed to help get into the nooks and crannies. Morels are hollow inside, so you can also cut them open to clean them more thoroughly.
Pictured Recipe: Wild Mushroom Pizza with Arugula and Pecorino
How to cook morels
The most important thing to know about cooking morels is that they should never be eaten raw, since they contain an enzyme that can cause an upset stomach (heat helps break the enzyme down). Morels have a nutty, meaty flavor that will add a hearty vibe to a plant-based diet, although they're also delicious when paired with similarly robust-tasting foods like steak.