Like Copper River kings or the perfect local peach, morels are firmly bound to their season. Their rich, earthy flavor, at whatever time of the year we may taste it, is certain to transport us to the earliest days of spring, when the very air is full of promise.
Morels grow in temperate forests worldwide, and make their appearance when warm temperatures follow cold and the rains begin. Technically, the morel season lasts six weeks; but in the Wood River Valley, a good year will give us two weeks of harvesting. The most dependable sign that morel season has arrived is the cottonwood leaves. When they are the new green described by Robert Frost (nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold) and it rains, it is time to head for the woods.
There are many theories on where to find the precious fungus, from below a long-dead elm to within a recently burned forest. (In Germany, an actual law prohibits setting fire to the woods in order to hasten mushroom growth.) Locally, the best places to search are the cottonwood forests along the riverbanks. Beware, however, of vigilant landowners and experienced mushroom hunters who may be guarding their secret spots jealously.
Many years ago, a prospective suitor took me morel hunting on a beautifully green, drizzly day in May. We found many mushrooms, enjoyed a delicious dinner, and parted ways. His sharing of a hidden morel kingdom turned out to be a sacrifice as short-lived as our romance, though, since the cottonwoods were bulldozed the next spring to make way for a new subdivision.
In spite of the severe impact increasing development has had on the number of morels springing up in our woods, they are still out there—as evidenced by the piles of local mushrooms Atkinsons’ Market offers each year. But they can be frustratingly elusive. Many years, I have found only the cleanly cut stems of another’s bounty.
It is recommended that morel hunters walk slowly, stopping often to scan the ground. When you do find your first mushroom, leave it where it is and take a good look at it. You are accustoming your eyes to the vision of the growing morel, in hopes that they will be better able to pick out the next one you pass. That’s the theory, anyway.
When you are ready to harvest, cut the mushroom off just above ground level with a sharp knife. Do not pull it off, but leave the root unharmed to facilitate the next year’s growth. Always carry your morels in a mesh bag, allowing the spores to fall and sow the seeds of future harvests.
Experts disagree on how many species of morel there actually are, with counts ranging from three to sixty. The three most agreed upon are the black, the common, and the half-free morel.
The black morel, actually a very dark brown, is earliest to appear. It can grow up to a foot high, though most are just a few inches tall. In shape it is rather pointed, resembling a Christmas tree. Usually the stem is shorter than the cap, and white to tan in color. Some people experience an allergic reaction (stomach cramping and a loss of muscle coordination) to black morels, especially in combination with alcohol. While the symptoms are not severe, they would definitely put a damper on your evening; so if you are new to black morels, try just a few and pass on the Merlot.
The common morel, aptly named Morchella deliciosa, appears after the blacks, though their seasons overlap. The most prized of all mushrooms, with a delicate woodsy flavor, these morels are usually yellow to tan, with a white stem. They too can reach heights of up to a foot.
Though many people don’t eat the half-free morel, it is comparable to the others in flavor. It has many common names, all of which refer to its phallic appearance and none of which can be repeated in a family magazine. Its stem is longer than its cap, and the two attach halfway up inside the cap. As the stems are often watery and fragile, they should be used in soups and stews, where consistency is not of much importance.
When you have returned home with your harvest, begin by sorting your mushrooms. The freshest and cleanest can be stored for up to a week. Those with more age must be used sooner. Do not wash them: just brush them off and store in a lightly closed paper bag in the fridge. If your morels are very dirty or covered with bugs, soak them in water for about half an hour. Once washed, however, they must be used right away.
If you have been lucky enough to collect more morels than you can eat, the best way to preserve them is with a food dehydrator. Do not wash mushrooms that you are going to dry, but trim off any bad spots and slice them in half lengthwise. Lay them flat on the screens and set the dehydrator at its lowest setting. It will take 10 to 24 hours to dry your mushrooms, depending on their size and how full the dehydrator is. Be sure to rotate the trays during the process, to account for any hot spots in your dryer. Once your mushrooms are dry, store them in an airtight container, where they will keep for years. I use mason jars because they protect the dry mushrooms from breakage.
The following recipes will help you enjoy the fruits of your labor:
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 T. unsalted butter
3/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup chicken broth
3/4 lb. fresh morels, brushed clean, but
not rinsed. Cut them in half if they are
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 lb. asparagus, cut into 2” lengths.
Toss out the coarsest stem pieces.
1 lb. dry fettuccine
1. In a large skillet, sauté the shallots in the butter over low heat until softened.
2. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half.
3. Add the broth and the morels and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the morels are soft.
4. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, and then plunge it into a bowl of ice water, to stop it from cooking further. Remove from ice water and set aside to drain and dry.
5. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until done, and drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. I put a measuring cup under the colander when I set it in the sink, so I don’t forget.
6. Add the cream, asparagus, and salt and pepper to taste to the sauce and heat through.
7. Toss with the pasta, adding reserved water as needed to achieve the consistency you like. Serve.
11/2 lb. fresh morels, dirt brushed off and
coarsely chopped. Reserve 18 of the best mushrooms, about 1” long each, for garnish.
3 T. unsalted butter
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 T. arrowroot, mixed with a
little milk to make a paste
4 cups low salt chicken broth,
1 cup half and half
sherry to taste, about 1/4 cup
salt and pepper
chives for garnish, cut into 1/2” lengths
1. In a large pot, sauté shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, until they begin to soften. Add chopped mushrooms and continue to sauté until wilted.
2. Add broth and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly.
3. While broth is cooling, sauté whole mushrooms in remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and set aside, keep warm.
4. Puree mushroom/broth mixture in a
5. Return mushroom/broth mixture to pot over low heat, add arrowroot, half and half, sherry, and salt and pepper to taste.
6. Stir until well combined, heated through, and slightly thickened.
7. Spoon into bowls and garnish each bowl with three whole mushrooms, and a sprinkle of chopped chives.
4 slices bacon, cut into 1” pieces
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces, rinsed
3/4 cup flour
salt and pepper
1/2 lb. fresh morels or 1 oz. dried. (If using dried, heat the chicken broth and soak mushrooms in it for half an hour. Be sure not to use the mushroom sediment when you add the chicken broth to the stew.)
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried thyme
1 14-oz. can of low salt chicken broth, or 11/2 c. homemade chicken stock
1 cup dry red wine, not sweet
2 T. tomato paste
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1. Cook bacon in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Remove all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat from the pan. 2. Combine flour with salt and pepper and dredge chicken pieces in it, shaking off any excess. Brown chicken pieces in the remaining bacon fat over medium heat, taking care to evenly brown all sides. Do not overcrowd the pieces in the pan. Remove chicken and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 350.º
4. In the same pan, sauté onions and garlic until softened. Slice mushrooms in half vertically and add to pan with herbs. Sauté until wilted.
5. Return chicken and bacon to pan, and add broth, wine, tomato paste, and bay leaf. 6. Stir to combine, bring to a boil over medium high heat, cover, and transfer to preheated oven.
7. Cook at 350º for 1 hour.
8. Remove bay leaf, taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if needed, and serve over noodles or mashed potatoes.
There are true morels and false morels. The unpleasant fact that several of the false varieties are poisonous makes it crucial to know
the difference. The three characteristics of all true morels are worth committing to memory, whether you are hunting them in the woods or in the market. Be certain that your mushroom has all three characteristics.
1. True morels have a pitted, sponge-like cap similar to the cavities in a natural sponge. The caps of false morels are often wavy and brain-like rather than pitted. The pits on true morels, although not entirely symmetrical, are more regular than the waves on false morels. True pits and ridges, rather than folds and creases, are key.
2. Both the stem and cap of a true morel will be completely hollow and empty (with the possible exception of a few bugs). The flesh contained in a false morel’s stem or cap may be solid, a chambered mass, or a wispy, cottony substance.
3. True morels have caps and stems connected at the base of the cap. With one exception (the half-free morel or Morchella semilibra), the cap does not hang down over the stem. On the half-free morel, the stem and cap attach halfway up under the cap—no more. The half-free can be confused with another spring mushroom, the Verpa, which, though not deadly, causes very unpleasant reactions. The cap of the Verpa is almost completely free, hanging from the top of the stem like a skirt. In addition, Verpas often have cottony fibers inside their stems.
Food editor Elise Lufkin has been hunting and cooking morels in the Wood River Valley for over fifteen years.