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If it's spring, it's also morel season. The prized mushrooms, with their distinctive, honey-combed caps, are the fruiting bodies of the Morchella genus of fungi. They are one of the most sought-after and expensive foods in the world. You might be wondering why they have such a hefty price tag and what makes them so desirable. Here, we're sharing exactly why the mushrooms are so coveted, how to distinguish the fungi from lookalikes, and the best ways to prepare them.
What makes morel mushrooms so expensive?
Morel cultivation is the tantalizing and elusive holy grail of mushroom growing. Cultivated mushrooms can be produced in any quantity needed to meet demand, independent of season and weather. Consequently, their price goes down. But morels are complicated (with many types still eluding scientific classification). Their relationship with their environment is tough to nail down and their growth requirements mysterious. They appear in particular habitats, in response to specific and unpredictable weather conditions, and often, fire. The morels you see at market or online, at prices fluctuating between $20 and $60 a pound (depending on the time of year and provenance), have generally been wild-foraged. Their season is fleeting—it can be good or poor—so far, 2021 is trending badly. And if you have ever hunted morels, you will know that spotting them is equal parts skill, intuition, luck, and magic.
How do you identify and forage for morels?
True morels have hollow stems and caps that are attached to the stem or attached halfway down, but never free. Always slit your wild-collected morels to check. These mushrooms have toxic lookalikes, known as false morels. The most toxic is Gyromitra, which is similar in appearance to darker morels, but they do not have a true hollow stem. Verpas are another false morel, with a cap that is not attached to the stem except at the very top; they closely resemble the half-free morel, whose cap is half-attached. Do your research before foraging.
Morels are also highly perishable, losing condition rapidly when stored carelessly. Jumbled together an exothermic reaction can cause morels to heat and deteriorate easily. They need to get to market quickly and under controlled conditions—which ultimately costs more money.
Where do morels come from and are there different varieties?
The technology to farm morels is developing and patents are closely guarded. But at least in China, so far, success has been achieved. Morel farming is also gathering momentum in the US, where commercial morel growing techniques are being tested.
In the U.S., the morel trade relies on several main sources. Early-season mushrooms include impeccable-looking cultivated Chinese morels; orchard morels that fruit in irrigated apple orchards in California (they tend to be gritty, according to buyers); wild and mild "blonde" morels (technically a black morel, but pale in color) from Oregon and northern California; and a cornucopia of wild Turkish morels. More natural (meaning neither cultivated nor post-burn) morels follow, ranging in tone, and are often highly-priced. The famous burn morels are the bread and butter of the morel industry and appear after forest fires. They come up in abundance, and a commercial picker can collect many in a day. They are also sturdy and travel well, lending them to lower pricing. Prized so-called gray morels are later burn morels that are very large, thick and dense, and have a smokey, umami richness to them.
How do you store and prepare morels?
Keep morels chilled, well wrapped in a paper bag or covered container in a single layer. Try to use them within a couple of days of purchase (or hunting). Clean them by slitting them lengthways and rinsing them under running water (wild morels can have bugs hiding in those hollow stems).
To appreciate the buttery, nutty quality of morels we think that simple is best: enjoy them sautéed in butter (or oil, if you are vegan). Make the most of that handy hollow stem and stuff it with creamy mashed potatoes, or else incorporate them in our wild-inspired one-skillet frank and beans. Meaty morels have an affinity for potatoes and our rich gratin will disperse their flavor elegantly. For a special brunch, bake these delicious popovers with morel sauce.
Are there any safety concerns associated with eating morels?
Always cook morels thoroughly. If you have not eaten them before, be cautious about drinking alcohol: Some people have a bad reaction (meaning unpleasant, not fatal!) to the combination.
Morels, like many mushrooms, sequester heavy metals and accumulate environmental toxins. Morels from areas where pesticide residue exists (like apple orchards) might be affected, so be cognizant of where you're foraging.