18 July, 2021

Morel Mushrooms: Discover this unusual sac fungi

People hunt morels as a hobby, eat or sell them. Morels are rich in vitamins and nutrients, and they are also said to have some medicinal properties that need more research. Those who hunt them for business purposes understand how expensive they can be.

Morels can be described as distinct mushrooms that have cone-shaped caps with a sponge-like texture. They are usually about five to ten centimetres tall. Their caps are in several colours depending on the type. These mushrooms are harvested around wooded areas during the spring. Standing dead trees are also hotspots where you can find them. Morels are extremely difficult to cultivate at home because the exact conditions behind their development have not been discovered.

In this article, we take a look at all you need to know about morel mushrooms. Let's get started;

Types of Morel Mushrooms

Morels are the most sought after, with over 14,000 types of mushroom in the wild and over 80 species of the Morchella genus. For mushroom foragers, hunting morels is a true passion. To best understand and identify the morels, we classify them into three main categories.

It is possible that you can find morels that do not fall under any of the categories. Fortunately, at the end of this article, you will be able to differentiate between true and false morels and how to go about them. Here are the categories;

Black Morels

Typically, black morels sprout earlier than the rest. They have ridges with pores and dark caps that curve under themselves as they connect to a creamy stem. When young, the stems are white-yellow or creamy but darken when mature. They also become more translucent and easily broken with age.

These mushrooms tend to grow in hardwoods that have experienced burns in the past. The burn is not mandatory but provides an alkaline environment that they love. You can also find them growing on roadsides, recently flooded wooded areas and campgrounds. Usually, they grow between mid-march to mid-may. Common species of black morel include Morchella conica and Morchella australiana.

Yellow Morel

Despite black morels being widely available, the yellow morels are responsible for that fame morel mushrooms have. Their size can be as small as the size of the thumb with yellow or grey caps. The caps have pits that look like those found on sea sponges.

When young, the stems are creamy-white and soft but get granular and brittle. The stems become stronger than any other type of morel when fully matured. Like other morels, yellow morels love wooded areas with strong affection towards elm, apple, poplar, and ash trees.

Yellow morels love areas with orchards and apples because they are rich in powdered limestone (calcium carbonate) that raises the pH of a place. They are generally found between early September and October. Examples of species include Morchella esculenta and Morchella deliciosa.

Half-Free Morel

Half-free morels (Morchella punctipes) are hollow like the other types. What makes them different is the lower edges of their caps which are not attached to the stems. It obtained its name by having half of its cap hanging free. The pits in the caps are less chambered.

It has a crumbly yellow stem that grows tall to the extent it looks out of proportion compared to the small size of the cap. As much as they may not be exciting when it comes to taste, half-free morels are still considered among the best edible mushrooms around.

They begin growing anytime from March to around May. Examples include Morchella semilibera and Morchella punctipes.

Finding Morels Mushrooms

Morel mushrooms are considered a gift that comes during spring. Foragers and researchers still don't clearly understand where and why morels grow. But one thing we are sure about is that there are conditions that make them sprout in the spring.

Moisture and temperature are the most significant factors responsible for fungi growth. Despite growing in areas that recently experienced floods, morels will not grow in the regions that are too cold or too warm. Morels tend to pop up in early spring when the temperatures are low and work their way up with temperature rise.

Below are practical tips to help you find true morels in the field.

Identify Your Trees to Find Morel Mushrooms

Typically, morels are found near trees and not just any type of tree. As aforementioned, they love hardwood trees. So if you want to find morels, begin by learning about trees. For example, you should be able to identify hickory, sycamore, elm, ash, and other types of trees associated with morels. Morels are also associated with fruit trees. Areas with apple trees, especially old apple orchard areas, are common with morels.

As to why morels prefer some trees to others is still unclear. What matters is that you can identify the trees.

Focus on West and North to Find Morels

Early season morel hunters are advised to focus on westward and northward slopes, in the southern hemisphere. These two sides are likely to have warm soils that support morel growth. You can also find them in grassy areas because of higher humidity. So it is even better when the two sides are grassy.

Don't Focus on Size

Morels range from thumb size to something big like a soft drink can, but those are rare. Early season morels are the size of your thumb and usually black. They are commonly found near sycamore trees, but you can also find them near any other hardwood.

Later in the season, yellow and grey morels begin to show up. These morel mushrooms are also relatively bigger. Some people argue that yellow morels are grey morels that have fully developed.

Hunt Hard and Carefully

We could say morels have camouflaged because it is difficult to spot them, especially those that are the size of your thumb. You have to move around while focusing on what you want.

As morel hunting is getting popular, it can be challenging to find a mushroom spot that has not been identified. So to get something out of such a place requires you to hunt hard.

Morel Mushroom Price

Many attempts to commercially cultivated morels have all been in vain. Those found in the markets have been harvested naturally from the wild. The process of finding them is never easy, making them very scarce.

The fact that they sprout during the spring makes the situation even complicated. This explains why morel mushrooms are expensive as compared to other species. By saying expensive does not mean that they are not affordable.

Trusted vendors sell them at a reasonable price that tallies with their nutritional benefits. You will only pay slightly higher than what you could have paid for other species of mushrooms.

Cooking Morel Mushrooms

The most significant risk in handling mushrooms is that they soften and rot within a short time. It is best if you go for morel mushrooms that are fresh, dry, and firm. Try to avoid those that are wilted and desiccated or wet, soft, and spongy.

Size also matters because small-sized morels are easy to handle and likely to stay longer than larger ones. Larger morels are more spongy because they are fully mature and begin breaking down. So, small-sized morels are a safer bet, but you can physically assess them before purchasing.

After you select your morels, trim them before cooking. The trimmings process involves slicing off the dirty end parts of the stems. You can then slice them into half lengthwise to make the cooking process more straightforward. If they are still large, you can further half the halves or quarter them, depending on the size you want.

While trimming, check the morels for critters like worms that love setting residence in the caps. Morels also excrete silky threads that look like white moulds that you need to wipe out before cooking.

Cooking Procedure

After cleaning the morel mushrooms and cutting them into the correct sizes, sear them in hot oil over heat until they turn brown. Some recipes require that you cook the morels in butter from the start, but we don't prefer that.

Butter burns faster even before the morels are browned. We prefer that you brown the morels first to save the butter for the end.

After the morels are brown, add minced onions, garlic, and shallots, then lower the heat to avoid scorching. If you add them before browning the morels, they may burn while the mushrooms are searing.

Add a little butter to the mixture that will melt and soak into the morel caps. You can splash soy sauce along with lemon juice to pump up the umami depth and brighten the meal up. You can also add a little water to help emulsify the butter and form a thick sauce.

In the end, you can add some green herbs to spice things up. Parsley, minced chives, and Chervil are better options to add freshness. Seasoning with salt and pepper is also necessary. Since you already used soy sauce, go slow with salt because it already added some saltness to the meal.

False Morel Mushrooms

As aforementioned, morels are usually available during spring. If you plan to get busy this spring in search of morels, then you need some background information on mycology. Like mushrooms, morels have look-alikes that may confuse you.

For starters, the name "false morel" can be confusing. Although true and false morels belong to the same order Pezizales, false morels fall under genus Gyromitra while true morels fall under genus Morchella.

Many morel mushroom species are referred to as "false morels", but only a few are toxic. However, it is essential to treat all false morels as harmful. True and false morels share a lot of characteristics. Although they share these physical resemblances, there are notable differences that any person can see.

For similarities, both morels have a brainy look, and that is where the likeness ends. True morels tend to be more grey, tan, or yellow, while false morels are more brown, purple, or red.

Another notable difference is the thickness. False morels are thicker or stockier and lack the definition of ordinary mushrooms. In simple terms, they look like true morels that got "enough" rain and sun.

If you don't trust your eyes when it comes to colours, there is an alternative way. Take a knife and cut the mushroom vertically from the cap for the bottom of the stem. A true morel is entirely hollow, while a false morel will have cotton-like tissues and fibres running through it.

Effects of False Morels

Consuming false morels is a mistake that you will never wish to make. False morels have deadly toxins that have been reported to kill. In such circumstances, no one would want to try something that looks like morels at any cost.

Some species of false morels have gyromitrin, a toxin that produces monomethylhydrazine when ingested. This chemical is good for space travel but dangerous for the kidney. Common symptoms associated with consuming this chemical include diarrhoea, lack of muscle coordination, fever, headache, convulsions, abdominal pain, coma, and even death.

The threat associated with most false morels may disappear with cooking, but there is no point in taking chances. Even if the toxins don't kill you, the symptoms are severe enough that you may wish for death.

However, the dangers associated with false morels should not keep you from getting true morels. As long as you know what you are looking for, go out and get them. Alternatively, you can get them from trusted vendors.

Conclusion

As aforementioned, morels have deadly imitators that require you to be careful during your next foraging experience. Like other types of mushrooms, morels are delicate to handle and may go bad quickly. If you want to store them for a long time, avoid washing them.

Morels are also rich in several nutrients and vitamins. For example, they have the highest levels of vitamin D than any other type of mushroom. They are also filled with antioxidants, minerals, and other types of vitamins.

Further Reading

  1. Bunyard BA, Nicholson MS, Royse DJ (1994) A systematic assessment of Morchella using RFLP analysis of the 28S ribosomal RNA gene. Mycologia 86:762–772
  2. Elliott et al. (2014) Elliott TF, Bougher NL, O’Donnell K, Trappe JM. Morchella australiana sp. nov., an apparent Australian endemic from New South Wales and Victoria. Mycologia. 2014;106(1):113–118
  3. Loizides M, Bellanger JM, Lowes P, Richard F, Moreau PA (2016). "Combined phylogenetic and morphological studies of true morels (Pezizales, Ascomycota) in Cyprus. 15 (4): 39.
  4. Tietel Z, Masaphy S. 2018. True morels (Morchella)-nutritional and phytochemical composition, health benefits and flavor: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 58: 1888–1901
  5. Nitha B, Fijesh PV, Janardhanan KK. 2013. Hepatoprotective activity of cultured mycelium of Morel mushroom, Morchella esculenta. Exp Toxicol Pathol 65: 105–112
  6. Nitha B, Janardhanan KK. 2008. Aqueous-ethanolic extract of morel mushroom mycelium Morchella esculenta, protects cisplatin and gentamicin induced nephrotoxicity in mice. Food Chem Toxicol 46: 3193–3199
  7. Kim JA, Lau E, Tay D, De Blanco EJ. 2011. Antioxidant and NF-κB inhibitory constituents isolated from Morchella esculenta. Nat Prod Res 25: 1412–1417

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As lovers of mushrooms, we began as a small grower of oyster mushrooms in the Canberra and have now grown to producing a whole range of different mushroom products. 
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