One of the joys of spring in the Great Lakes region of North America is the appearance of morel mushrooms. These delectable fungi are favorites of gourmet cooks and Midwest food enthusiasts. Their distinct appearance makes them easy to spot and, since they are rarely found near poisonous mushrooms, safe to pick.
What Are Morel Mushrooms?
The term “morel” refers to up to 50 species of mushrooms. The exact number of species is often subject to much debate, but most sources settle on around 10, the most common of which are white morels, yellow morels, and black morels. Morels are referred to by a variety of names throughout the United States. In the Appalachian region, they are “miracles” or “merkels;” in Kentucky, they are “hickory chickens;” and in West Virginia, they are “molly moochers.”
Identifying Morel Mushrooms
Morels look different from cap mushrooms, the image that most of us associate with mushrooms. Morels are relatively tall and slender (from 3 to 6 inches tall) and have a hooded cap with a distinctive honeycomb pattern.
Where to Find Morels in the United States
Morels can be found in most areas of the United States except desert regions. They are especially prevalent in the Great Lakes region, from Minnesota to New York, and start appearing in the upper Midwest in mid-April. Look for morels at the base of old stands of trees, particularly ash, elm, and poplar trees. They can also often be found in old apple orchards. In the western United States, they also favor pine trees.
Morels, like most mushrooms, love moisture, so look for them to appear five or six days after a light rain or snow. These mushrooms prefer cooler temperatures than most mushrooms, generally a daytime high of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a nighttime low of around 40 degrees.
Pick mushrooms that are fully formed with no signs of blackening or decay by pinching them at the base.
Cooking With Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms are a staple in French cooking, particularly the cuisine of southern France. Their unique flavor adds a woody taste to sauces and pasta dishes. You can even find deep-fried morels in some regions. Morel mushrooms should always be cooked and never eaten raw , as they contain a mild toxin that dissipates when cooked. If you are unable to find fresh morels in your area, dried morels are available in gourmet stores around the United States.
To prepare morels for cooking, wash them thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris and soak them in lightly salted water for 15 minutes. Dry on paper towels.
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