Morel mushrooms (pronounced "more-ELL") are prized by chefs for their rich, meat-like, earthy flavor and creamy texture. They are also relatively easy mushrooms to identify, which makes them popular with beginner mushroom hunters. Morels can be eaten fresh, or they can be dried or frozen to use later.
Morels have deeply ridged and pitted caps. The ridges resemble walnut shells, only they are much deeper. The hollow caps are usually longer than the stems, which are also hollow. The stems are usually yellowish or grey, and lighter in color than the brownish caps. The mushroom is more elongated than common white mushrooms, and morel caps are completely attached to the stems.
There are three main types of morels. The common morel has dark brown pits and white ridges when it's young, and is often called "white morel." The black morel or smoky morel has a tan cap that turns black as it ages. The half-free morel is similar in color to the common morel, but the cap, which is much smaller than the stem, is attached only on the inside of the mushroom and not around the rim.
Older common morels, also called "yellow morels," have yellowish-brown pits and ridges. If the common morel is left to grow, it can reach up to a foot in height and is called a "giant morel." Black morels are best eaten when they're young, before the caps have turned completely black. Half-free morels can easily be mistaken for a slightly poisonous type of mushroom called the verpa, or false morel. These can only be distinguished by the texture of the ridges and depth of the pits on the caps.
The best time to hunt morels is in the late spring or early summer, when daytime temperatures are 60 to 80 degrees F and night-time temperatures are in the 40s. Morels are particularly abundant in the northern Midwestern states, but they grow all over the continental US except in hot coastal and desert areas. These mushrooms are most often found under dying elm, ash, and poplar trees, and in old apple orchards.
Amateur mushroom hunters should never eat any mushroom they find without first checking with an expert. Many mushrooms look similar and some can be highly toxic. A mushroom often confused with the common morel is the Turban Fungus or beefsteak morel because it has a similar size, color, texture, location and growing season. The toxicity of the beefsteak morel is cumulative, making it more dangerous if it's eaten repeatedly. These mushrooms can be differentiated from morels by slicing open the stems, which are not hollow, unlike morel stems.