The incredibly edible morel, a gourmand’s delight

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118289457922140.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Morels appear in the early spring in the upper parts of the West and later in the spring in the Midwest and the East.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118289461428871.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A 4-foot wood carving of a morel in Lowden State Park near Lorado Taft’s statue of Chief Black hawk.‘);

There are many types of edible mushrooms, but few, if any, come close in taste ands flavor to the morel. One can be sure that when he eats a morel, he is devouring a safe-to-eat mushroom. Morels appear in the early spring in the upper parts of the West and later in the spring in the Midwest and the East. There are approximately 10 million morel aficionados in the United States, and they are a secretive and passionate group that religiously guards their hunting grounds in much the same way a dedicated fisherman keeps secret his favorite fishing hole.

Morels are a member of what is called the “Fool Proof Four” of mushrooms that the amateur can safely pick and eat. The other three are the shaggy, mane, the puffball, and the hen of the woods. These fungi are so unique in appearance that once you have seen a picture of one, it is impossible to confuse them with any that are possibly dangerous.

Morels are sometimes called sponge mushrooms, and I will let the photograph accompanying this article speak for itself. Though there are several different species of morels, they all have the same distinctive general appearance. The irregular, polygonal pits on the cap are their most apparent distinguishing feature. A morel stands 2 to 5 inches in height, with the cap making up the upper half or more of the body, and the stem the remainder. The cap is tan to brown in color, and the stem is somewhat lighter, and both the cap and the stem are hollow

Although morels occur throughout northern Illinois, their numbers are usually scant in a given place. Frequently they may be found in old orchards where ashes have been used as fertilizers. In days of yore in Germany, the peasants would deliberately burn sections of a forest to ensure a bountiful supply of morels for the dinner table. But, morels are also found in many other places such as in thin, open woods, and borders of woods under pine, ash, oak, hickory and other trees. The fact that morels may be found under walnut trees, where no other mushrooms grow, has been a mystery to mycologists (experts on fungi) for years.

Another likely place to find morels is along railroad tracks. Morels are attracted to cinders and slag used as ballast for the ties and rails. Some years ago, when I lived in the Chicago area, a friend of mine was an engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, and in this capacity he moved and switched cars around a vast network of local track. While performing his duties, he kept a sharp eye on the ballast looking for morels. Two or three times each spring, I would receive a call from him stating he had spotted a good batch of morels, and did I want to go with him to gather them? I seldom refused the invitation.

All morels are edible and delicious. Probably the best way to prepare them is simply to sauté them in butter after a careful washing has removed any grit or small insects that may be present in the hollow pits of the cap. I like them when they are stuffed with finely-chopped chicken liver or veal (recall that the cap and stem are hollow). In preparing them in this manner, they should be moistened, rolled in cracker crumbs and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Several should be tied together and baked until tender.

If one is lucky enough to discover a large batch of morels and does not want to use all of them immediately, note that this mushroom, unlike others, may be dried and used at a later date. They will actually keep over winter, and, when rehydrated are almost as appetizing as the fresh picked.

As our spring has been moist and cool this year, I would expect morels to be around until the end of June or first of July. Happy hunting and bon appétit.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the June 27-July 4, issue

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