Wild Edibles: the Black Morel, Morchella Elata
Black morels are a well known and delicious wild mushroom. Each spring morels sprout across the United States and delight both the experienced and novice mushroom hunter. Morchella elata, the black morel is a bit smaller than its yellow cousins, but just as delicious. In fact I prefer the black morel ever so slightly. It is defined by a black 'brain' like head on the fruiting body. The morel can grow up to 20 cm tall with the heads up to 10 cm tall and 8 cm wide. I often find that the stalks of these morels are very short, making them difficult to spot unless you are looking. I also have not seem many very large black morels they tend to be around 12 to 15 cm tall with heads of 6 to 8 cm high. The heads are brownish black, slightly cone shaped and have deep chambers separated by dark ridges. The stalks are off white to cream colored.
This is an easy mushroom to identify and is very safe for a novice hunter to identify and eat. The false morel, gyomitra esculenta is said to be mistaken for these occasionally, but I personally don't see how that is possible. The black morel is slender and has distinct dark ridges with a lighter interior, the false morel looks like a massive blob on a stick and is dark throughout.
Black morels grow in early to late spring and are reported to rebound again in early fall if it is moist, although I cannot personally claim to have found any in the fall. When looking for black morels scan the forest floor and try to identify dark patches or protrusions amongst the leaves. Its a good practice to carry a nice quality photo of a morel in the wild (or any specific mushroom you are hunting) with you. When you get to an area that seems suitable, look at the picture before hunting and as you walk, glace at it now and then. You want to try and train your eyes to find the mushrooms. Once you find one, you'll be amazed at how there suddenly seem to be dozens of morels that before you could not see.
I often find these mushrooms associated with mixed hardwoods especially in mixes of ash and beech trees, and in areas that have been burned. I should note that recent burns tend to provide yellow morels, but burns over a year old tend to yield black morels. I also find them along the edges of old apple orchards. However, orchards often used a lot of pesticides to protect the trees which accumulate in the soils, I tend to only collect from areas I know have been unused for some time, or that did not use pesticides.
To prepare black morels for cooking, cut most of the stem off, wash them gently and store them in between moist cloth or paper towels in the refrigerator for a few hours. This is to get the bugs (yum!) to crawl out of the mushroom. They can be stored for several days in a bowl wiht a moist cloth or paper towl over the top. The inside of a morel is hollow and the actual fungus is mostly water, so remember that they will shrink when cooked and will fall apart easily if cooked under low heat. Don't eat old morels that feel slimy or have yellowish brown spots on them.
To saute morels butter is often suggested, yet butter cannot get hot enough to saute a morel without making it mushy. I prefer to get a light extra virgin olive oil very hot, season and sear the mushrooms and then finish with a pat of butter.
The inside of a morel can be stuffed with a medium flavored cheese, or any kind of filling that will pair well with the earthy taste of the morel. I don't recommend using bland cheese like ricotta or overly powerful cheese like a bleu or stilton as you need some sharpness to complement the taste, but not overpower it.
Morels can also be battered and fried or breaded and fried. Be sure to use a light batter (tempura) that will not absorb to much oil. While morels are very flavorful, you can easily cook the flavors out of them or overpower them with a thick oily batter.
If incorporating morels into a pasta or risotto, add them at the end, and just cook them until hot. If you really want to infuse the dish with mushroom flavor throughout use a mushroom stock, or add dried morels. Using fresh morels to cook flavor into a dish from the start will basically disintegrate your mushrooms into the dish and make it a mushy soupy mess.
Morels can also be dried and stored long term. Dried morels are great for sauces, soups, and infusing flavors in to a risotto or pasta. I recommend getting a food dehydrator to dry morels. rather than using an oven or hanging them.