The common morel is a popular fungus species part of the Morchellaceae family of the Ascomycota. It is one of the most harvested edible mushrooms, being very easy to identify in the wild.
Young fruiting bodies look initially like grey sponges with a lighter color on the edges. It is very compressed when young, but later expands quickly into a sizeable sponge with a yellow color. Morel has a tall stem while the cap is covered by large ridges and pits. The caps are between 2 and 10 cm tall, with a width of 2 to 7 cm. They are yellow or brown and their surface dotted with pits creates a continuous hollow cavity because its lower edge is connected with the stem. The pattern of the round pits is not a regular one. Stems are white or yellow, hollow inside, about 2-9 cm long and 2-5 cm thick.
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The season when fruiting bodies are found is very short during the spring and depends on the weather. They grow under hardwoods but can also appear in normal woods, old orchards, as well as burnt or disturbed areas. The attempts to cultivate the species have not completely succeeded so far, even if it was reported in 1982 that morel mushrooms could grow commercially in controlled environments.
Morel mushrooms have typical spongy caps, with a conical shape and a pattern resembling a honeycomb. The long stem has a lighter color than the cap and completely attaches to it. Morchella consists of several varieties of mushrooms growing in the wild. Forests are the habitat of choice for brown, black and yellow morels. They enjoy wet soils, with a content of sand and good fertility. Coniferous forests in sub arctic environments are often destroyed by wildfires during the summer, morels can be found in great numbers in the following spring. Many of them are found around the bases of cottonwood, oak, elm, ash and aspen trees in hardwood forests.
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Some inexperienced mushroom pickers can confuse morels with the so-called false morels, Verpa bohemica. These have a thicker stem that is not fully attached to caps.
While many wild mushroom species are rich in minerals, morels are known to be some of the best natural sources. By consuming a serving of 100 grams of mushrooms you can get 152% of the iron, 69% of the copper, 18% of the zinc and 26% of the manganese needed daily.
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Many oxidative enzymes that play a critical role in the metabolism of cells need copper, a trace element that acts as a co-factor. This essential mineral is also required for neurotransmission and the production of blood cells.
Zinc is another trace mineral that is not required in great amounts but plays many roles. It improves immune function, contributes to the development of reproductive organs and takes part in cellular metabolism and the regeneration of mucous membranes.
Morels provide a good package of B-complex vitamins. A portion of 100 grams offers 14% of the daily recommended amount of niacin, as well as good doses of pyridoxine (vitamin B6), riboflavin and pantothenic acid. All of these vitamins are involved in many body processes but mainly work with the enzymes that power cellular metabolism.
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Iron and phosphorous are two other important minerals found in morel mushrooms. One cup is enough to supply the entire recommended daily amount of iron for an adult person, around 8 milligrams. Women need more iron, especially under the age of 55, the total RDA being of 18 milligrams. Iron is the main building block for the red blood cells that ferry oxygen atoms through the body. A lack of it can trigger the condition known as anemia. Phosphorous is needed for bone structure and DNA synthesis but also helps with oxygen delivery.
Vitamin D is typically produced inside the body through the action of sunlight and natural food sources are very rare. Morels are one such source and one cup supplies 100 units of the vitamin, while the daily recommended amount until the age of 70 is of 600 units. Vitamin D is critical for the absorption of calcium and strengthens the bones but also provides many other beneficial effects. It can decrease the risk of diseases like multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, cancer and type-2 diabetes, while improving immunity overall.
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Morels are packed with antioxidant compounds that are considered crucial for health by modern medicine. They neutralize free radicals and prevent these chemicals from harming cells. A diet rich in antioxidants is believed to stop many diseases of the modern world, especially cancer and heart conditions.
French cuisine highly prizes fresh morels, which are also an extremely popular ingredient in many other parts of the world. They are edible in raw form (see below) but should always be cooked to prevent digestive issues. Since they grow in the wild and are covered by deep pits, morels must be washed carefully to eliminate the sand and dirt that accumulate. Cold salted water can quickly remove grit in just a few minutes, rinse with normal water to get rid of the salt. Only wash the morels before consuming them.
Unlike other mushrooms, the taste of morels is preserved in dried form. Soak them in lukewarm water and they will regain their shape after about 20 minutes. They swell quite fast and become conical again. A paper towel can be used to remove the excess water, they are used in cooking after slicing in length or cut into quarters.
Morels in general and Morchella esculenta in particular are among the most valuable edible mushroom varieties. It is not a good idea to consume them raw due to the presence of a gastric irritant (hydrazine) that is easily removed by cooking. Avoid very old fruiting bodies that have started to decay, as these might become toxic. The most popular recipes are baked stuffed morels or simply morels fried in butter. A traditional method of drying morels that is believed to preserve the taste is hanging them in full sunlight, threaded on a string.
Morels can grow solitary but are usually found in large groups. They thrive on a number of habitats and populate the ground level. Alkaline soils, such as those based on limestone, seem to be the best, but the species can also survive if the acidity is higher. It lives in various environments such as forests, yards, gardens, zones that burned recently or orchards, during the early spring. Morels emerge at the start of the year and are known as "May mushrooms" in the USA because they are found in that month in greatest numbers. However, the fruiting period begins in February and ends in June. In habitats where several morel species are found, Morchella esculenta tends to be the last to appear. This is especially true for cooler locations like Canada, where morels only fruit during the month of June. A number of experiments of mushroom spore germination in different temperatures have found that morels are able to grow in colder periods when they face no competition from other species, which explains why they fruit during the spring.
It is a very common mushroom in the Midwest and western North America, but it grows all across the continent. Morels are harvested in many countries of the world, from Brazil to Bulgaria.
There have been a number of attempts to cultivate the mushroom, due to the commercial value of the fruiting bodies. The only successful one was achieved by Repin in 1901, who started with cultures in flower pots located in a cave and had to wait 9 years until the fruiting bodies developed.
Cis-3-amino-L-proline is a very rare type of amino acid that appears not to be bound to proteins; this intriguing compound was identified from both the mycelia and fruit bodies of morels. M. conica and M. crassipes are the only two other species of mushrooms besides M. esculenta that contain it.
Unlike other popular mushrooms such as button heads or shiitake, morels can't be cultivated and have to be gathered from the wild. In the United States the morel season starts at the end of April and lasts until June. Many amateur harvesters eagerly wait for the season every year. When the bluebells, dandelions and lilacs start to blossom after a spring break, it is usually a sign that morels will pop up. A special knife is used to section mature morels at the base of the cap for easier collection. You should never try to forage mushrooms alone as a beginner, go with an experienced picker who knows how to identify edible morels.
Agricultural and open-air markets are usually the selling locations of fresh morels. They don't last long and have to be consumed quickly, or to be fried or frozen for preservation. Another option is to immediately place the morels in a paper bag and store them in the refrigerator. Plastic covers should be avoided since they accelerate the decay and make the flesh soft and mushy.
The morels that are exported are almost always dried, since it allows several months of storage. For home preservation, you can braise, steam or sauté the fruiting bodies prior to freezing, for better preservation.
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