Morel mushrooms are a treat with any dish. They should be treated like the stars they are and made to shine. Morels have a strong, earthy flavor and meaty texture that is prized by top chefs and home cooks alike. Preparing morels is rather simple albeit it can be time-consuming. Always cook morels before eating. They should never ever be eaten raw.
Freshly foraged morels need to be consumed within 5-7 of being picked. They begin to get too soft and rot after that. If you need to store them, cover them in a damp (not wet!) paper towel and put them in a paper bag. Put the bag in the refrigerator. Every day, replace the damp paper towel. This will keep them fresh for the 5-7 days. If they are not stored this way, they may dry out or go bad quicker.
The first thing to do is to get all the dirt, debris, insects, and worms off the mushrooms. The pits of the morel are perfect hiding places for all kinds of unwanted stuff. Some bugs can be picked off. Others will need a little more encouraging and effort. A specialty mushroom brush or toothbrush works great at getting into all the crevices. Rinse the mushrooms under cold water to dislodge more dirt.
There are two main cleaning methods for morels. There really isn’t a method that is better than the other; it is mostly a matter of preference.
The Never-Soak-Mushrooms Method
A large number of mushroom foragers advocate never soaking mushrooms as a means of cleaning them. The main reason is that the majority of mushrooms soak up water and then turn into sponges. Literally, the mushrooms will need to be wrung out or drained for a long time. Morels in particular quickly become sponges.
To clean morels without soaking, put them quickly under cold running water for a moment. Then, take a toothbrush or mushroom cleaning brush and use it to lightly scrub out the pitted areas. Finally, pat the mushrooms dry with a paper towel.
This method is great if you have a small number of mushrooms. If you have a lot, this method can be unbearably time-consuming.
The Salt-Water Method
Since morels are notoriously hard to clean, the other mushroom cleaning camp says soaking them is the only way not to end up with gritty mushrooms. Or, just as bad, spending hours hunched over the sink cleaning the pits of each little mushroom.
In this method, salt water is used because bugs hate it and will remove themselves quickly. Also, salt dislodges dirt and debris easier. A couple of tablespoons of salt per gallon of cold water is all that is needed. Swish the morels around in the water a few times and leave them to sit for 30 minutes. Then, remove the morels to a clean strainer, rinse them under cold water, and let them drain. After they have drained, move them to a paper towel to dry out more.
Before cooking the morels, slice them in half to ensure that all of the debris and dirt is removed. A lot of it will collect in the hollow center of the mushroom which is why it is a good idea to cut them open to double-check. Eating a mushroom with residual grit stuck to it is not a pleasant experience. Make sure your morels are completely clean before cooking them.
How To Cook Morels
Cut the morels in half or quarters, or slices, depending on their size and what type of dish you are making. The best way to cook morels is actually quite simple and quick. Heat a pan over high heat, add a little oil, and then sear the morels for 4-5 minutes on each side. The mushrooms will brown lightly and soften. After they have finished searing, finish them off with a dab of butter. Some people suggest cooking them solely in butter but the butter will cook off before the mushrooms are done so it is best to just use it at the end.
That is the most basic way of cooking morels. If you’d like to pep them up a little bit, add finely diced shallots and garlic after you’ve turned them over. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice at the end will make the flavors pop. Serve with a few sprigs of fresh parsley or rosemary.
A slightly different alternative to this cooking method is to toss the morels in all-purpose flour before you put them in the saute pan. This adds an extra little crunchy coating to the mushrooms and also helps soak up any extra water from washing and cleaning them.
Battered and deep-fried morel mushrooms are really wonderful, as well. A regular flour breading is great as is a tempura batter or cornmeal “fish” batter. Serve fried morels with a lemon wedge or with malt vinegar.
If you have a lot of morels, a cream-based soup is fantastic with some sauteed morels on top as a garnish. To get the full morel taste, they need to be the main ingredient in the soup.
The simpler the cooking method the better, really. Morels like being the center of the dish. Using too many spices or other strong ingredients will drown out the delicate flavor of the mushrooms.