Spring in the woodlands of Ohio brings a rare treat: Fried Morel Mushrooms! The pioneer spirit lurking in the back of my brain, the one that wants to live self-sufficiently off the land, deeply connected with nature and the rhythms of our planet– that part of me rejoices at the thought of being able to spend a gorgeous spring day hiking through the forest surrounding my house, hunting for these treasures. When the conditions are just right- cool nights followed by rainy mornings and sun-soaked afternoons, and when luck and experience are on your side, you can easily come back laden with more wild mushrooms than any one person could eat.
Before you go traipsing off through the woods all willy-nilly, it’s important to note that you should NEVER eat any wild mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of your identifications skills. There are plenty of guides that can help you hone this skill, but I’ve found that taking an experienced mushroom hunter with you the first time is the best way to learn. Plus they’re more likely to know the best areas for finding mushrooms.
The main mushroom you might confuse with a morel is the poisonous false morel. While similar, there are several signs that make it easily distinguishable. A true morel has a honeycombed cap that attaches to the stem at the bottom of the cap, while a false morel has a larger, darker cap that attaches only at the top. False morels also contain a cotton-ball-like substance in the stems while true morel stems are hollow.
One of my favorite aspects of the morel is how little it takes to prepare them to make them truly shine. This is the same reason I love fresh garden vegetables and fruits. Simplicity, to me, is often the key to true flavor and sophistication. You can use them in fancy, complicated dishes; however, I’ve found that a little salt, flour and oil are all that’s needed to bring out the most delectable flavor.
To prepare freshly found morels, you must first clean them thoroughly. They’re probably still attached to some of the dirt or moss they were growing in, and tiny bugs may be making a home inside of them. I like to clean them in the sink under running water. Rinse off any visible dirt on the outside, then slice them in half longways with a small sharp knife. Clean out the inside, slice off any parts that look bad or decayed and place them in a colander as you work. When all of the mushrooms are sliced and cleaned, it’s best to soak them overnight in a bowl of salt water in the refrigerator. This will draw out and kill any bugs that you missed or couldn’t see with the naked eye.
Do not leave morels to soak longer than this or they will become mushy and lose their flavor. When you’re ready to cook them, drain them thoroughly in a colander. They should still be slightly damp to help the flour adhere. Prepare a bowl full of flour and a large skillet full of oil (cast iron is best). Dip the mushrooms one at a time into the flour, shaking off excess, and place them carefully into the hot oil. You can use tongs to help prevent burnt fingers. The mushrooms will shrivel and darken as they fry. They are perfectly done when the stem is crispy and the cap is crispy on the outside yet still chewy on the inside. As you remove them from the pan, place them on paper-towel-lined plates to drain off the excess oil. Salt to taste and serve immediately.
The finished products may look a little strange, but trust me! Sometimes the most delicious treats come in humble packages. Even if you think you don’t like mushrooms, one taste of these and you will be dreaming of mushroom hunting season all year long.