Morel mushrooms are one-of-a-kind-looking mushrooms, with their dark and wrinkled caps. However unattractive, their rumpled exterior conceals one of the tastiest and most cherished of mushrooms. Classical and modern repertoires contain hundreds of recipes for morels, but there is a remarkable degree of consensus on the best way to prepare them.
Morels are a favorite among mushroom hunters. Not only are they unusually tasty, they are easy for even novices to identify and are among the first wild mushrooms to mature each spring. In most parts of the country, fresh morels are available for only a few weeks during the spring. Fortunately, dried morels are widely available year-round and retain their distinctive flavor.
Preparing Fresh Morels
If you've been fortunate enough to find some fresh morels in season, begin preparation by shaking off any excess dirt. Halve small morels and slice larger ones lengthwise into quarters. Soak them in cold, salted water for at least two hours -- and as long as overnight -- to remove soil and insects. Squeeze out any excess moisture. Saute the morels briefly in butter with a small quantity of minced onion or shallot. This is the fundamental preparation for morels. Once sauteed, morels can be eaten immediately, added to other dishes, or packaged and frozen.
Preparing Dried Morels
Dried morels have a very intense flavor, and one little package is all you need for most meals. Pick a package that has large, intact mushrooms, rather than smaller, broken pieces. Soak the mushrooms in hot -- not boiling -- water for 10 to 20 minutes, until they are soft and spongy. Squeeze out any excess moisture, but don't discard the soaking water. It's full of flavor, and most recipes make use of it. Slice the reconstituted mushrooms and saute them in a small amount of butter, then use them as directed in your recipe.
Morel Serving Suggestions
Although there is a strong consensus that sauteing morels in butter is the best way to cook them, that's not the end of the story. After that basic preparation, there are any number of ways to proceed. Serve the morels alongside grilled or broiled steaks, or use them to stuff a pork tenderloin. Simmer them in a little beef broth and cream until it reduces to make an especially fine sauce for roast beef. Dice them into your favorite creamy pasta sauce or a mushroom risotto. If you've used dried morels, strain the soaking water and add it to your sauces. Add a fresh green salad with a light dressing to balance the deep flavor of the mushrooms.