How to Clean and Cook Morel Mushrooms

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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Mushrooms, for the most part, make me think of autumn. Except the morel. Like asparagus, peas, ramps, and fiddleheads, morels are a harbinger of spring, and a welcome earthy counterpoint to the fresh, grassy flavors of those other vernal ingredients. Morels are also easy to prepare and cook, as long as you know a few key pieces of information.

Buying and Cleaning Morels

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Like you'll find with a lot of mushrooms, the biggest risk with morels is that they soften and rot. Seek morels that are fresh, firm, and dry—avoid ones that are either desiccated and shriveled or soft, wet, and spongy. Large morels are more prone to sponginess, since they're often older and already starting to break down. Smaller morels, as you can see in the photo above, are generally a safer bet, though if you do find beautiful big ones, by all means, grab 'em.

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Be sure to check your morels for critters like worms, which often set up residence in the little frilly nooks in the mushrooms' caps—the silky threads they excrete may look like white mold, but it's actually a sign you have some unwanted dinner guests. Morels are wild mushrooms, so it's common to find bugs on or in them. There's no reason to avoid morels with worms (though heavily infested mushrooms might be more trouble than they're worth), as long as you take the time to pick those little visitors out.

You should also inspect the morels for dirt and debris, cleaning them off with a dry pastry brush.

Trimming Morels for Cooking

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Start by slicing off the tough/dirty end portion of each stem.

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Then slice the morels in half lengthwise. You'll notice that they're hollow inside. I usually leave them halved, though you're free to quarter them lengthwise, or divide them even more if they're particularly large.

Cooking Morels

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To cook morels, start by searing them in oil over high heat to brown them, just as you would other mushrooms.

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The morels will soften and brown. Some recipes cook morels from start to finish in butter, but we find that butter will burn before the morels are sufficiently browned. It's better to brown the mushrooms first, saving the butter for the end.

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Then add minced onion, shallots and/or garlic (add them before browning the mushrooms and you'll risk burning them as the mushrooms sear), lowering the heat to prevent scorching.

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Add a very generous pat of butter, which will melt and soak into all the little crevices in the morel caps.

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I like to add a splash of soy sauce, which pumps up the umami depth, along with some lemon juice, to brighten the whole thing up. A little stock or water helps emulsify the butter into a creamy, mushroomy sauce that's just thick enough to both coat and soak into the morels. Some green herbs right at the end, like parsley, chervil, or minced chives, add a hit of freshness, and of course seasoning with salt and pepper is important (just make sure to go easy on the salt and taste as you go if you've used soy sauce—it's already brought some saltiness to the mix).

Let's end it there, before I give in to the temptation to make a "morel of the story" joke.