How to Clean and Cook Morel Mushrooms

It's springtime, and fresh morel mushrooms are here! Here's how to prepare morels to make sure your precious haul turns out as delicious as possible.

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J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Choosing and Cleaning Morels

three morel mushrooms

As you'll find with a lot of mushrooms, the biggest risk with morels is that they soften and rot. Seek out 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.

A morel mushroom on a wooden surface, with an arrow to indicate a worm hole

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

Slicing the tough end off a morel mushroom

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

Slicing a morel mushroom in half lengthwise

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

Morel mushrooms in a cast iron pan on the stove

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

Close-up of morel mushrooms sautéing in a skillet

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

Minced shallot in a skillet with sautéed morel mushrooms

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

A pat of butter over sautéed morel mushrooms in a skillet

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

Squirting soy sauce into a pan of sautéed morels with a pat of butter on top

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, mushroom-y 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.