Scientific name: Gyromitra esculenta
There's a fungus among us!
When on the hunt for wild mushrooms, there is nothing quite so important as proper identification. Such is the case with the false morel.
Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs
The first step is the same used by the Treasury Department in weeding out counterfeit money, that is to know what real currency looks like. Once that is established it is much easier to spot fakes.
The real deal
Real morels are composed of a root, stem, and head (or cap, or crown). The root is very shallow. The stem is hollow, and this is one of the prime identification markers for true morels. The head, cap, or crown is usually triangular in shape, and has the appearance of a sponge, being full of pits and ridges. The cap and stem are joined at the base of the cap forming a continuous body. In most true morels, the cap is longer than the stem which supports it.
Morels are usually harvested when they are at least 2'' tall, and can grow to as much as 10'' in height. The coloration can vary significantly, ranging from a creamy off-white to beige, tan, dark brown or almost black. They are 'dry' mushrooms, not appearing slimy or otherwise creepy looking.
Morels and their inedible kin usually first appear in the spring when a combination of warmth and moisture cause them to sprout. They are usually found underneath deciduous trees, but sometimes will show up under conifers. Old apple orchards seem to be a favored location.
So, now we have a pretty fair idea what a real morel looks like. False morels are composed of the same three elements as true morels, i.e., root, stem, and head. The stem is totally different, being very fleshy and full instead of hollow. The stem can appear as if it is full of cottony fibers, but this can be absent due to predation by slugs or snails. The cap, while it can also appear sponge-like, is more irregular and looks much more moist than a true morel. The cap is NOT attached at its base to the stem but much farther toward the inner top of the cap, creating a 'skirted' appearance. Imagine a thimble poised on a pencil. The pencil contacts the thimble just at the very inner top of the cap. This is the same spot a false morel cap attaches to its stem.
There is a species called a half-free morel in which the cap attaches about halfway up its length to the stem. This mushroom is proportioned differently, with the stem being much longer than the cap. The stem is hollow and usually smooth, though it can appear dusted with granules. These are edible, but are often bypassed by mushroom hunters ('shroomers) as being not worthwhile due to their small size. They are quite good when dried and powdered, lending a wonderful mushroom flavor to soups, stews, or sauces.
Back to our story
Back to those villains, the false morels. The caps are more irregularly shaped than true morels, and are of reddish-brown to yellowish-brown coloration. The characteristic spongy cap with its pits and ridges are less well defined than true morels.
So, you ask, just what is the big deal? The big deal is this- false morels are poisonous when eaten. They contain a toxin, Gyromitrin, chemically known as monomethylhydrazine, a key component of rocket fuel. No, it won't make you go really, really fast. It'll instead make you really, really slow, as in dead.
Some people report being able to ingest the false morel without ill effect. Others report symptoms such as muscle cramps, loss of coordination, and death. Sorry, the death symptoms were reported by the physician performing the autopsy. The toxin contained in false morels can be eliminated by cooking as it vaporizes at temperatures above 89 degrees Centigrade. For hombres residing in the Estados Unidos, that's 192.2 degrees Fahrenheit. So, while your false morels are sauteing away, you lean over the pan and take a deep sniff. Congratulations, you just breathed in enough vaporized rocket juice to send you to the Promised Land! Your rocket to eternity will be departing from Launch Pad #3 shortly! The point is, dealing with false morels is not a winning proposition. Leave them alone, make your kids leave them alone. The toxin is hemolytic, and does damage to the liver and central nervous system. Storage of these little buttons of death in a very warm space can allow enough toxin to vaporize into the air to inflict dizziness, headache, and nausea.
Mushroom hunting can be a lot of fun. It gets you out of doors into nature, gives you a bit of exercise, and can provide some delicious additions to your diet. Morels are simply delicious, possessing a delicate flavor. My favorite way to prepare them is to dip in beaten egg, roll in a cornmeal/flour mixture, and fry. The taste reminds me of fried oysters, something I dearly love.
It is usually a good idea to go with an experienced 'shroomer until you know the good guys from the bad guys. Many of the sources at the bottom also possess very good pictures and cutaways showing the defining characteristics. Be a smart cookie and use them! Happy 'shrooming!