Morel mushrooms are expensive. Really expensive. While prices vary from store to store or region to region, the fresh ones can cost multiple times more than the other cultivated mushrooms they sit next to on the shelves. Why are they so expensive, and are they really worth buying?
Why They're So Expensive
I spoke to Ken Litchfield, who teaches fungi cultivation at the Mycological Society of San Francisco, and he said that the high prices of morel mushrooms basically come down to 3 reasons:
1. Hard to cultivate. In the sterile conditions of a laboratory, morels can easily start the growing process saprobically, meaning grown on dead or decaying organic material, to make sclerotia, a hardened mass of fungal mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus that looks like white fuzz) that contains food stores.
Getting the dormant fetal morel in the sclerotium to then sprout and fruit into a morel is the much more difficult part of cultivation, and a lot of the easier-to-cultivate mushrooms don't have to go through this process.
"Growing a mushroom and fruiting the mushroom are two different things," says Litchfield.
When weather and soil conditions are right, the sclerotia may fruit and grow into actual mushrooms, or they may just produce more mycelium fuzz. Figuring out how to do this has been difficult, so there hasn't been a verifiable, commercial cultivation of morels, leaving foraging as the main option for obtaining them.
2. Foraging complications. Most morels in the market are burn morels, which mean that they grow in mass quantities in the burn zone areas of a forest fire the following spring after the summer fire has occurred.
Morels are hollow and thus bulkier in volume, so more of them have to be collected to make a pound than solid wild mushrooms like chanterelles or porcinis. If they're lucky and skilled, professional foragers and mushroom enthusiasts can "typically collect anywhere from 20 pounds to 20 grocery bags of morels in one afternoon," says Litchfield.
However, predicting and timing the picking can be difficult due to climate, weather, and elevation, not to mention actually finding the morel patches. Plus, in some states like California, permits to pick the morels in national forests are difficult to come by, if available at all.
3. Perishability. Getting foraged morels to the market is also a difficult process. "Because morels are hollow, their body integrity doesn't hold up well much longer than a week. You need to ice them, chill them, and get them to the market quickly," says Litchfield. The other option is to dry them soon after being picked, and Litchfield says, "that's the most efficient way to collect them and preserve them."
Should You Buy Them?
Meaty, nutty morels are seen as a culinary delicacy and highly sought out when in season. With such a high price, knowing how to pick out good ones is key - avoid soft, mushy, and moldy ones. "Proper fresh morels should feel bouncy and rubbery and should have a pleasant morel fragrance," says Litchfield.
To enjoy morels on a budget, Litchfield recommends carefully selecting and buying 1/4 to 1/2 pound of the best ones in the bin. Although it's not the same experience as going out in the woods and foraging for them yourself, you'll have enough to infuse your dish with the flavor and essence of morels without breaking the bank.