Morels are a type of mushrooms which can be found growing all over the world in a wide variety of habitats every spring. They are among the most prized of the edible mushrooms because they have a rich and complex flavor that goes well with almost any food. They also have a very distinctive appearance which makes them readily identifiable, assuming they can be found at all, since they're notorious for being very elusive.
Like all mushrooms, the morel is only the fruiting body of a larger organism. Most mushrooms form a massive web of fibers underground called the mycelium. This web of fibers can be quite large, and when it decides to reproduce it sends up mushrooms, which release spores from the parent fungus. Mushrooms are quite appealing to humans because they are often fleshy and flavorful. Scientists have not determined why mushrooms fruit when they do, but mushrooms are usually linked with rain and heavy moisture. In the case of morels, spectacular growth patterns are also linked with forest fires.
Morels fall into three categories: black, yellow, and half-free morels. All have a uniquely wrinkled cap, creating more surface area for spore growth. The cap and stem of a true morel are hollow when the mushroom is cut down the middle. Though both black and yellow morels are considered a delicacy, the yellow type are more highly prized. Both have a cap which is contiguous with the stem and does not hang over at all. When growing, the mushrooms resemble small fingers popping out of the ground. Half-free morels have a cap which is slightly disconnected from the stem, creating a small overhang.
These mushrooms can be eaten fresh or dried. Fresh morels have a slightly chewy texture and a rich smoky flavor. They are used in a wide range of dishes, but are very popular in cream sauces, as a plain side dish, grilled, or in any other dish calling for fresh fungus. Dried morels are often used in soups, stuffings, and stews, because the flavor of the mushroom is intensified by the drying and will be brought out by the slow cooking. The dried version is readily available in most stores, while fresh mushrooms can be found in season in many specialty stores.
All three types are well known for being very difficult to find. The caps of the mushrooms blend in amazingly well with background substances like leaf litter, sticks, and other foliage. Finding them successfully requires patience and a good eye, which is refined by many years of experience. There are also several false morels which can cause stomach upset, so it is very important to go mushroom hunting with experienced people.