False morel mushrooms are a variety of mushrooms closely resembling the “real” morel, an expensive gourmet food particularly favored by French chefs. Collectively, they are found throughout much of the world’s temperate woodland climates. Certain types, in some countries, are a significant commercial crop. Many are poisonous, a fact that discourages amateur mushroom hunters to forage wild fungi on their own.
Real morel mushrooms, often found at the base of evergreen trees, usually have spear-shaped caps with irregularly patterned honeycomb ridges. There are commercial farms, but the majority of the annual crop is professionally harvested from the wild. Most of it is dried, to be reconstituted in water by cooks around the world. When cooking with morel mushrooms, most people choose to keep it simple and not mask its delicate flavor. It is almost never consumed raw because morels contain trace amounts of a toxic chemical called hydrazine.
The actual toxin in the mushroom is called gyromitrin. It readily reacts with water to break down into a hydrazine, one of the volatile ingredients in jet fuel. Several mushroom species in the genus classification Gyromitra are commonly named “false morel mushrooms.”
The effects of the poison on humans vary widely. Some people do not experience adverse effects. Symptoms, such as stomach cramps and diarrhea, might manifest quickly in others. Some severe reactions, even coma and death, may be delayed several days after ingestion. Fatalities from the consumption of false morel mushrooms are documented annually, primarily in the northern countries of Europe.
Regulations concerning the commercial sale or serving of false morel mushrooms differ from country to country. Most governments prohibit them in restaurants. One exception is Finland, which may harvest 50 tons or more annually of the false morel Gyromitra esculenta for both consumption and export. Finland’s government, however, issues strict guidelines on how they are expected to be handled and prepared. The instructions include boiling them several times in fresh water within a well-ventilated or open-air kitchen.
Without expertise in mushroom identification, it is ill-advised to forage for wild morels because of the possibility for mistaking one of the false morel mushrooms. Visually, most of them have globular caps with ridges which resemble the folds of a brain, rather than the more regular netting pattern of real morels. Some hobbyists of mycology, or the study of mushrooms, might dissect a suspected morel’s stem for definitive confirmation of the species before depositing it in a carry basket for supper.