Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Morchellaceae, Morchella
Morels are one of the most sought-after fungi across the world. They are delicious and – for the most part – defy cultivation. Morchella taxonomy and ecology have long been active fields of mycological research, clarified in part by DNA studies, but a long way off from being fully understood. I am fascinated by their ecological dynamism, Morels seem to be saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, and endophytic, depending on the species and the lifecycle stage. Some species also have intimate relationships with fire. As a result, morels are found in an enormous range of habitats and most statements about ecology seem more like recommendations rather than definitive guidelines for how to find them. The same is true for morphology. In the past, species were defined by rigid dichotomies but now we know each species to exist as a probability cloud of various features in which a holistic view of a given specimen is required to determine the name that best applies. Identification is further aided by collecting locale as a good amount of regional endemism is involved in morel biogeography.
Globally, as of 2017, mycologists separate 66 genetic lineages (30 of which are linked to species binomials) in the genus Morchella into three clades: section Rufobrunnea, section Morchella, and section Distantes. These correspond to the rufescent (bruising reddish brown) morels, the pale (i.e., grey to yellow) morels, and the dark brown to black morels, respectively.
Fortunately, the morel situation in the northern Midwest seems fairly worked out. You can count on at least eight species: Morchella americana (synonymous with M. esculentoides), M. angusticeps, M. diminutiva, M. exuberans (first reported in 2012 and again in 2016, see Miller et al. 2017), M. prava, M. punctipes, M. septentrionalis, and M. ulmaria (synonymous with M. cryptica). Long-time collectors have used even more species names to describe North American morel specimens that, in the end, actually represented variations of a single species. In particular, grey morels, blond morels, and swollen-stem morels were all given their own species names, but DNA sequencing has shown that these are actually all M. americana. In early spring M. americana is grey, turns blonde as it ages, and can sometimes form a large swollen base later in the season. M. ulmaria, on the other hand, is morphologically identical to M. americana but is actually a distinct species. Until the day that I can carry a mini sequencer in my pocket to analyze the DNA of fungal specimens on the spot, the best we can do is label them both as M. americana, as that seems to be the more common of the two.
The common morel (M. americana) and half-free morel (M. punctipes) seem to be the most frequently encountered morel species in the upper Midwest and these are the two that I ate for this blog post. I ate them on pizza. What can I say? They were really good.
Beug, M. W., Bessette, A. E., & Bessette, A. R. (2014). Ascomycete Fungi of North America - A Mushroom Reference Guide. University of Texas Press.
Loizides, M. (2017). Morels: The story so far. Field Mycology, 18(2), 42–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fldmyc.2017.04.004
Miller, A. N., Raudabaugh, D. B., Iturriaga, T., Matheny, P. B., Petersen, R. H., Hughes, K. W., … O’Donnell, K. (2017). First report of the post-fire morel Morchella exuberans in eastern North America. Mycologia, 109(5), 710–714. https://doi.org/10.1080/00275514.2017.1408294
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Discinaceae, Gyromitra
Elephant ears mushroom is the most common Gyromitra species in Wisconsin. It grows as a saprotroph and possibly as a mycorrhizal fungus with oaks. You can find it fruiting during morel season along with other spring ascomycetes such as the scarlet cup fungus and devil's urn. These mushrooms can get huge, which is all the more reason to wonder, can I eat them? Confusion and uncertainty reigns about the edibility of this species and other Gyromitra mushrooms. In field guides, Gyromitra is universally labeled as poisonous, even deadly. However, other sources suggest a much more nuanced picture.
For those who are new to the issue, some Gyromitra species, particularly Gyromitra esculenta, contain gyromitrin, a chemical that is hydrolized to monomethlyhydrazine when consumed or heated. Monomethylhydrazine is also used as a propellant for rockets and is dangerously toxic and carcinogenic. Gyromitra is perhaps one of the few fungi with the distinction of being poisonous not only through direct consumption but also through inhalation of its cooking fumes.
It would seem clear cut: these fungi contain known carcinogens in significant quantities to cause documented deaths, especially in Europe - don't eat them! Yet, in Finland, the most toxic of the Gyromitra species, G. esculenta, is sold in markets and consumed by the public through a double parboiling method. Here in the United States, Gyromitra esculenta and closely related species should probably be avoided, but a whole suite of other Gyromitra species seem safe enough to eat and are "probably no more dangerous to consume than Morchella species" according to Michael Beug, North American ascomycete expert.
After reading through Forager Chef's detailed post on eating false morels, I felt ready to try them for myself. While parboiling would not be necessary for Gyromitra species with very small quantities of gyromitrin, I opted to double parboil as if I were in Finland eating Gyromitra esculenta, just to be safe. My skepticism turned into paranoia and I ended up double parboiling the poor mushroom for about 40 minutes total before dabbing it dry and frying it in a pan. By that point, it looked like something biological that had been collected in the 19th century and preserved in a jar of formaldehyde for all this time. There wasn't much taste left in it, although the crispy texture was great. I couldn't get the image of preserved tissues out of my brain and ate only half of what I cooked.
For the adventurous eaters and risk takers, all the anecdotes and expert evidence suggests that Gyromitra brunnea is a fine edible when cooked thoroughly. Forager Chef recommends frying the mushroom whole, but I suggest cutting it into pieces like normal so that the cooking and texture is even across the mushroom. Personally, I will not be trying this mushroom again until I can gain some reassurance that it doesn't pose longterm health problems through the cumulative effects of rocket fuel. In all cases, safe consumption begins with knowing what you are actually eating. Make sure you can confidently distinguish the different Gyromitra species before consuming any of them.
Beug, M. W. (2014). False morels: Age-old questions of edibility. FUNGI, 28–31.
Methven, A. S., Zelski, S. E., & Miller, A. N. (2013). A molecular phylogenetic assessment of the genus Gyromitra in North America. Mycologia, 105(5), 1306–1314. https://doi.org/10.3852/12-397
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Sarcosomataceae, Urnula
Finding devil's urn wasn't a problem until I was hunting for it. In the past I would stumble across large flushes of this mushroom and be intrigued by its bizarre look, but honestly I never considered eating it. Then I read about it in Michael Kuo's 100 Edible Mushrooms and was on the hunt. Suddenly, it wasn't so easy to find.
But I also can't say I hunted hard or with much enthusiasm. Michael Kuo writes: "The devil's urn is not a tantalizing tidbit for your taste buds.... to be honest, I doubt you're going to try the devil's urn more than once." When I found a few of them, I grabbed the ones that weren't full of springtails (I wish I had a photo of these little buggers - I thought the mushroom was sending out a cloud of spores before I realized they were insects springing forth). I did appreciate the scaly exterior, which was reminiscent of gold flakes on a chocolate cake. Back at home, I sloppily chopped them up and tossed them in a pan with some butter, cooked out their juices until I figured they had crisped a bit, and drizzled some salt on top.
I think I took my first bite with a scowl and a humph, expecting them to be truly unpleasant. My face eased a bit as I chewed more and more - they were kind of chewy, in a satisfying way. The flavor was never gross. They were not bad, good even! Was I a "devil's devotee," in the language of Kuo? I turned out and the mushroom was already gone. My collection had been reduced to a spoonful, half of which was lost on me as I doubted its potential.
So went my first experience eating devil's urn. This is a fascinating fungus and one that could have good eating potential. I'll definitely give it another shot. Urnula craterium is a parasite and saprotroph of oaks in eastern North America, fruiting before and during morel season. It could be a good conciliatory prize if morels are not found - or maybe even a delicious companion.
Kuo, M. (2007). 100 Edible Mushrooms. The University of Michigan Press.
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Mucoromyceta, Mucoromycota, Mucoromycotina, Mucoromycetes, Mucorales, Mucoraceae, Rhizopus
Things have been slow in the field. Right when it seems like there should be morels, it snows. No worries, our refrigerators and pantries are full of fungi. While most of these are molds that we don't want, Rhizopus oligosporus growing on soybeans is one that we do. Better known as tempeh, this Indonesian fermented food is almost more fungus than bean. The white mass holding the beans together is the mycelium of the fungus, which is composed of string-like cells called hyphae. The black spots are areas where R. oligosporus has sporulated. Black, white, and grey are all normal colors on tempeh – more colorful filamentous molds are not. Raw tempeh is edible but like all fungi it is best cooked. Cooking aids in digestion by breaking down chitin in the cell walls – the same substance found in the exoskeletons of arthropods. Would you want to eat a raw shrimp shell? Cook your mushrooms!
Rhizopus oligosporus is fascinating because it is actually a domesticated species. Through successive subculturing over thousands of years, Southeast Asian peoples artificially selected for a new fungus species. This is evident in features such as loss of mycotoxins that make it safe to eat and changes in spore morphology – what an amazing example of mycological and agricultural ingenuity.
Most of the fungi that I showcase on this blog will be from the taxonomic phyla Ascomycota and Basidiomycota. Rhizopus oligosporus, on the other hand, belongs to the phylum Mucoromycota, which contains many of the fungi previously classified in the now-obsolete phylum Zygomycota and are colloquially referred to as zygomycetes. Zygomycetes produce asexual spores (sporangiospores) on structures called sporangiophores. If we zoom into the one of the black spots on this tempeh, we can see these sporangiospores as clumps of spores on a stalk.
Growing up, I was not a fan of tempeh's bitter taste. I still find it to be slightly bitter, but I love the density of it as well as the sour, fungal, and nutty notes. I wanted to get a sense of the range of flavor profiles of tempeh so in this post I am doing a side-by-side comparison of the three brands available at my local grocery store: Bountiful Bean from Milwaukee, Bandung from Madison, and Lightlife from Massachusetts.
The raw taste of Bountiful Bean stood out the most to me. It was nutty and smooth, creamy even, and reminded me of bread. Both in look and flavor it seemed to be the most aged. The soybeans had reddish-brown hue and there was a regular pattern of sporulation; my best guess is that this grid is a result of the inoculation process, but I'm very curious what the explanation is. Overall it was very dense, which is evident in the cross section showing tightly packed soybeans and little room for the mycelium to grow.
The mycelium is explosive on Bandung tempeh. There are no black sporulation areas. In cross section the mycelium has plenty of open space to form fluffy white growths, creating a pliant and light tempeh block. The mouthfeel is still pretty creamy, although the raw taste is fairly neutral compared to Bountiful Bean. I'd say that this tempeh was given less time to ferment.
Lightlife tempeh was intermediate in both look, taste, and texture to Bountiful Bean and Bandung. It had a few black sporulation areas and was slightly less dense-feeling than Bandung tempeh. The most notable quality was a sourness that was not present in either of the two other tempeh brands. Apparently Rhizopus oligosporus is not alone in transforming soybeans into tempeh. Lactic-acid bacteria are part of the fermentation process. It seems to me like Lightlife's procedure, whether on purpose or by accident, results in more lactic acid bacteria lending the raw taste of this tempeh a notable sour quality.
Tempeh is tempeh after cooking
You cook them up and they all taste the same. Tempeh is tempeh, delicious and nutritious. I marinated each block of tempeh for 45 minutes in the following mixture:
I cooked the tempeh on a skillet until the marinade evaporated away and the tempeh began to brown (beyond the color of the marinade). Perhaps a lighter flavor treatment would have allowed the distinct tastes of the tempeh to come through, but I equally enjoyed all three brands after cooking like this. What's your favorite way to eat tempeh?
Jennessen, J., Schnürer, J., Olsson, J., Samson, R. A., & Dijksterhuis, J. (2008). Morphological characteristics of sporangiospores of the tempe fungus Rhizopus oligosporus differentiate it from other taxa of the R. microsporus group. Mycological Research, 112(5), 547–563. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mycres.2007.11.006
Spatafora, J. W., Chang, Y., Benny, G. L., Lazarus, K., Smith, M. E., Berbee, M. L., … Stajich, J. E. (2016). A phylum-level phylogenetic classification of zygomycete fungi based on genome-scale data. Mycologia, 108(5), 1028–1046. https://doi.org/10.3852/16-042
The material on aldendirks.com is presented for general informational and educational purposes only, and under no circumstances is to be considered a substitute for identification of an actual biological specimen by a person qualified to make that judgment. Some fungi are deadly poisonous; please be cautious. All images on this website are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).