Morel mushrooms might be mistaken for something from a bad drive-in movie, given their disconcerting “brain-with-a-foot” appearance, but that peculiar exterior is deceptive. Morels are among the most cherished of all wild mushrooms, with their richly distinctive flavor. They’re available fresh for just a few weeks in the spring or dried throughout the year. Whether you forage your own or purchase them from specialty retailers, they’re among the finest of gourmet ingredients.

Preparing Fresh Morels

Like many other fine mushrooms, morels grow on the forest floor and usually contain dirt, leaf mold and insects, whether you forage them or purchase fresh ones. Aficionados differ sharply in how to clean them, with some advising a lengthy soak in salted water. Others insist that even a brief rinse impairs their flavor. Most cooks take a middle ground, cleaning away visible soil with a soft brush or damp cloth, and then rinsing the mushrooms briefly under cold water and blotting them dry. Slice the cleaned mushrooms lengthwise, or halve or quarter them lengthwise, to remove any embedded soil, insects or larvae.

Cooking Fresh Morels

Most cooks and chefs begin by cooking morels very simply, usually sauteing them in a small quantity of butter until they release and re-absorb their natural moisture. The morels’ earthy, complex flavor has a great affinity for butter, as well as shallots, ramps — a sort of wild spring leek — and garlic. Simple sauteed morels can be enjoyed on their own over toast or scrambled eggs; or used as a garnish and flavor accent in pasta dishes, risottos, pilafs and quiches. Morels also make a superlative companion to steaks and game dishes, alone or in a rich wine-based sauce.

Preparing Dried Morels

When fresh morels are unavailable, the dried variety presents a fine alternative. The drying process concentrates the ungainly mushroom’s flavor, and eliminates most of your worries about grit or insects. Purchase intact morels with few broken pieces, whether whole or slices. Soak them overnight in cold water just to cover, or for as little as five minutes in boiling water if you’re in a hurry. The less water you use, the more flavor that remains in the mushrooms. The soaking water becomes a potent flavoring ingredient in its own right, so don’t discard it. Strain it through a coffee filter and retain it to use in your recipes.

Cooking With Dried Morels

Once reconstituted, dried morels can be added directly to soups, stews, sauces, risottos and similar dishes where their flavor will permeate the liquid cooking medium. Add them while you still have at least 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time, so the flavor can infuse fully. You can also saute them with a pat of butter and some shallots, as you would with fresh morels, then add them to a quiche or serve them with steaks or game. For a less conventional technique, pulse dry morels in your spice grinder until they reach a flour-like consistency, then sprinkle the powder as a seasoning, or add it to the breading or flour dredge of your favorite fried meats.

A Few Cautions

Many mushrooms can be enjoyed raw as well as cooked, but morels aren’t among them. They contain a mildly toxic compound that evaporates after even the gentlest of heating, leaving the mushrooms perfectly safe. It’s also important to note that there are two families of false morels, the verpas and the gyromitras, which are significantly more dangerous. Both are eaten by some enthusiasts, after careful cooking, but they vary widely in toxicity and can cause illness even when prepared properly. Always forage with experts, if you’re new to the hobby, or purchase from reputable suppliers if you buy them fresh.