Before you head out into the woods, take some time to learn about morel mushroom identification. Although not usually difficult to identify, true morels do have poisonous look-alikes.
The term "false morel" describes a few species of mushrooms that contain a toxin known as monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). This is the same chemical found in certain rocket fuels and can cause dizziness, vomiting, and in some cases even death.
Although certain people and cultures insist the false morel is safe to consume with the right preparation, the truth is one never knows how toxic any given false morel will be.
There have been deaths from these mushrooms, most in the Verpa and Gyromitra species. Moreover, no one really knows the long-term carcinogenic effects of consuming MMH.
For these reasons one should never consume a false morel. It's just not worth the risk.
I also have to add my standard disclaimer: don't eat anything solely on the basis of what you've read here. If you're new to morel mushroom identification, have an experienced hunter take you out and check your first finds.
Now don't let all that scare you off! Morel mushroom identification isn't too hard, and with some experience you'll be able to distinguish true from false. I'll start with the two main features to look at, and then move on to some other identification hints. Finally we'll examine some differences between true and false.
Of course, before you identify them you have to find them! Read this page on morel hunting tips if you need help finding morels.
(If you jump to the bottom of this page, there's a graphic summarizing the info).
The two most important features to examine when trying to identify a morel mushroom are the cap shape and whether the interior is hollow.
Morels have a very distinct cap. Fairly uniform, they appear ridged and pitted inwards. See the picture to the right for a close up of a morel cap.
On most morels the cap will be attached to the stem, not hanging free as with Amanitas and many other mushrooms.
There are species known as "half-free morels", where only the bottom of the cap hangs freely from the stem. These can be harder to identify so discard if you have any doubts.
After you've examined the cap the next important identification step is to slice the mushroom lengthwise. A true morel will be hollow inside from the tip of the cap to the bottom of the stem.
I took the picture to the right, note how the inside is hollow and how the cap is attached directly to the stem.
Here are a few other features that may aid in morel mushroom identification.
To make a spore print, simply set the mushroom down on dark colored paper and place a bowl or vase over it to avoid air current disruption. Leave overnight and the next morning you should see a collection of light-colored spores around the mushroom.
Below is a list of some differences between true and false morels. Look at the accompanying pictures. Note the tall inward-pitted true morel cap in the first picture, and the shorter outwards-bulging false morel cap in the second.
True Morel Mushroom:
False Morel Look-alike:
Now let's examine some interior photos. I took the one of a true morel on the top, see how the inside is hollow and the cap is fully attached to the stem?
The false morel on the bottom has cottony fibers inside, and the cap is attached directly to the top of the stem while the rest of it hangs free. (That picture was taken by Jason Hollinger and is published on Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 License).
Now take this knowledge and see if you can apply it in the woods. Just remember that catchy old adage that's repeated throughout this site and in mushroom clubs everywhere: When in doubt, throw it out!