Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Porcini Mushrooms
What are Porcini?
Porcini are one of the world’s most widely consumed wild mushrooms. And when we say wild, we mean not farmed or grown. Up to this point they are not cultivated. They grow wild in many parts of the world and therefor are referenced by many different names. Here is an incomplete list of some of its names in some languages:
- porcini- Italian
- cѐpe – French
- rodellon – Spanish
- steinpilz – German
- penny bun – UK English
- borowitz – Ukrainian
- hrib – Czech
- puravikud – Estonian
- eekhoorntjes brood – Dutch
- king bolete – mushroom geek language
- boletus edulis – Latin
There are over a 100 of kinds of boletes, not all of which are edible, and the porcino (singular) or boletus edulis is by far the most well known and desired of this genus in the North America and much of Europe. The Italian word porcino means little piggy and refers its plump chubby look and feel. The Greek word boletus simply means mushroom; this again exemplifies the huge influence that this particular mushroom has had on culture and cooking. One of the major distinguishing features of boletes are the undercaps which have tube shaped spores that run perpendicular to the ground. Untamed Feast, despite being a Canadian company with Polish and Ukrainian roots, uses the Italian name because it is the most recognized.
Why are Porcini so Popular?
Partially because they grow in many different parts of the world and are therefore a part of many different culinary traditions. Partially because of their distinct umami power. They are not a barely-there kind of mushroom that is just added for texture, they are carriers of a strong flavours that compliment so many dishes. When dried correctly, porcini can keep for ages and have long been a pantry staple. Few mushrooms so easily produce such an exceptional, dark soaking liquid that is akin to a broth.
What do Porcini Look Like?
They have the quintessential shape of the average mushroom doodle. Like most species of mushrooms, or any species on earth for that matter, the babies are cuter and chubbier. They have a dome-shaped cap that flattens and widens out as it ages. The cap of mature species may eventually curl upwards. When young they are quite white and firm. They gain color (browns, tans, yellows) as they grow and they lose density. Soft, spongey, or hollow is not a good sign. When porcini is found in wet climates (or even dry climates after a good rain) the caps will shine and may feel a little sticky. The flesh (underside of the cap) also starts off firm, but as it matures you can clearly see that the pores are just a series of tightly packed tubes. The stem starts off short and thick and may grow to be long and lean or thick and club shaped. The stem color does not develop as intensely as the cap color.
Are Porcini Good for You?
Certainly. Porcini are high in protein and fibre but low in carbs and sugars. They’re high in amino acids, vitamins B1, B2, C, and D, selenium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus. Keep in mind the vitamin/ mineral content will vary with the soil they grow in and because porcini are not farmed, they are likely coming from rich ‘wild’ soil. They are a great source of beta-glucans which promote cardiovascular health and boost the immune system. Populations that consume large amounts of porcini have been correlated with lower cancer rates.
The Relationship Between Porcini Mushrooms and Trees
Many mushrooms, porcini included, have a mycorrhizal relationship with certain trees, that is to say they live in symbiosis. The mushrooms colonize and nourish the root system of the trees. They are efficient absorbers and storehouses of water and nutrients which they release to the roots as needed. They convert otherwise unusable substances in the soil and adjust nitrogen according to the tree’s needs. In order to do all this work and to reproduce, they need fuel. They get this fuel from their photosynthesising tree friends. It’s not just a few mushroom hanging out with one tree though, the two species become completely interconnected communities. The older and bigger trees pass on the mycorrhizae to their saplings extending the mushroom organism and thus the underground highways and pathways get more complex and more responsive, to the point that an unhealthy tree, or a drought, or an invasive insect can be detected the species work together to restore health and equilibrium. It’s a fascinating communication system.
Where and When do Porcini Grow?
Porcini grow in many parts of the world, symbiotically with both deciduous and coniferous, therefore they are always growing somewhere. Where we harvest in Western Canada, they begin mid- summer in some mountain ranges (look for sandy soils), they disappear in peak summer heat (August) and then start to pop up in greater abundance in the fall (look for dark fertile soils), especially on the NorthWest Coast. While they grow in many kinds of forests, 100% of our harvests have been in coniferous forests (pine & spruce).
Can You Eat Porcini Raw?
Depends who you talk to. This is one of the few wild mushrooms that we have seen served raw and have eaten raw ourselves. The literature will often advise against this, and you certainly want to be moderate when eating any kind of mushroom for the first time, but on the other hand Russian tradition used raw porcini to promote intestinal health. Slices of raw fresh porcini buttons are sweet and delicious but it is highly unlikely that you will ever find these unless you are picking them in the forest yourselves. Porcini that is passed the ‘button’ stage or that is more than a day or two old will be less sweet and more gamey, less firm and more spongy, and it is unlikely that you are the first one snacking on it (see next paragraph).
The good news is that specimens in more mature phases are delicious when cooked and can be dried.
Aside from going to right place at the right time, Porcini are often found in the same area as amanitas, the notorious, hallucinogenic, fairy tale mushroom. We call this a sister mushroom or an indicator. While amanitas are considered edible in some cultures, we don’t recommend you pick them. Smile and give thanks though because there’s a good chance they will point your way to porcini. Once you find one porcini, you will usually find more, sometimes loads more. The giant ones, while impressive in weight are guaranteed to be wormy, leave them be and continue to search the same area for smaller and healthier specimens. When you are in a Porcini patch, you will quickly learn by a tap of your knife or finger tip if they are soft and mushy or firm and intact. After a while, you can tell just by looking.
As with all mushroom harvesting, use buckets, baskets, or bags that have airflow. Care for them by cleaning as you go and protecting your buckets from debris with a cover or cloth. One dirty mushroom can mess up an entire bucket and mean much more work later. To clean porcini, slice near the root or gently wiggle and tug until it release from the ground. Wipe needles and debris off the cap and shave the stem with a sharp knife.
Where Can You Buy Porcini?
Fresh porcini are extremely rare in grocery stores. The reason is that they spoil so quickly and worms are almost always an issue. Check your local farmer’s market in season and if you see them, snag them. Most Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, German delis will carry dried porcini year round. Also try retailers that cater to foodies or host cooking classes. There’s a huge range in price which generally reflects the quality, cleanliness, or origin. Much of the dried porcini on the market is from China and Pakistan, and Eastern Europe is a big exporter as well. Cheap as dirt usually means full of dirt, or sand, or worse, most of which can be dealt with by a careful soaking and straining, or you can just pay more for good clean stuff.
Untamed Feast has packages of premium grade dried Canadian porcini available on-line or at select stores in Western Canada.
Fresh, Frozen, Dried
Fresh porcini have that slippery texture that many people loath and few cherish. They are also nearly impossible to keep in great condition. Worms LOVE them. If you have 100% worm-free and fairly dry specimens, they may last one to three days refrigerated. Care should be taking when transporting, they should undergo as little agitation as possible and try to maximize airflow.
Frozen porcini is a great option if you want to approximate the fresh texture and presentation but want to eat them at a later date. Clean them well, by slicing off dirt, sand, and needles from the stem and wipe the cap gently with a dry cloth. Do NOT wash them with water. If they are buttons, you can leave them whole or cut them in half and lay them on trays with layers of waxed paper in between. Once frozen you can put them into bags. They will keep their color and shape beautifully. It is best not to thaw them before cooking as the sweetness will bleed out with the water and the mushrooms may taste bitter. Cook them as you would fresh, keeping in mind that they will have some extra ‘juice’.
Dried porcini are quite simply one of the richest tasting ingredients around. The slipperiness is diminished significantly, while the flavour is amplified…really amplified. A fresh porcini smells mildy and simply mushroomey… akin to a grocery store mushroom. A dry porcini’s aroma can be sweet or funky cheese, and many other delightfully potent things. When you dehydrate them, you concentrate the deep ‘umami’ness’ which really goes a long way in cooking. Wood dried porcini usually have a slightly toasted/roasted effect (think raw vs roasted nuts).
This is an important topic. While it is not rocket science to dry mushrooms, it is a bit of an art. Especially if you are dealing with large loads and bad weather. Porcini must be sliced for proper drying, they are simply too chubby to dry whole. You can try for complete cross-sections which is good-looking and delicate, but it is much easier to separate cap from stem, and then slice. Aim for uniform piece thickness and size, otherwise they will dry unevenly. Lay them out on screens or racks that have a lot of air flow. Complete sun drying is not often an option. You need a looong, sunny day, or two. Commercial mushroom driers use different combinations of airflow and heat. We prefer to start in the sun and finish with steady, low wood heat. Check your racks often and rotate when necessary. Do not dry too quickly or too hot, or you risk yielding a tough product that is hard to rehydrate, or a really dark product that can taste burnt.
How do You Rehydrate Dried Porcini?
Cover them in tepid water (not boiling) and wait. Perform a pinch test to check for plumpness, pliability and a darkening of the soaking water. They sometimes take as little as 5 minutes but should take no more than 30 minutes to pass the pinch test. If they are taking longer, the porcini you have were sliced too thick, picked too wet, or not dried correctly. DO NOT toss the soaking liquid!
Cooking with Porcini
After soaking the mushrooms, you can chop or slice as you like (depends on presentation and cooking method). The simplest and most universal next step is to sauté them with a little butter (or alternate fat) until golden and then add some of the soaking water back in the pan and slowly reduce. Next, you can do whatever you want with them. They are great with meat or grains, on pasta or pizza, in eggs or salad, etc. Any savoury dish will do.
Tip: Any elements of nature that have adhered to the mushroom at any stage (growing, picking, transporting, processing, drying) will sink to the bottom of your soaking liquid. Be sure to leave the last few tablespoons in the bottom of the bowl. If you don’t use all of your soaking liquid, refrigerate it or freeze it for a future recipe. (like pasta sauce, chicken soup, etc).
Tip 2: If your mushrooms were really dirty, soak longer, and gently rub them a few times during the process.
In closing, porcini are not for everyone but if you are the kind of person who loves strong flavours and texture in your food, you should definitely give them a try. They might just become one of your favourite ingredients. Even if you decide you don’t like them, they’re a lot of fun to pick and if you are out in the forest, breathing in fresh air and hiking you are bound to run into something interesting.