There is a dirty side to porcini mushroom hunting. There is a side that you forget about when you get that 4 a.m. wakeup call, and while you are enjoying the ecstatic highs of plucking mushroom after mushroom out of the ground, while their damp earthy scent still clings to your fingertips and fills your nostrils.
You think when you get home after a long day of hiking through the mountains that doing a little victory dance is all that remains. Just about the time that your legs start to ache and your eyelids droop, you realize that your work is only half done. The mushrooms still need to be cleaned. This is a task that is far removed from the glamor of dancing through the woods harvesting mushrooms. It involves dirt, slime, an aching back and did I mention worms? Lots of worms.
Prized and highly perishable
Boletus edulis mushrooms, also known as cepes, kings, steinpilz, and porcini, are one of the most prized wild mushrooms the world over. They are favored for their firm white body and mesmerizing taste. Porcini make a rich addition to everything from risotto to stews to braises. The liquid from reconstituted porcini is often referred to as liquid gold thanks to its deep savory flavor.
Fresh porcini mushrooms are delicate and perishable. They must be eaten within a day or two of harvest or be preserved, either by drying, pickling or oil curing. Porcini mushrooms are a pantry staple for me, and I prefer to dry the majority of those that I pick. No matter if porcini mushrooms are eaten fresh or preserved, it takes some time and effort to prepare them.
I’ve had many friends who thought they were interested in joining me in mushroom hunting, until they found out that they had to deal with worms. In my area, worm-infested mushrooms are the norm, not the exception. Only a few young buttons completely escape being riddled with worms. Believe it or not, though, the worms aren’t a big deal. If you are eating porcini mushrooms fresh, you simply cut around the worms. If you are drying the mushrooms, the worms fall out during the process, and you are left with perfectly usable, albeit holey, mushrooms.
Given that porcini mushrooms have just pushed out of the ground and are almost always damp, processing them is almost always a very dirty affair. Even if you carefully “field dress” your mushrooms by cutting off the dirtiest part of the stipe as soon as they are picked, wild mushrooms remain covered with a fair amount of dirt. I prefer to clean them with a combination of a damp cloth and a brush. For the toughest spots, I occasional turn to my paring knife.
Tricks for sticky skins and slimy pores
With older porcini mushrooms and those that have been harvested soon after a rain, the cap can be sticky. It is easy to remove the outer skin from the cap in these situations. Just use your fingers or paring knife to catch the edge of the skin and it will peel away from the flesh quite easily.
Another part of porcini mushrooms that can be a little off-putting in older specimens are the pores. The underside of the cap of porcini mushrooms is covered with many tiny pores, which make it look much like a sponge. As a mushroom matures the pores progress from being small, firm, and cream-colored to being long, soft and green. Some people find the texture of more mature porcini pores to be slimy. Personally, I don’t mind their texture, except on the most mature mushrooms.
For those who dislike the texture of the pores, it is a simple matter to remove them from the underside of the cap. They pull away from the flesh quite easily using the edge of a paring knife or your fingers. But don’t discard the pores. Break them into small chunks and dry them. Once they are dried, they make a lovely porcini stock or can be ground to make mushroom powder.
Worth the effort
Being a delicate wild product, porcini mushrooms can suffer from all sorts of bruising and discoloration. When you are processing porcini mushrooms, keep basic food safety guidelines in mind. Discard any bits that are off-colored, smell bad or are slimy.
It’s a dirty job, processing wild porcini mushrooms. After the jubilant high of collecting wild mushrooms, the prospect of cleaning them can send you crashing back to earth. Once cleaned, your mushrooms may not look too glamorous, either. You will be left with very few picture-perfect slices. But the process is worth the pain, because once cleaned, you will be in possession of one of the world’s most sought-after wild ingredients.
Photo: Porcini mushrooms. Credit: Wendy Petty