I could have called this post, "Misadventures of the Porcini Kind" but instead, I’ll stick to the nice and easy title of “How to Choose, Clean and Store Fresh Porcini Mushrooms.”
It was way back in 2006, maybe 2007, and I was on my lunch break with one of my colleagues, Francesco. Instead of going to one of the local restaurants, we decided to hit up the weekly food market for lunch. On our way to get our rotisserie chicken, Francesco started oohing and awing about the mushrooms at the market.
Thirty-five dollars for a kilogram of mushrooms? These things better be good, I thought.
Never one to shy away from trying something new at the market, I purchased a bag and stuck it in my fridge once I got home. Two days later, with my Italian cooking encyclopedia sitting at hand, I was all excited about the meal I was about to prepare.
I pulled the bag out of the fridge, dropped it on the floor, and then ran circles around my apartment like a crazy woman.
No, I was not doing some sort of traditional Italian porcini mushroom ritual.
Instead, I had my wits scared right out of me. And, I learned the cardinal rule of porcini mushroom storage. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT STORE YOUR PORCINI MUSHROOMS IN A PLASTIC BAG.
WORMS! The whole bag was overflowing with them. I had to throw it all out in the garbage bin outside of my house, and then I spent the rest of the day disinfecting my kitchen.
Porcini mushrooms cost so much because they have to be picked in the wild. That high price also comes with high maintenance. Being a wild product, you know, grown out in the real world, they are subject to real-world problems like worms.
The humidity of the plastic bag will speed up the deterioration of the fungus, and you run the risk of inviting disgusting visitors into your home.
Now that you know not to make my mistake, let's backtrack.
CHOOSING FRESH PORCINI
Picking healthy porcini is the other part of the equation.
You should know that when foreigners enter the food market, chances are the vendors will try and sell them the worse quality stuff they have to offer. It’s likely they have produce that’s about to go off, and they will try and unload it on you: the unsuspecting tourists and/or foreigner.
There are a few ways to get around this. There is usually one or two vendors that have really expensive produce, more costly than anyone else. That will be the one that is specializing in having the best quality ingredients. If their quality sucked, they would have gone out of business long ago. The locals would stop going because of the exorbitant prices and poor value.
That doesn’t mean the other vendors won’t have good quality stuff. It just means you’ll have to be more careful in your selection and arrive prepared and well informed from reading my blog. :-)
First: Check them out with your eyes. The perfect Porcini mushrooms should have a smooth brown top. The gills underneath should be light gray (once the gills start to turn yellow, it means they are riper/starting to go off). The stalks should be smooth and free of any holes.
You should know that vendors will generally not allow you to choose your own produce at a market in Italy. (In fact, Italian law states that you have to use a plastic glove before you can touch the produce - which is why they have them at the supermarket.)
But once the vendor has placed them in a bag for you, feel free to touch. If any of them feel swishy and soft to you, it’s okay to give it back to the vendor. (Preferably before you’ve paid for them. Once you’ve paid, getting your money back will be tricky.) If he starts off complaining or saying that the mushroom is fine, have him cut it open. You’re paying a lot of money for these fungi. You deserve to be high maintenance about them.
Live worms are an obvious no-no. But also look for boreholes in the stalk— a sign that worms once lived there. Also, yellow dots/spots in the stalk again mean it's going off. How bad it is will determine whether or not the porcini is still edible.
If your Italian isn’t great, make gestures, speak English or give him back his bag and walk away (everyone gets that).
If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel like you’re making a scene or being extra picky. No worries my dear friends. Just look around, and you’ll see the little Italian moms and especially the grandmas doing the exact same thing: scrutinizing the produce and giving them lip if they don’t like what they see.
It’s also a good idea to install a friendly relationship with your local vendors. Smile and chat them up (even with the little Italian you know). They’ll be more likely to treat you well the next times you come.
Also remember, if you buy porcini at the cheapest vendor, and then you have to throw half of them away because they are rotten, then you really haven’t saved money.
The best bet is to clean and use your porcini mushrooms the day you get them. But if life happens, throw out the plastic bag, and keep it in the paper bag it usually comes in. Feel free to add a paper towel in or below the container if you want to be extra careful.
CLEANING YOUR PORCINI MUSHROOMS
Cleaning your healthy porcini mushrooms is pretty straightforward. You’re going to have to slice off a thin layer at the bottom of the mushrooms if it’s covered in dirt (you know the part that was in the ground).
You should then proceed to dust off excess dirt with a firm brush or wipe off with a clean damp kitchen towel.
I usually start off doing just that; then I get fed up, and do a quick rinse under cold water. Then, I’ll carefully pat the mushrooms dry (but top chefs/cookbooks will tell you that you’re not supposed to wash mushrooms).
Slice to the desired size and then cook or freeze. It’s best not to freeze porcini whole unless you plan on cooking them whole.
So that’s it, guys. My guide on how to choose, clean and store porcini mushrooms.
Let me know if you buy any at the local market. And I would love to know how it turns out.
Ciao for now,
PS. I'm not really sure why I didn't clean those mushrooms before shooting them. Please forgive me ;-)