January 6, 2014

Mushroom Magic

You don’t need to be a culinary anthropologist to figure out my bias towards Italian cooking. From San Marzano tomatoes, to Sicilian olive oil, to Caranoli rice, my pantry is stocked with the best from The Boot. One of my favourite staples from the Italian larder is dried porcini. They hum a deep bass line of umami in my signature mushroom risotto (the recipe is in the February 2014 issue, available on Eastern newsstands January 6th and Western January 13th), and their woodsy, autumnal flavour helps lift the timid taste of most cultivated mushrooms.

Dried porcini are most commonly available in little 20-gram packets. These envelopes are generally on the low end of the quality scale, as the sliced fungi are small, dark and broken. But since the soaking liquid is of far more interest than the reconstituted mushrooms, they are perfectly fine, and I always use them when testing recipes for the magazine.

It is, however, worth sourcing and splurging on a higher quality porcini like the lovely specimens in the photo above, which were a generous gift from a friend who went on a shopping spree at the Eataly in Turin. If you ever find yourself in Italy, it is worth filling your suitcase with dried porcini, as the quality and bulk prices can’t be beat. Otherwise, Italian delis and better food shops often carry top shelf fungi.

While most recipes call for soaking dried porcini in boiling water, I always use hot, salted vegetable stock for extra flavour. After about 20 minutes, squeeze the mushrooms dry, rinse in a sieve then squeeze dry again. If it’s cheaper porcini, I’ll chop them up. If it’s the good stuff, I’ll leave them as is.

Porcini always carry fine grit than can only be caught if the soaking liquid is strained through a coffee filter. However, if you slowly decant the dark broth to another container, you can leave the sediment behind and skip this time consuming process. The resulting elixir is deeply flavoured and the closest thing vegans will get to a rich meat stock. Use it to deglaze the pan when sautéing blander mushrooms like buttons or king oysters, or thicken it with a roux for vegetarian gravy.

If you’ve never cooked with dried porcini, stop what you’re doing and rectify this situation immediately. It’s a unique flavour booster with no real substitute, and an indispensible ingredient in any pantry.

Try dried porcini in this Midwinter Minestrone Recipe.

Photo credit:
1. Eric Velland