Mushrooms can be expensive. Really expensive. It’s part of what makes foraging so attractive to me: the opportunity to work with the freshest, often prohibitively expensive, gourmet ingredients—all without spending a single dollar, besides the gas it takes to get there.
One particularly coveted mushroom is available to us right now and I bet it’s one of your favorites. You’ll hear it called by different names: the French call it cèpe or cep, the Germans call it steinpilz, and the English call it the "penny bun." Scientifically, it’s known as Boletus edulis, and commonly it’s referred to as the "king bolete." But its Italian name may be the most recognizable to the average gourmand—porcini.
Porcini mushrooms are staples in high-end restaurants, and often run upwards of $35 per pound. Finding fresh porcini for sale is incredibly rare, and those who are willing to pony up for the expensive ingredient are often forced to use a dried version. But if you dream of working with this mushroom, I have good news: the porcini is beginner-friendly, grows all over the place, and you can find it right now.
How to Identify Porcini Porcini grow out of the ground and have a stipe connecting to a cap. They are boletes, and like all boletes, porcini are polypores. This means that the underside of their cap has a pored surface, not a gilled surface. From above, the surface of the cap is a pretty uniform shade of brown to deep tan to nearly white. It has the appearance of a hamburger bun, hence the moniker “penny bun.” Their stipe is normally bulbous and over an inch wide—I’ve found some as big as softballs—and the stipe surface has a distinct netting pattern, growing in prominence as the stipe approaches the cap. Also, when the mushroom is cut, it will not bruise.
Porcini Lookalikes Porcini are a great beginner mushroom, particularly for those interested in expanding their knowledge into the world of boletes. They don’t really have any common toxic lookalikes, but there are a few mushrooms that a particularly careless forager could mistake for porcini.
The first is the bitter bolete. It’s non-toxic and won’t hurt you, but it will ruin whatever dish you put it in. You can tell this one apart from a porcini by the pink flush of its spore surface. You can also taste test this mushroom by taking a small bite, chewing it, and spitting it out. If it’s bitter, you’ve got a bitter bolete.
The bay bolete is an edible mushroom with a rusty colored stipe. It bruises blue and has a softer texture than the porcini. Some people like to cook with it, while others leave it in the woods.
A potentially toxic lookalike can be found in the Northeast: the rarely encountered “false king bolete” known scientifically as Boletus huronensis. This mushroom grows primarily among hemlocks, bruises green-blue, has an obvious rubbery texture, and often lacks any sort of bug infestation. There have been a few reports of folks eating this mushroom and getting sick, while other folks eat it without any negative effects.
The final potential lookalike is the Satan’s bolete. It has a bright red pore surface and stipe. It bruises a very obvious blue. It probably won’t kill you, but you’ll wish it did. Don’t eat it.
When and Where to Find Porcini Porcini can begin flushing as early as June with the right amount of rain, and often continue to emerge until the beginning of October. In comparison to other, similarly desirable mushrooms (like morels) they have a very long season.
In the Northeast and Midwest, they tend to grow in oak flats. I have a buddy in Wisconsin who finds them a few days after a late summer rain with remarkable consistency. The key is timeliness. The oak-flat porcini don’t have the same constitution as their Western, pine-loving counterparts and are quickly lost to bugs.
In the West, they appear in fir and spruce forests. I like to look in spots with minimal underbrush where broken light can get to the forest floor, particularly a few days after some rain. In the arid West, moisture retention is key, so focus on microclimates by creek bottoms and places with moss where extra moisture will be present.
Once you find a spot, remember it because you’ll find them there year after year.
How to Clean and Cook Porcini Preparing porcini for the table starts with care in the field. The most important thing is removing the dirt from the stipe, otherwise you’ll end up with grit all over the other mushrooms in your basket.
First pull the mushroom from the ground by the base as low as you can reach. Next, brush off as much dirt as possible then take a sharp knife to cut away any spots where dirt remains, as if peeling a potato. Be careful to retain as much of the mushroom as possible.
A minimalist approach is best for cooking porcini. Highlight their natural flavor rather than mask it in a complicated preparation. Sauté and brown them in butter or rendered fat and place them atop a braised game shank. They’re great in omelets or front and center in a simple pasta dish.
Fresh porcini are best consumed within four days of harvest. If you find yourself with a surplus, they dehydrate well and can add a great hit of umami to stocks, soups, and sauces.
A Final Note If you choose to go out for porcinis—and I suggest you do—remember to bring a field guide to help make an accurate identification. Mushroom hunting is a great hobby, and porcinis are very safe mushrooms in general, but you need to be absolutely sure of what you’re eating every time.