Funghi sott’olio. So much more than just an Italian version of pickled mushrooms.
I’ve eaten these as part of an antipasti plate since I was a kid. Standard pickled mushrooms, let’s face it, can be slippery and even rubbery. Not a great texture. But these are meaty, chewy and just a shade funky — mushroomy in all the best ways.
I never really knew just how the Italians did it until I read Rosetta Costantino’s My Calabria. In it, Costantino reveals her family’s method for preserving mushrooms in oil, and when I read her recipe, I was immediately struck by how similar it is to a Sicilian technique I use every year when I have too much zucchini. Makes sense, as Calabria is only a few miles from Sicily.
Basically you need to remove water from the mushrooms, then boil them in vinegar, then dry them out a bit before submerging in oil. It is a method I’ve seen done with a lot of foods, even meat on occasion. What this particular do-si-do of preservation does is first use salt to pull the existing water from the food.
Once the food is reasonably dry, acidify it with vinegar — bad bugs find it tough to survive in low Ph environments. Finally, keep air (and molds) off the food by submerging it in olive oil.
You should know there is no official USDA protocol for this method of preservation. Costantino tried to get the government to give its vaguely papal gesture for her recipe, but they declined. Suffice to say it works: The Italians have been doing it for centuries, if not millennia.
I tested this method with five kinds of mushrooms: button mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, chanterelles, lobster mushrooms and porcini. You need a meaty mushroom to begin with or this method will not work.
Other mushrooms I might try preserving sott’olio would be blewits, pig’s ears (Gomphus clavatus), shiitake, matsutake, king trumpet mushrooms, and maybe chicken of the woods. Bottom line: The ‘shroom’s gotta have heft.
That’s why porcini and their boletus cousins are the ideal. Try this with a leccinum or a birch bolete and you’ll transform a mediocre mushroom into something special.
A few pointers to start:
- Wash your mushrooms and trim any bad spots. Be sure the shrooms are not wormy.
- Use high quality ingredients: Good olive oil, sea salt, quality vinegar, good lemons. You can definitely taste the difference.
- Store your mushrooms in glass containers, in the fridge. It is entirely probable that they are shelf stable, but I am not a fan of botulism, so I keep mine in the refrigerator.
The recipe that follows is approximate. You may need more or less of the ingredients to fit your containers. One tip: Start with more mushrooms than you think you need. They shrink a lot in this process, and are so good you will run out long before you’re tired of eating them.
These may just be the best marinated mushrooms you will ever eat. This method of preserving them highlights how meaty certain mushrooms can be, and the marinade is a perfect blend of Southern Italian flavors: lemon, chile, olive oil, oregano. I have found that boletes are the best for this: porcini, birch boletes, leccinum species and the like. But any other meaty mushroom works. For store-bought shrooms, use cremini, shiitake or king trumpets. You don't need any special equipment to make these mushrooms, but you need time. It takes a day to make them -- or at least a couple hours if you have a dehydrator. But the time spent is more than worth it.
- 3 to 4 pounds meaty mushrooms
- 2 pints white vinegar or cider vinegar
- Kosher salt or pure sea salt
- Zest of a lemon, sliced into wide strips
- 4 dried hot chiles, split lengthwise
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Cut the mushrooms into reasonable pieces. With small mushrooms, like a button mushroom, you need only cut them in half, and you can leave the smaller ones whole. With large chanterelles and porcini, cut them into 1/2 inch thick slices. They will shrink a lot in this process, and they will be pliable, so they can be a little larger than you'd think they ought to be.
- Salt them well. Lay down a layer of salt on a sheet tray and place the mushrooms on it. If the mushroom has a flat side, i.e., a button mushroom sliced in half, lay the flat side down against the salt. Sprinkle a heavy layer of salt over the tops of all the mushrooms.
- Let this stand at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. You will notice a lot of water coming out of the mushrooms. This is good.
- Note that I have left the "sponge" on the porcini in the pictures. I no longer do this because the sponge gets really slimy and icky in this process, and tends to stick to everything. Better to remove the sponge and dry it. It makes great porcini powder.
- Put the mushrooms between paper towels and gently squeeze them a bit to remove a little more water.
- Boil them in the vinegar for five minutes. The mushrooms will want to float. Use tongs or something to submerge them as much as you can. Fish out the mushrooms and put them between paper towels again and gently squeeze them to remove some of the vinegar.
- Lay the mushrooms on a clean cloth to dry. Let them air dry until they are no longer damp, but still pliable. Don't let them dry out into leather. Turn the mushrooms once or twice during this time. This will take between 12 to 24 hours, depending on how dry it is in your house and how much air circulation you have going.
- You can also use a dehydrator to speed up the process, but keep an eye on it: Mushrooms can go from perfect to leather in a hurry if you're not careful!
- Add the seasonings. Put the oil, lemon zest, oregano and chile in a bowl and toss the mushrooms in them. Pack this into glass jars. Use a chopstick or some other kind of clean stick to poke around the jar -- you want to find and remove as many air bubbles as possible. Make sure the mushrooms are submerged in the oil.
- Refrigerate and wait at least a week before eating. These mushrooms will keep in the fridge for 6 months.