If you’ve recently had a steaming bowl of sukiyaki or you’re a meal-planning vegan, chances are you’ve recently enjoyed one of the most well-known mushrooms in the culinary world – shiitake. There are many ways to cook shiitake mushrooms as these juicy and chewy delights offer a deep, earthy, and robust flavor to dishes they’re added to. Did we mention that they also carry a plethora of health benefits? No wonder they’re a mainstay on many menus.
Now is a good time to consciously consider which pack of dried shiitake mushrooms you regularly buy from the grocery store. Curious why? Beyond being a staple under the whole foods gluten free section, they have an amazing, storied past.
In this article, we will be discussing:
The origins of shiitake mushrooms
A quick Google search would tell you that mushrooms first appeared on Earth “between 715 and 810 million years ago.” No one knows for sure how they evolved. Fossils of them are extremely rare due to their delicate nature and, in fact, astoundingly many species of mushrooms have yet to be identified.
Mushrooms have played and continue to play a major role in cultivating plant life on Earth. They later on became a standard ingredient of different cuisines all around the world. One of the most popular is the shiitake mushroom.
Shiitake mushrooms are an umbrella-like variety native to many parts of Asia. According to “Wild About Mushrooms” by Louise Freedman, shiitake mushrooms have been around for millions of years and have been discovered in China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan.
Shiitake mushrooms in China and Japan
Two of the biggest global producers of shiitake mushrooms are China and Japan. Dating back to the age of dynasties, the Chinese are known to have first cultivated these fungi. During the Ming Dynasty, only the emperor was allowed to eat shiitake because it was prized for its many health benefits. Known as shanku and dongo, the shiitake mushroom was said to have been bestowed by the legendary deity Shennong, to whom natural medicine and acupuncture were also attributed. Many old scrolls depict characters holding mushrooms as they are treated as both food and medicine.
In Japan, they are traditionally cultivated by cuttingshiitrees (sawtooth oak where the mushroom gets its name) and leaning them on other trees that are known locations of shiitake spores, as mentioned in Cascadia Mushrooms. With more modern agricultural techniques, shiitake mushrooms are now being produced in different substrates.
Despite newer techniques, there are still prefectures in the country that stay true to traditional shiitake mushroom cultivation. The Official Kyushu Travel Guide features Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula, where people of the Osaki district continue the traditional practice of log cultivation of shiitake mushrooms, which dates all the way back to the Edo period.
The process takes many years and begins with cultivating the sawtooth oak saplings that grow from stumps. These are where the shiitake can grow. Once these saplings reach a diameter of 30 centimeters (which may take a decade or so), they are cut. Holes are drilled for shiitake spawn, and then they are plugged and left untouched for a couple of years.
After 24 months, in autumn, the logs are transferred to a hodoba or a cultivating site (in Oita, a cedar forest), where farmers wait until spring for the tasty shiitake mushrooms to finally emerge. It’s these mushroom-growing lands of the Oita Prefecture that have been certified as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.
How are shiitake mushrooms dried?
You can buy these capped fungi most commonly dried and vacuum-sealed from the grocery store. However, if you somehow find yourself with shiitake mushrooms fresh from the source, the best way to dry them is by leaving them under the sun. Put them on clean flat trays or containers (you can cut them into smaller, more manageable pieces if you want) and place the containers in a tidy, open area where they can get enough sunlight and are relatively safe from the elements. It’s best to dry shiitake mushrooms during warmer seasons such as summer and spring, from late morning until early afternoon. Before sunset, make sure to cover your mushrooms with cheesecloth and transfer them in a place where fog and dew won’t reach them.
Before you even consider sun-drying your mushrooms, however, you’ll have to make sure that your area doesn’t have high humidity. Otherwise, your mushrooms won’t dry. If this is your issue, Drying All Foods has several alternatives:
If you decide to use either a dehydrator or an oven, always come back and check on your mushrooms’ progress. Once they’re done, allow your mushrooms to rest afterwards before storing. Opt for an airtight container such as a mason jar over a resealable plastic bag, and make sure to keep them in a dark, dry place.
How do shiitake mushrooms taste?
Shiitake mushrooms fresh from the source already have a deep, earthy, and smoky aroma, and this flavor only gets even more concentrated when dried or cooked.Umami is a word that’s closely tied to shiitake; it’s considered anumamiingredient that livens up cooking in all cuisines. According to the Umami Information Center, dried shiitake mushrooms “allow concentration and provides glutamate”, which, as The Journal of Neuroscience notes, improves the palatability of food.
Commonly, only shiitake mushroom caps are eaten. Shiitake mushrooms’ stems, however, shouldn’t be thrown out right away as they can make very good dashi, which is the base for many Japanese soups.
Wanna try it yourself? You can follow a modified version of this recipe by Shioko from Chopsticks Chronicles: After separating shiitake mushroom stems from their caps and making sure they’re clean, place them in a bowl of cold water. Make sure that you completely have them submerged. Cover the bowl and keep it in your fridge overnight or for 10 hours to allow the stems to thoroughly steep.
The dashi that is produced is chock-full of flavor, so you need to be careful in using it! It can be added to any neutral ingredient or in a dish that needs a rounder taste profile. It’s definitely great in soups such as sukiyaki. You can either make it as needed or do a big batch and keep it in the freezer, easy peasy!
Health benefits of shiitake mushrooms
There’s no denying that mushrooms have a lot of health benefits to the point that they’re considered medicinal. According to a feature on the South China Morning Post, eating mushrooms is good for the brain and shiitake mushrooms, specifically, help reduce cholesterol which lowers the risk of cardiovascular issues. In the article, dietitian and longevity medicine specialist, Dr. Naras Lapsys, highlighted the health benefits of shiitake mushrooms, which contain lentinan, a substance that helps boost the immune system.
Another benefit of shiitake mushrooms is its innate ability to fight cancer. Healthline notes that the polysaccharides in this edible fungi can assist your immune system in going head-to-head against tumors. The above-mentioned lentinan is also said to inhibit the growth of leukemia cells, so much so that injectable lentinan is used together with chemotherapy in people with gastric cancer in China and Japan.
Shiitake mushrooms contain vitamin D, niacin, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, folate, zinc, selenium, manganese, and many more. They’re also low in calories and can safely be consumed in moderation.
Allergic reactions to shiitake mushrooms
As with many food products, there are people who will be allergic to shiitake mushrooms. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, consuming the mushrooms raw can possibly result in Shiitake Dermatitis, an allergy characterized by intense itchiness and whiplash marks on the skin. According to the paper, this type of flagellate dermatitis can be caused by a hypersensitive reaction to consuming lentinan raw, which can actually be pretty easily resolved by just cooking the shiitake. So as long as you consume your shiitake mushrooms cooked, there’s very little chance for this kind of reaction. How’s that for good news?
Making shiitake mushrooms a part of your diet
If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, congratulations on taking this step to healthier living! Having shiitake mushrooms as a part of your diet is a great way to keep your meals delicious and your mood up. Shiitake mushrooms are an amazing addition to any dish that calls for a smoky, earthy, and robust taste, but did you know that they can also be great, healthy snacks?
Shiitake mushrooms have loads of umami, which is probably why they make for great snacks when you’re craving something savory. Ever tried shiitake mushroom chips yet? The Daily Good is coming your way and we’ve got them in Original, as well as different flavors like Mexican Chili and Wasabi. These crunchy delicious treats are baked (not fried), and are low in calories and carbs.
Better yet, don’t miss out on a single morsel by ordering all three flavors in one convenient pack here.