What Are Black (Shiitake) Mushrooms?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Shiitake mushrooms on a wooden table

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Black mushrooms, also called shiitake mushrooms, are a staple ingredient in Chinese cuisine. The name "black" is a bit of a misnomer since the mushrooms can be light or dark brown, and even gray when dried. They are also frequently speckled. They are sold fresh but are more commonly purchased dried.

The mushrooms have been utilized for their health benefits in traditional Asian healing systems for centuries. Shiitake, when translated from Japanese, refers to the shii tree on which these mushrooms originally grew, while také means mushroom. These mushrooms are more expensive than the white button and crimini mushrooms, but their rich, earthy flavor and meaty texture make them worth the extra cost. Black mushrooms are often part of sautés, soups, stuffings, and risottos.

Fast Facts

  • Health Benefits: can destroy certain cancer cells
  • Varieties: fresh and dried
  • Distinctive Flavor: umami

Fresh vs. Dried

Black mushrooms are sold both fresh and dried and can be either whole, sliced, or just the caps. Fresh shiitake is a little larger than button mushrooms and have a somewhat umbrella-shaped cap that is darker than their slender, light-colored stems. Their smell is earthy and delicate. Black mushrooms can be used in the same way as more common mushroom varieties.

Dried shiitake have a stronger aroma and taste, as the drying process concentrates the flavor. For this reason, dried black mushrooms are preferred over fresh in Asian recipes. Dried mushrooms are more wrinkled than fresh with a harder texture, but once reconstituted take on a similar texture to fresh shiitake.

Varieties

Shiitakes are divided into categories based on their quality. The two highest in grade are "winter mushroom" (donko, 冬菇) and "flower mushroom" (huagu, 花菇) with flower being the best. Flower mushrooms have a flower-like pattern on the cap. Both varieties are thicker and meatier than other black mushrooms.

How to Cook With Black Mushrooms

Fresh and dried shiitakes need to be prepared differently before added to a recipe. Fresh mushrooms should be cleaned first, either by wiping the caps with a damp paper towel or quickly rinsing with cool water. The stems of fresh black mushrooms are very tough and chewy, so they need to be removed with a pairing knife. (Save the stems to make mushroom or vegetable stock.)

Dried mushrooms need to be reconstituted before use, and there are a few different techniques to choose from. The most common is to soak the dried mushrooms in very hot water for about 20 minutes, but some cooks recommend soaking them for an hour or so. A few cooks, however, insist that the only proper way to soak them is in cold water overnight to produce the best results. No matter which technique you employ, consider using a weight of some sort, like a small plate, to keep the mushrooms submerged. Then strain the mushrooms through a sieve to remove any sand or dirt. Reserve the soaking liquid for broth, along with the stems of the mushrooms.

What Do They Taste Like?

Shiitake has a more complex taste compared to button mushrooms and are prized for their rich, savory, butteriness that can also be described as umami. The dried version is even more intense, with an added smokiness to the flavor profile.

Shiitake Mushroom Recipes

Because of their chewy texture, black mushrooms benefit from cooking; most often this means sauteing, but shiitakes are also stir-fried and added to soups. Asian recipes abound, but these mushrooms are also wonderful in Italian dishes like risotto and pasta.

Where to Buy Black Mushrooms

Fresh black mushrooms may be more difficult to find depending on where you live. They will also likely be labeled as shiitake. Look for them in the produce section of the supermarket with the other types of mushrooms; they can be sold whole or sliced, most often in plastic-wrapped containers. If your grocery store doesn't carry fresh, visit an Asian market where they may be sold in bulk. For the best shiitakes, choose those with thick, curled, and domed caps that are not slimy.

Dried mushrooms are often in the produce section as well, in pouches or small, clear plastic containers, or may also be shelved with other Asian products in the international aisle. Dried black mushrooms can also be found in Asian markets. As you would when selecting fresh, look for a big round cap that is nice and thick.

Storage

Fresh mushrooms should be removed from their packaging, wrapped in a paper towel, and stored in a plastic or paper bag in the refrigerator. Kept this way they will last for about 1 week.

Store dried mushrooms in a well-sealed plastic container in a cool, dry place such as the pantry where they will last for at least 9 months.

Nutrition and Benefits

Shiitake mushrooms have powerful health benefits. Black mushrooms are high in protein and two B vitamins—B2, which helps maintain the body's energy, and B12, which keeps cells and nerves healthy. Shiitakes also contain eritadenine, a chemical compound that lowers cholesterol levels. These mushrooms include all 8 essential amino acids, which are crucial to the body's health, regulating the immune system and building muscle. Black mushrooms have also shown to inhibit the growth of cancerous tumor cells. They also promote skin health and are a good source of vitamin D.

The 5,000-year-old traditional Chinese medicinal system uses black mushrooms to treat high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, and as a tonic to benefit your overall health. Traditional Japanese medicine employs black mushrooms to treat parasites, circulatory disorders, heart conditions, and exhaustion.