Delicate and earthy, the maitake mushroom is one of the finest fungi on the market, despite the fact that it's not as popular as other foods in its category. Also commonly known as hen-of-the-woods, maitake's lacy sides make it a great option for frying, dicing, and adding a visual flair (and earthy taste) to many dishes. Though this mushroom is harder to find in the grocery store than the usual button, porcini, or shiitake, look for it the next time mushrooms are on the menu at home.
What Are Maitake Mushrooms?
Maitake and hen-of-the-woods are the same type of mushroom, also called ram's head or sheep's head. This bouquet-like fungus naturally grows on the base of oak trees, but can also be cultivated on a mushroom farm as well; the latter is how most of the commercial maitake mushrooms are sourced. Though also native to North America and Europe, the maitake has really made a name for itself in the culinary scene in China and Japan, where they're often used in stir-fries, folded into eggs, and fried into a delicate side plate. This food is so popular in parts of Asia that the name maitake is actually a Japanese phrase that means "dancing mushroom," because foragers would rumoredly dance around with joy when they found one.
How to Cook With Maitake Mushrooms
Cooks can use maitakes almost any way other mushrooms are used; it's best to skip this varietal when creating a hearty stew or rich sauce. Due to the thin edges, maitakes are particularly good fried; try them in the air fryer or pan-frying the mushrooms in olive or sesame oil. Both methods require breaking down the large bunch, which when whole, looks like a fluffy chicken behind—hence the name, hen-of-the-woods.
Maitake mushrooms also work well chopped up and tossed into an omelet or any other simple base that you want to impart a lot of earthy flavor without bogging it down with rubbery chunks of fungi. In a way, maitakes can melt into a dish, especially when cut into small pieces. Traditional methods of preparing maitake include stir-fry, soups, and as a topping for chawanmushi, a Japanese savory custard.
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What Do They Taste Like?
Like all mushrooms, the maitake has a deep earthy flavor, but this one offers even more nuances to the thoughtful taster. For starters, it's more delicate than a shiitake and has a stronger savory side than a porcini. There's a slight bit of spice to the maitake, but it's not hot by any means. The maitake will, like most mushrooms, pick up a lot of the flavors of what it's cooked with; if you fry it with soy sauce and garlic, for example, it will taste strongly of those particular ingredients.
Maitake Mushrooms Recipes
Experiment with this earthy mushroom in all sorts of ways, from fried to baked to stirred into a soup. Mushrooms tend to cook up the same way, so it's easy to substitute one for the other in most recipes.
Where to Buy Maitake Mushrooms
Finding fresh maitake mushrooms isn't too easy; they aren't usually in most big supermarkets. Often this delicate mushroom is grown locally and sold through small producers at farmers' markets and smaller grocery stores. However, Asian food stores will sometimes carry the maitake fresh, though the shelf life is more limited than other fungi. Dried maitake mushrooms are more prevalent, often found in the spice aisle. These mushrooms can also be purchased online and shipped directly to the consumer.
Keep fresh maitake in a paper bag in the refrigerator for around five days. They can also be left out in the kitchen in a breathable container as long as the climate isn't too dry. If the mushrooms do dry out a bit they are still fine to prepare. On the other hand, dried maitake need to be rehydrated before use. The unused dry mushrooms can be kept in a sealed, air-tight container until ready to cook with.
Maitake Mushrooms Vs. Oyster Mushrooms
While the maitake and oyster mushrooms look similar, with thinner edges and a clumping growing habit, the flavors are different. Oyster mushrooms tend to be lighter with a more delicate, sweet taste, and hold up better when they're cooked. The maitake offers more of a meaty, earthy, and savory essence, and though it's sturdy, the lacy edges can get soggy when they're cooked too long. In many dishes either can be used, but maitake tends to stand up better to bold ingredients than oyster mushrooms. Try oyster mushrooms deep-fried, mixed into risotto, and lightly pickled.