What are Shiitake Mushrooms?
Pronounced shee-TAH-kay, the wide caps of these mushrooms range from light to dark brown. Their cream-colored flesh is firm and a little chewy, and the stem, though flavorful, is fibrous and often removed before cooking.
These mushrooms are more expensive than white button and cremini mushrooms, but their rich, earthy flavor and meaty texture make them worth the extra cost. They are good in sautés, stir-fries, soups, stuffings, and risotto.
Shiitake, when translated from Japanese, refers to the shii tree on which these mushrooms originally grew, while také means mushroom. They are used in both the fresh and dried state.
How to Cook with Shiitakes
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 shiitake mushrooms are very tough and chewy, so they need to be removed with a paring knife. Save the stems to make mushroom or vegetable stock.
Dried mushrooms need to be reconstituted before use. The most common way to do this is to soak them in very hot water for about 20 minutes, but some cooks recommend soaking them for an hour or more. Others insist that for the best results they should be soaked in cold water overnight. No matter which technique you employ, consider using a weight of some sort, like a small plate, to keep the mushrooms submerged. Then drain through a fine sieve to remove any lingering residue. Reserve the soaking liquid for broth, along with the stems.
What Do They Taste Like?
Shiitakes have a more complex flavor 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.
Where to Buy Shiitakes
Look for them in the produce section of your supermarket with 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 shiitake mushrooms, visit an Asian market or farmers market where they may be sold fresh and dried. For the best shiitakes, choose those with thick, curled, and domed caps that are not slimy. Dusty white spots on the caps are a sign of freshness.
Dried shiitakes are often in the produce section of the supermarket as well, in pouches or small, clear plastic containers. They may also be shelved with other Asian products in the international aisle. As you would when selecting fresh, look for a big round cap that is nice and thick.
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 a week.
Store dried mushrooms in a well-sealed plastic container in a cool, dry place such as the pantry, where they will last up to a year.
Fresh vs. Dried Shiitakes
Shiitakes are sold both fresh and dried and can be either whole, sliced, or just the caps. Fresh shiitakes are 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 and can be used in the same way as common mushroom varieties.
Dried shiitakes have a stronger aroma and flavor, as the drying process concentrates the mushroom's essence. For this reason, dried mushrooms are preferred over fresh in many Asian recipes. Dried mushrooms are more wrinkled than fresh with a harder texture, but once reconstituted, they take on a similar texture to fresh shiitakes.
Shiitakes are divided into categories based on their quality. The two highest in grade are "winter mushrooms" (donko) and "flower mushrooms" (huagu) with the flower being the best. Flower mushrooms have a flower-like pattern on the cap. Both varieties are thicker and meatier than other black mushrooms.
Nutrition and Benefits
Shiitakes have been utilized for their health benefits in traditional Asian healing systems for centuries. They are high in minerals such as selenium, which is high in antioxidants and may have anti-inflammatory properties. The mushrooms are naturally low in fat and calories, and are cholesterol-free. They are a good source of fiber, and provide vitamins A, B2, B12, C, and D, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, and zinc.