Found on the bark of elder trees, the wood ear mushroom is a fungus that, while growing, look like a delicate brown ear. This type of mushroom is popular in Chinese cuisine and is known for its crunchy texture and ability to soak in flavors. On its own the wood ear mushroom doesn't have much flavor, but because the fungi contains many crevices, it's good for secreting away bits of the sauces it's mixed with. The wood ear mushroom is a classic ingredient found in in hot and sour soup, as well as Chinese stir-fry and mu shu pork.
What Are Wood Ear Mushrooms
Wood ear mushrooms are a dark-to-light brown fungi that looks like a small crinkled ear. This mushroom can be found on deciduous trees and shrubs, mainly the elder tree. Mushroom forgers often source this gelatinous-looking mushroom off fallen and rotting trees where they grow solo or in large colonies. Autumn is the main season to find wood ear mushrooms, and this fungi prefers temperate and sub-tropical forest environments. The wood ear grows in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa, and is a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. While wild wood ears are coveted, the mushroom can also be farm-raised on sawdust logs.
The wood ear mushroom gets its name because it looks a lot like a small brown ear when fresh. This mushroom also goes by jelly ear, kikurage in Japan and hei mu-er in China.
How To Cook With Wood Ear Mushrooms
Wood ear mushrooms are often sold dried, and before cooking with this ingredient they need to be rehydrated. To do this, first gently rinse the mushrooms off and then place in a bowl of warm water, fully submerging the fungi. Let the wood ear mushrooms soak for about 30 minutes, or until the mushroom is soft, bendable, and has grown three to four times in size. Once ready, make sure to trim off any hard parts, the wood ear should feel firm but also have a gelatinous-like pliability.
Once the wood ear mushrooms have rehydrated and been trimmed, they can be treated like fresh fungi, though they shouldn't be eaten raw. It's best to parboil or steam the mushroom before adding it to a dish, unless it's being put into an already-hot soup. Keep the mushroom whole or chop up, depending on its size and what's on the menu. For dishes such as hot and sour soup the wood ear mushrooms should remain in large chunks, or whole if they are small. In general the wood ear mushrooms are best in bigger pieces since they are used to enhance food with the rubbery texture and as a catalyst for taking in sauces and holding pockets of flavor within the fungi's folds.
This mushroom is great in a stir-fry, mu shu pork or scrambled eggs. The natural crunchiness of the wood ear mushroom makes it a great addition to salads as well. And, since it's good at soaking up flavors, the wood ear mushroom is perfect for tossing with all sorts of Asian-style noodle and rice dishes. In general the wood ear mushroom pairs well with fermented black beans, oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, onion, cucumber, peas, tofu, seafood, pork, chilies, potatoes and egg.
What Does It Taste Like?
There's not much flavor to the wood ear mushroom, it's a mild-tasting food that picks up the spices and nuances of the dishes it's put in. The main reason wood ear mushrooms are eaten is for the unique crunch. It's a firm fungi that maintains its texture while cooking, and can soak in flavors and hold pockets of sauce in the ear-like folds.
Wood Ear Mushroom Recipes
Wood ear mushrooms are a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, and classically it's found in hot and sour soup. This fungi can be substituted for other mushrooms in these recipes too, and while it doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own, it offers a satisfying crunch and texture to an assortment of foods.
Where To Buy Wood Ear Mushrooms
Fresh wood ear mushrooms can be hard to come by, and the best place to look for them is an Asian grocery store. Finding dehydrated wood ear mushrooms is much easier, and any Asian market will carry this item. Dried wood ear mushrooms can also be ordered online. While wild wood ear mushrooms are coveted, dehydrated farm-grown varieties are more common in physical and online markets.
Dehydrated wood ear mushrooms should be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct light. It's best to store them in an airtight container so no moisture gets in. Fresh wood ear mushrooms can be kept in the refrigerator in a paper bag or mesh bag, anything that will let them be loose and breathe. If fresh the wood ear mushroom only lasts a few days, but dried ones can be kept for months up to a year. It's easy to tell if fresh mushrooms have gone bad based on the smell, mushy texture and black spots.
Wood Ear Mushrooms vs. Black Fungus
Though both these foods are fungus and are often confused for each other, wood ear mushrooms and black fungus are not the same ingredient. Wood ear mushrooms grow wild on elder trees and black fungus, sometimes called cloud ear, grows on other trees, but both are found in temperate, sub-tropical forests. The wood ear is a thicker, larger fungi that needs to be cooked longer than black fungus. The smaller, daintier black fungus can be prepared faster. However, both are used the same way and in the same foods and work well as a substitute for the other.
READ NEXT: What Are Black (Shiitake) Mushrooms