Shitake mushrooms have been a popular ingredient in Asian cooking for centuries. As far back as 6,000 years ago, the Chinese were using shitake mushrooms in medicines, and considered the shitake mushroom a symbol of longevity. Records of culinary uses for and cultivation of shitake mushrooms in Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese cultures date back 2,000 years.
Named for the Japanese shii (small evergreen) tree on which the mushroom grows naturally, the shitake (or shiitake – either spelling is considered correct) is now the second most commonly-cultivated mushroom world-wide, the first being the white mushroom one commonly finds in the produce section of any local market. While common mushrooms are wonderful for many recipes, the shitake offers a wide variety of culinary possibilities.
Cultivated shitake mushrooms are often grown in a sawdust medium, which most mushroom lovers agree produces a less flavourful mushroom. Connoisseurs opt for shitakes cultivated on outdoor logs, a controlled environment which is, essentially, the shitake’s natural growth environment.
The shitake mushroom’s flavour and texture are unique in the mushroom family. A firm, meaty fungi, shitake mushrooms are often used as a meat substitute for fried or grilled dishes, such as meat patties in hamburgers and as a base for parmesan dishes.The shitake mushroom’s firm texture is due to its water content; at 75% when fresh, the water content of a shitake is lower than that of other mushrooms. Adding to the shitake’s ability to masquerade as meat is its high iron content, a nutrient which, although only needed in trace amounts, is vital to good health.
In addition to their firm texture, shitake mushrooms are extremely flavourful. Rich and buttery when fresh, their flavour smokier and richer when dried. Dried shitake mushrooms, if stored properly, can last almost indefinitely, and may be “rehydrated” prior to use in recipes. However, it is advised that if rehydrated, dried shitake mushrooms are used, one should remove the stems, as they are fibrous and can add an unpleasant “woody” flavour to the food.
Shitake mushrooms are excellent for use as a main dish, side dish, or even a great way to kick-start the day! Shitake mushroom recipes are numerous and varied; it’s fun and easy to experiment, or try one of the many wonderful recipes available on the Internet.
Shitake mushroom caps can be eaten raw; however, they are somewhat chewy, and only the caps should be eaten, as the stems are too fibrous when raw.
Since shitake mushrooms do not come in contact with dirt, washing them is not necessary, instead, wipe shitake mushrooms with a damp cloth or paper towel – washing is especially not recommended prior to storage, as water may cause mould to begin.
Not in the mood for “from-scratch” mushroom culinary experiments? Simply chop some clean, fresh shitake mushroom caps into slices or chunks and add to ramen noodles, stir fry, curry dishes, or soy dishes. Or sauté them in butter or olive oil and herbs (perhaps add good amount of crushed garlic and freshly-ground black pepper) and serve over rice or pasta. Quick, easy, delicious, and nutritious!