Shiitake (shee-tak-ey) are mushrooms native to China and Japan, and are part of many other Asian cuisines including Korean, Vietnamese and Thai. Aside for flavor, shiitake are also known for their health benefits and play a role in traditional Chinese medicine, known for enhancing the immune system and supporting the cardiovascular system. The shiitake is a decomposing fungus, which grows on dead hardwood trees or logs.
Though the shiitake mushroom has been a part of the Asian diet for millennia, the first record of cultivation is about 1000 years old. Shiitake available on the market in the United States are all cultivated, though that is only a development post 1972, when the U.S. began to allow it (prior it was understood that the shiitake was an invasive species of mushroom).
Shiitake are tan to brown, grow in clusters and are thin stemmed, with a large, slightly convex, spongy cap that ranges from two to four inches. Their stems are tough and are not usually eaten but can be used to flavor stock. Shiitake have an earthy or woodsy flavor, meaty and full-bodied with lots of umami, and the larger ones can taste creamy like custard.
Shiitake don’t grow wild in the United States, but many people do cultivate them as a hobby for home consumption. They are widely cultivated for the market, and are usually grown on “logs” made of oak shavings and other woody organic material, formed into a log shape.
When buying fresh shiitake, look for firm, plump and clean mushrooms without any wrinkles or wet slimy spots.
CleaningCleaning is minimal with shiitake, since they are nearly always cultivated they don’t come with all the little extras that wild mushrooms bring from the forest. Simply wipe them clean with a damp cloth or dry mushroom brush. Remove the stems and cook separately, as they are tougher and take a longer time to cook than the caps. Or you may preserve the stems in the freezer, or dry them and add to a stock or vegetable soup.
CookingWithout a doubt, the shiitake mushroom is made for sautéing. The meaty cap should be sliced or chopped and tossed in a hot pan with olive oil, duck fat, or lard and sautéed for a few minutes. Add onions, garlic, or if they are in season, ramps, to make an earthy side dish. Peas and ginger also pair well with the full-bodied flavor of shiitake. Shiitake mushrooms are traditionally used in miso soup, and will impart their distinctive flavor to any soup.
PreservingStore fresh shiitake mushrooms in the refrigerator in a loosely closed paper bag, which will absorb any moisture and also give the mushrooms air so they don’t rot. Shiitake will last about a week like this. The nice thing about shiitake is that they dry very well. So if your fresh mushrooms go a little too long in the refrigerator, you have two options. Either soak them in water for a few minutes to rehydrate them, or let them dry out completely for use later. Shiitake hold onto their meaty flavor (some maintain they pack even more umami flavor) when dried, and are most commonly available in dried form.