The humble shiitake mushroom may not seem like much, nestled in between the white button mushrooms and the cremini mushrooms on the grocery store shelves, but there’s a reason it’s the second most widely cultivated mushroom in the world (behind the white button mushroom). This mushroom was made famous by east asian cuisine, but is now available all over the world. We’re going to take a deeper look at this little brown mushroom.
History of the Shiitake Mushroom
The earliest known record of shiitake cultivation dates back to 1209, during the Song Dynasty in China. This makes it the oldest known cultivated mushroom. The name shiitake comes from the Japanese shii, the name of the tree it grew on, and take, for mushroom.
In Japan, the shiitake was cultivated by cutting down the shii tree (this is an oak relative) and leaning those logs against trees that were already growing shiitake or were known to contain shiitake spores. This was an early way to inoculate the logs with shiitake spores so that they could be grown for harvest.
Commercial production of shiitake mushrooms kicked off in the 1930s, and the mushrooms were grown on hardwood logs. Later they were grown on sterilized sawdust, which allowed for faster production. Today, shiitake is cultivated all over the world, either on artificial substrate, sawdust, or on hardwood logs, often oak logs. Shiitake mushrooms make up about a quarter of all cultivated mushrooms in the world.
These days, shiitake mushrooms are cultivated at scale by large mushroom growers, but they’re also grown by farmers seeking to make their forest land more productive. They can even be grown on your back deck or in your garden!
The shiitake is a gilled mushroom, and is made up of two main parts; the mycelia and the fruiting body. The mycelia are a branching hairlike structure that penetrates the substrate, in this case hardwood logs and trees, and provides nutrients to the organism. The fruiting body is the part that we harvest and eat as mushrooms!
The two different parts of the shiitake, the mycelium and the fruiting body, grow best at different temperatures. The mycelia grow best at temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees fahrenheit, but the fruiting body grows best at temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees fahrenheit. The fruiting body also requires more light and humidity than the mycelia do. The fruiting bodies grow in the spring or fall, when temperatures are moderate, conditions are moist, and more light may penetrate the forest canopy as leaves are just budding or are falling.
The shiitake plays an important role in its ecosystem. It’s a decomposer, like most fungi, and it’s able to digest lignin, an organic polymer deposited in the cell walls of many plants that make them woody and rigid. This means that they decompose trees, clearing deadfall from the forest floor and returning vital nutrients to the soil.
Because some petroleum products and pesticides are organic molecules, they represent a potential carbon source for the shiitake mushroom, and mushrooms have the potential to remove these pollutants from their environment. The process of using living organisms (typically plants and fungi) to clean up pollution is known as bioremediation. This is also why it’s important to choose organic mushrooms!
Shiitake Nutritional Information
There’s good reason to grow shiitake mushrooms, too! One shiitake mushroom contains about 58 mg of potassium (a natural electrolyte!), and like most mushrooms, they’re a great source of polysaccharides (those complex carbohydrates that are so good for you!). They’re also rich in B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, and folates. They also contain many dietary minerals, like copper (one 100g serving provides 16% of your RDA of copper!), iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc!
Shiitake mushrooms contain all 8 essential amino acids in a higher percentage than in milk, eggs, or soybeans! Essential amino acids are amino acids that cannot be produced by the body and must come from food. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, an essential macronutrient in the human diet. The presence of all the essential amino acids makes the protein in shiitake mushrooms a complete protein!
Many vegetarians eat shiitake mushrooms as a meat substitute, both because of their nutritional content and their savory taste and meaty texture.
So you can see that shiitake mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses, full of lots of different kinds of nutrients. This makes them an excellent addition to any diet.
Medicinal Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake are wonderful culinary mushrooms, but they’ve also been used medicinally for centuries. The Chinese used (and still use!) shiitake mushrooms to treat anything from colds to headaches to constipation. They are also thought to improve longevity.
Some research has borne this out! Extracts of the shiitake mushroom may boost your immune system, prolong the lives of some cancer patients, seem to kill certain viruses in a lab environment, and improve gut flora composition in mice.
As with all mushrooms, more research is needed into their medicinal benefits, and we should all take care when purchasing supplements, as ingredients and quality vary widely. The best way to get medicine from food is to eat it!
Are Shiitake Mushrooms Poisonous?
The short answer is no. The shiitake has been cultivated and consumed by humans for centuries and is widely regarded as safe and beneficial to eat. However there may be ill effects in some people, especially when consuming the shiitake raw or in large amounts.
Shiitake dermatitis is a rash that some people develop with exposure to raw shiitake mushrooms. It’s thought to be caused by lentinan, a polysaccharide that breaks down when heated. The dermatitis is very itchy and can spread over the entire body. It typically appears within 24 hours of exposure to raw shiitake mushrooms and can last up to three weeks.
Shiitake dermatitis only seems to affect 1.8% of people, so chances are you aren’t going to experience it, but one way to guard against it is to consume shiitake mushrooms fully cooked.
It’s also good to know that shiitake mushrooms are not poisonous to cats or dogs, in fact, cooked shiitake mushrooms can be incorporated into a dog’s diet. Dogs receive many of the same nutritional benefits from this mushroom as people. Be sure to check with your veterinarian first, in case there are any interactions you need to know about.
If your cat gets a hold of some shiitake, it won’t likely make them sick, but as cats are obligate carnivores, mushrooms should not be added to their diet.
Ways to Use Shiitake Mushrooms
Cooking and Eating
The easiest way to get the benefits of shiitake mushrooms is to eat them!
- Shiitake mushrooms are great in stir fry, for example, adding protein and meaty flavor to vegetable stir fry particularly.
- They add a deep savory flavor to stocks and broths, and are excellent in soups.
- They’re great in pasta dishes.
- They are a good addition to cooked grains like farro.
- They’re good in vegetarian burgers and meatloaf.
- They work well in mushroom risotto.
- They can be roasted whole!
- They’re also delicious as stuffed mushrooms.
Here are some tips on cooking shiitake mushrooms:
- Remove the stem before slicing or cooking. The stem is very tough!
- These mushrooms can be cooked sliced or whole.
- Allowing the mushrooms to brown gives deeper flavor.
- Salting the mushrooms during cooking pulls some flavor out into broths and sauces.
Another way to get the benefits of shiitake mushrooms is to brew them into a tea! This is a decoction or hot water extract of the mushrooms, and has been a traditional way to take shiitake as a medicine.
- Shiitake tea is typically brewed with dried shiitakes.
- Soak the shiitake in room temperature water for an hour.
- Cut the soaked mushroom into quarters.
- Heat two cups of the soaking water in a pot and add the mushroom. Add a pinch of salt.
- Simmer the mushroom for about 10-20 minutes. The liquid should reduce by half.
Shiitake tea is thought to ease symptoms of colds and flus by easing congestion and reducing inflammation. It may also help to reduce cholesterol in the long term.
Shiitake mushrooms are also available as a powder. This powder is made of dried, ground mushrooms, and is used culinarily as a flavor enhancer. It’s also used as a nutritional supplement, and is available in capsules.
Shiitake mushroom powder can also be used to make shiitake tea or can be added to mushroom coffee!
You can make your own shiitake powder by buying dried shiitake mushrooms (or get fresh and dry them yourself!) and breaking them into small pieces. You can then grind the mushroom pieces into a fine powder using a spice grinder. The increased surface area of the mushroom powder allows for faster and more thorough extraction of both flavorful and medicinal compounds.
How to Store Shiitake Mushrooms
Once you get your shiitake mushrooms, you’ll want to know how to best store them to prolong their useful life! Here are some tips on storing shiitake mushrooms, no matter how you bought them!
Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms
Fresh shiitake mushrooms should be placed in a paper bag, to help prevent them from getting soggy or moldy. Close the bag by folding the top over. Store in the main compartment of your refrigerator; the crisper drawer is too moist! Put them somewhere where other foods won’t get stacked on top of them; bruised and damaged mushrooms spoil faster. Shiitake mushrooms should keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.
If you need to store your mushrooms for longer than that, consider freezing them! Mushrooms freeze well, but there are some guidelines you should follow.
- Cook your mushrooms before freezing them. This deactivates an enzyme in the mushroom that causes them to degrade.
- Mushrooms should be frozen right away, so plan ahead and keep some for eating fresh and some for freezing.
- Frozen mushrooms should be protected from air, so store them in an airtight container.
- Repeated thawing and freezing harms the quality of your mushrooms, so package them in single serving sizes.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
It’s very common to see shiitake mushrooms dried in stores. It’s a long lasting way to preserve mushrooms, and shiitakes in particular benefit from drying. It causes flavorful compounds in the mushroom to become more concentrated. You can easily dry your own fresh mushrooms at home! Shiitake mushrooms are typically dried whole.
To store your dried shiitake mushrooms:
- Keep them in an airtight container.
- Avoid humidity that can cause mold.
- Keep them in a dark place to avoid light damage.
Properly stored, dried shiitake mushrooms can last up to two years with very little loss of quality!
Shiitake Mushroom Powder
Storing shiitake mushroom powder is much the same as storing dried shiitake mushrooms. Make sure the powder is stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place. Shiitake powder capsules sold as supplements often come in a plastic bottle that will help prevent moisture damage and will prevent light damage.
How to Get the Very Best Shiitake Mushrooms
Whether you’re using shiitake mushrooms medicinally or for cooking, you want to use the best quality mushrooms possible. Here are some tips on how to do just that.
Because of mushrooms’ ability to pull pollutants out of their growing medium, or substrate, it’s important to look for organic mushrooms. Pesticides can become a part of the mushroom!
Freshness is a big indicator of quality in both fresh and dried mushrooms. You don’t have any way to know how long the mushrooms at your grocery store spent in storage or shipping, so buying your mushrooms from local producers helps you get the freshest mushrooms possible.
Inspect your mushrooms. Fresh mushrooms that are bruised or damaged will spoil faster in your refrigerator. Any slimy feeling on the surface of your mushrooms is a sign that they’re starting to go bad. Check for small spots of mold, too.
One of the best ways to ensure your mushrooms are of the highest possible quality is to grow them yourself! Shiitake mushrooms are relatively easy to grow at home. Shiitakes grow on hardwood logs and trees, so shiitake mushroom grow kits are typically bales or bags of hardwood chips or sawdust inoculated with shiitake mushroom mycelia. You can also inoculate hardwood logs by using shiitake mushroom plugs. Logs inoculated in this way can grow outside in a shady spot and will flush, or produce mushrooms, for several years when cared for properly. Plus, growing mushrooms is fun!
So there you have it. All of the information you need to select, eat, and understand the noble shiitake mushroom. We hope you’ll add this amazing mushroom to your daily life, and enjoy the nutritional and delicious benefits!