The Shiitake mushroom, otherwise known as Lentinula Edodes, is a flavorful species that is native to East Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Korea. Its distinguishing characteristics include a thin cream-colored stem and a brown umbrella-like cap which measures 2 to 4 inches in diameter. Due to its rich flavor and its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, this fungus is commonly used in Asian cooking as well as traditional Chinese medicine. Other names for the Shiitake mushroom include Black Forest mushroom and Chinese Black Mushroom.
Shiitake mushrooms naturally grow on broad-leaved trees such as the shii tree, also known as Castanopsis cuspidata, which is how the mushroom got its name. They are the second most cultivated mushrooms in the world, behind White Button mushrooms, and perhaps the most popular gourmet mushroom in the world. Compared to other gourmet varieties, Shiitakes have one of the best shelf-lives and can stay good for up to two weeks in the fridge, given that they’ve had a chance to dry out a little bit beforehand. This shelf-life is twice as long as that of the Oyster mushroom.
The fruiting season for Shiitakes begins in the springtime and lasts through the end of summer, sometimes extending as far as to early fall. These fungi thrive in shady environments and require good airflow, with the occasional overhead mist to create the right amount of humidity. The stems are smooth and fibrous and the caps are dark brown, sometimes even black to start, but grow lighter and lighter as the mushroom ages. The stems themselves are too tough to chew and should be removed before cooking, but they can be saved and thrown into broths later on, adding flavor to many dishes. As for the caps, they should be sliced or diced and cooked.
When picking fresh Shiitake mushrooms, they should be plump in texture and have a moist surface, but they should not be wet or slimy. Their taste is relatively mild compared to the dried Shiitake mushroom since the drying process concentrates their flavor. That said, fresh Shiitakes are still plenty flavorful. This, combined with their crunchy texture, makes these mushrooms a perfect addition to salads, dumplings, and stir-fries. In addition, Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of iron and protein, and consuming them may provide certain health benefits such as lowering cholesterol, boosting the immune system, and fighting certain cancers.