We all have that one food item that takes us back to our childhood. Shiitake mushrooms are mine. They remind me of my mother and her delicious home-cooked meals. My favorite thing to do is bite into a meaty shiitake that’s been soaked in my mother’s amazing chicken soup – the soup that oozes out from the mushroom is perfectly laced with smoky shiitake essence, making for the perfect bite.
Shiitakes are great for many reasons. Not only are they tasty, they’re also known to have various health benefits. They contain compounds that are said to boost immunity, support cardiovascular health, slow tumor growth, treat infections, slow down viruses, and lower cholesterol. They also contain a protein called lentinan that’s supposed to have cancer-preventing properties. As with all vegetables, the longer you cook them, the more nutritional value shiitakes lose, so if you’re eating them for their health benefits, then a quick sauté with butter, some herbs and salt is all you need.
As a kitchen ingredient, I love shiitakes for their versatility. You can make them the star of your dish or a handsome supporting actor. The smokiness of the shiitake lends a rich flavor to any dish — so don’t limit them to only Asian cuisine. They work their magic in Western dishes too – risotto, pasta, stuffed shells, meatloaf, even pate! The key is picking good shiitakes. It’s important to know that they come in different sizes and thickness. The larger and meatier they are, the pricier (and tastier) they’re going to be. They also come fresh or dried. A good (fresh) shiitake mushroom should be plump and firm. If it feels soggy, then it’s not fresh. Personally, I love the tender, meaty texture of fresh shiitakes, but dried ones have a smokier infusion so it really boils down to your own personal preference. You can’t go wrong with either.
I’ve mentioned how great they taste in chicken soup. Here’s how to cook them. If you’re using fresh shiitakes, simply wash, soak for about 20 minutes, trim the bottoms of the stems (don’t remove them completely), and toss into your boiling soup. (I like my mushrooms whole when served in soup, but feel free to slice if you’d like). If you’re using dried shiitakes, then, while your soup is cooking, wash the mushrooms and then put them in a bowl of water to soak until they are completely rehydrated and feel soft. Once soft, trim the ends as you would the fresh ones and toss in your soup. To really coax out flavor, leave them boiling in the soup for at least 30 minutes. (Don’t worry, I’ve never once over-cooked shiitakes in soup).
Another popular way shiitakes are served is braised. (They’re so addictive when paired with a bowl of hot jasmine rice). Here’s a simple recipe I like to use – adapted from Christine’s Recipes:
Braised Shiitake Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce
- 8 to 10 whole shiitake mushrooms (dried or fresh)
- 1 thumb-sized rock sugar
- a few drops of oil
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tsp cornflour/potato starch
- 2 Tbsp water
- sesame oil, to taste
- Rinse mushrooms to rid any dirt, then soak them in water. (If using dried shiitakes, soak until they feel soft and spongy). Once soft, drain out the mushrooms and trim the bottoms of the stems. Save the soaking water for later use. (At this point, Christine’s recipe tells you to rub the mushrooms in cornflour, letting them sit and then rinsing. This helps make the flesh smoother. I don’t incorporate this step when I make this dish (largely because I don’t have the patience for it) and my mushrooms still turn out perfectly tasty.
- Using a deep pot, add the mushrooms, 1/4 cup of soaking water, rock sugar and oil. Cook over medium-high heat. Once your mixture boils, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the water dries up and thickens. (If you want your dish to taste even smokier, you can add more soaking water and cook until it dries up). Pour in all the seasonings and stir to combine. Season with more soy sauce or sugar to your liking. Serve hot.
Here’s a handy tip – the soaking water from the shiitake is a great natural flavor additive. I usually pour some of the soaking water in whatever I’m cooking to step up the shiitake flavor and it really adds a good kick of smoke! (Especially great in carb recipes like risottos, pastas and noodle dishes). You can also freeze some of the soaking water to flavor future dishes.
Whether they’re sautéed, braised, stir-fried, or in soup, the shiitake is tasty and good for your health. Give them a try and let me know what you think. I’d also love to hear about your favorite ways to use shiitakes!