Shiitake mushrooms

A Complete Guide to Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms taste great and they’re healthy too. These mushrooms are a staple ingredient in many types of Asian cuisine.

However, they’re less common in North America than button mushrooms or portobello. You may be unsure about how to cook them if you’ve never tried them before. You might not even be sure where you can purchase them.

In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything that you need to know about shiitake mushrooms. Including what they look like, how to store and prepare them, their nutritional benefits and more.

What Are Shiitake Mushrooms?

Shiitake (pronounced shee-ta-kay) are a variety of edible mushrooms that are popular in stir-fries, risotto, soups and other recipes. Besides being delicious, shiitake mushrooms may also have health benefits including boosting your immune system and lowering cholesterol.

In Japanese, shii is a reference to the type of tree similar to oak that these mushrooms often grow around and také is the word for mushroom.

You can find shiitake mushrooms in stores in both dried and fresh form. Shiitake mushrooms tend to be more expensive than button or oyster mushrooms. However their rich meat-like flavor is unrivaled.

What Shiitakes Look Like

Shiitake mushrooms have large umbrella-shaped caps that are dark brown in color. Some may even look black in color. Compared to a cremini or portobello mushroom, they have much thinner and tougher stems, which are cream-colored.

Shiitake mushrooms have a quite distinctive look. Once you’ve seen them, they are easy to recognize and difficult to confuse with most other types of mushrooms that you’ll see in stores.

How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms

Growing shiitake mushrooms can be a bit more challenging than growing more prolific species like oyster mushrooms. While shiitakes can be grown from bags of inoculated sawdust, they’re most commonly grown outdoors on logs. This process takes considerably longer than growing oyster mushrooms before they’re ready for harvest and can also be more labor-intensive.

For a full breakdown of how you can grow shiitake mushrooms yourself, see our article How To Grow Shiitake Mushrooms: The Ultimate Guide.

Wild shiitake mushrooms grow year-round in the wild throughout most of Southeast Asia. They grow on the decaying wood of shii, oak, maple, beech, chestnut, poplar, mulberry and several other types of deciduous trees.

Shiitake mushrooms have also been cultivated as far back as the 1200s in China.

Today they are grown all around the world, including in Europe and North America. They account for about a quarter of all mushrooms commercially produced each year.

How to Clean Shiitakes

Like with any type of mushroom, you’ll want to thoroughly clean shiitakes before cooking and eating them. They grow close to the ground and can accumulate a surprising amount of dirt and debris. Plus the occasional insect.

Also just like other varieties of mushrooms, you’ll also want to avoid submerging them in water as they’ll absorb it and become spongy. Instead, wipe the caps off with a damp paper towel or give them a brief rinse under cool running water. Shake or spin them dry to remove excess moisture afterward.

You might be wondering “Can you eat all of a shiitake mushroom?” Shiitake stems are very chewy and tough. They’re good for making soup bases, but not worth keeping in most other dishes. Slice them off with a small knife and save them to make stock with later, if you’d like. Shiitake stems aren’t easy to twist off, so make sure to cut them to prevent damaging the cap.

How to Cook Shiitake Mushrooms

If you’re working with dried shiitake mushrooms, they’ll need to be rehydrated before you can add them to recipes. The best way to do this is to soak them in near-boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. Use a plate or other small weight to help keep the mushrooms fully submerged while they soak. Some people even recommend letting them soak overnight in cold water for best results.

Once dried shiitakes have been soaked, you can drain them off in a colander or sieve. Don’t throw out the liquid though! Just like the stems, you can use this to help create a broth or soup base.

For dishes that cook quickly like a sauté or stir fry, shiitake mushrooms should be cut into thin slices to speed up cooking time. For recipes with longer cooking times like soaps or roasts, leave your shiitake caps whole or only cut them in half. That way they’ll hold up better over a longer cooking time than if you chopped them into small pieces.

Not sure what to make with your shiitake mushrooms? Check out 25 Of The Best Vegan Mushroom Recipe Ideas in our Resource Hub.

Baking Shiitake Mushrooms

Baking shiitakes is the most set-it-and-forget-it cooking method. Here’s how to do it: 

Step 1: Preheat your oven to 350 F (177 C). Spread out a sheet of aluminum foil and place shiitake mushrooms in the center. You’ll want to leave enough room on the edges to fold it into an enclosed package.

Step 2: Before you fold up your foil, add a few tablespoons of olive oil or butter on top of your mushrooms. You can either cook your shiitake mushrooms by themselves, or get creative and add other ingredients. You may want to consider adding a piece of fish or some sliced vegetables like tomatoes or onions. You can also season to taste with salt and pepper.

Step 3: Once you’re ready to fold your foil, bring all four corners together and pinch them together to create a sealed package.

Step 4: Then simply place them in the oven for 15 minutes. If you’ve added other ingredients with your mushrooms, you may need to extend the time. Check on your mushrooms every couple of minutes to prevent burning. 

Step 5: After your foil pouch has cooked, open it carefully. It will be full of hot steam. Keep your hands out of the way when you open it and avoid leaning directly over top of it.

Sautéing Shiitake Mushrooms

To sauté shiitake mushrooms, use a medium-sized pan.

Step 1: Heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat.

Step 2: Once your oil is fully heated, add your mushrooms to the pan and toss them to coat them in oil on all sides. Spread them out so that they’re only a single layer thick. If you’re cooking a lot of mushrooms, you may need to cook multiple batches. 

If you add too many mushrooms to the pan at once, they’ll release too much water and become soggy.

Step 3: Sauté your mushrooms for about 10 minutes. Be sure to stir them occasionally so they cook evenly. You’ll know they’re done when they turn a golden brown color.

Stir-Frying Shiitake Mushrooms

Stir-fried mushrooms a classic for a reason. Here’s a quick way to do it:

Step 1: Heat a wok on high until it just begins to smoke.

Step 2: Add a couple tablespoons of your favorite vegetable oil. You can also add thinly-sliced ginger, garlic and onions at this stage.

Step 3: Cook for about 30 seconds and then add your sliced shiitake mushrooms to the wok. It will only take one or two minutes to cook your shiitakes to a golden brown color.

What Does a Shiitake Mushroom Taste Like?

If you’ve only eaten button or portobello mushrooms before, then you’ll find shiitakes have a much more rich and intense flavor. They taste savory and almost meat-like, sometimes described in culinary circles as umami. In fact, they make a great substitute for meat in vegetarian recipes. (If you’re looking to include shiitakes in a vegan recipe, read this first.) You can use them to make veggie burgers or put them in lasagna in place of ground beef. Dried shiitakes are said to be even more intense in flavor than their fresh counterparts.

Where to Purchase Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are a bit less common than button mushrooms, which can be found in the produce section of pretty much any grocery store.

Still, most large stores will carry shiitake mushrooms. If you’re having trouble finding them, you may need to find an Asian supermarket in your area.

Fresh shiitake mushrooms can be found sold either sliced or whole. Whole mushrooms will stay fresh for a bit longer than sliced ones. You may also see dried shiitake mushrooms available for sale in the produce section of your local grocery or in an international foods aisle.

When you’re buying shiitake mushrooms, look for nice thick caps that curl downward slightly. Avoid mushrooms that look either slimy or dried out. White spots or an almost hair-like white material growing on the caps is a sign of very fresh shiitake mushrooms.

How to Store Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms at the store will often come in plastic packaging or a tray with plastic wrap. They should be removed from this packaging and stored in a paper bag as soon as you get home. Wrapping your shiitake mushrooms in a paper towel will also help absorb some excess moisture and make them last longer.

Fresh shiitake mushrooms stored in a paper bag should last for about a week in the refrigerator. Leaving them wrapped in plastic can lead to a buildup of moisture that will cause them to go bad much more quickly. So it’s worth the little bit of effort if you’re planning on storing your shiitake mushrooms for more than a day or two.

Dried shiitake mushrooms will sometimes come in an airtight plastic container. Other times they’ll just come in a plastic bag that isn’t resealable. In the latter case, you’ll want to transfer them to a glass jar with a lid or some kind of container to keep them dry.

Keeping your dried shiitake mushrooms in a cool and dry place out of direct sunlight will help ensure that they last for up to a year. Adding a food-safe oxygen absorber or desiccant to the jar can help to deal with any excess moisture that builds up in the container over time and will keep your mushrooms usable for even longer.

How to Prepare Shiitake Mushrooms (Dried)

Fresh shiitake mushrooms are more tender than dried. If your recipe relies on the texture of the mushrooms, fresh is a better choice. However dried shiitake mushrooms are a great addition to soups or other recipes.

Picking up some dried shiitake mushrooms for your pantry is a great way to ensure you’ve always got some shiitake on hand, without having to worry about them going bad in a matter of days like their fresh counterparts.

However, there is a bit of extra work required before you can use dried shiitake mushrooms in your recipes.

If you’re planning to only use the caps, you can cut the stems off while the mushrooms are still dried to save them for later. The stems are tough and woody and are best reserved for flavoring soups or sauces.

Here’s the quickest way to rehydrate dried shiitake mushrooms:

Step 1: Place your dried shiitake mushrooms in a bowl or container with their caps facing gills-down.

Step 2: Pour hot (near-boiling) water over them and let them sit for about 20 minutes to rehydrate.

Alternatively, you can place them in cold water and let them soak overnight at room temperature.

Step 3: Once your shiitake mushrooms are fully hydrated, we recommend giving them a little squeeze to get rid of any excess water that they’ve absorbed. As previously mentioned, be sure to keep the liquid if you want to use it as a vegetable stock or base for soup.

Once your dried shiitake mushrooms are rehydrated, they can’t be dried back out. However if you’ve prepared too many, you can save any extras in the refrigerator inside an airtight container for two or three days.

While we prefer drying our shiitake mushrooms, you can also freeze them. See our article Can You Freeze Mushrooms? for a full step-by-step guide.

Nutrition and Health Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms

What is shiitake mushroom good for? Besides being delicious, shiitakes also have a number of nutritional and health benefits.

Shiitake mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and other healing systems for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years.

In terms of nutrition, they’re very high in a number of vitamins and minerals. Just four dried shiitake mushrooms contains a sizable percentage of your daily vitamin B5, selenium, zinc, folate and more.

Shiitake mushrooms can be a great source of Vitamin D as well. Believe it or not, you can place your mushrooms in direct sunlight for a day or two and it will boost their vitamin D content by as much as 460 times! Vitamin D is needed by the body to build strong bones, but very few foods contain it.

Shiitake mushrooms are cholesterol-free, fat-free, a good source of fiber and low in sodium. These mushrooms contain a special type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan which can help to naturally reduce cholesterol and promote heart health.

They also have anti-inflammatory properties and are high in antioxidants, which are substances that help prevent cell damage within the body.

Researchers are even looking at a potential link between mushroom consumption and a lessened incidence of prostate cancer, although more studies still need to be completed.

As with any type of food, how your shiitake mushrooms are grown, stored and prepared will have a major impact on their nutritional content. So it’s best to buy from trusted suppliers that you know are providing you with the best mushrooms possible.

What’s the Difference Between Porcini and Shiitake Mushrooms?

The main difference between shiitake and porcini mushrooms is availability and price.

Since shiitake mushrooms are cultivated around the world, they’re a lot easier to find for sale. Especially fresh.

Porcini mushrooms are very difficult to grow commercially and are almost exclusively harvested from the wild. So fresh porcinis are only available during a narrow window of time each year when the weather conditions are right for their growth.

Even when comparing dried shiitake mushrooms to dried porcinis, you can usually find shiitake mushrooms at about half the price.

Some people say that porcini offers a meatier and more wild flavor than shiitake mushrooms, while others say the exact opposite! So it’s definitely a topic that’s up for debate. We think they’re both delicious varieties of mushrooms and we wouldn’t hesitate to substitute shiitakes in a recipe that calls for porcini (or vice versa). 

Even now that they’re cultivated, shiitake mushrooms still offer that delicious wild mushroom taste. They have an earthy, almost garlic-like flavor.

Where Shiitakes Grow and How To Find Them

Since shiitake mushrooms are native to Asia, you won’t find them growing in the wild in North America or Europe.

Luckily they’re one of the most commonly grown mushrooms in the world, so they’re easy to find. A grocery store or supermarket in your city should carry either fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms.

You can also try growing them yourself on logs. Shiitake mushrooms are traditionally grown outdoors on logs. Holes are drilled into logs and wooden dowels that have been inoculated with shiitake spawn are placed inside. For more information, check out our article How To Grow Shiitake Mushrooms: The Ultimate Guide.

Mushrooms growing on tree stump

How To Harvest Shiitakes

Shiitake mushrooms are ready to be harvested when their cap is still slightly curled and the veil underneath is just starting to break away. Once the cap becomes flat or inverted, the mushrooms won’t store as well and won’t have as nice of a texture to eat.

Shiitake mushrooms might take longer than other varieties like oysters to get established, particularly if you’re growing on logs. But once the mushrooms get started, they grow very quickly. So you’ll need to keep a watchful eye. A single day of growth can be the difference between an immature mushroom and one that is past its prime.

When harvesting shiitake mushrooms, use a sharp pair of scissors or a knife to cut their stems cleanly. If you try to twist or rip them off, you can damage the mycelium underneath. That may negatively impact future flushes (or batches of mushrooms) from the same log or bag of sawdust. Cleanly cutting the mushrooms off also causes less disruption and reduces the chance of contamination.

As soon as mushrooms are harvested, they should be kept cool right away. Store them at a temperature around 2 degrees C (36 F) unless they’re going to be dried immediately.

How to Dry Shiitake Mushrooms

Drying shiitake mushrooms is the best way to preserve them if you’re not planning to use them within a week. It allows them to be kept for up to a year.

If you’re growing your own shiitake mushrooms, then chances are that you’ll end up with more mushrooms you can eat when it’s time to harvest. Particularly in the autumn if all of your mushrooms decide to grow at once. So learning a way to store them long-term is a must and that’s where drying them comes in.

The simplest way to dry shiitake mushrooms is simply by leaving them out in the sun. As we mentioned earlier, this has the added benefit of causing a big boost in the vitamin D content of the mushrooms as well.

On cloudy or rainy days, or if you’re looking for a more consistent process, you can use a food dehydrator. Put shiitake mushrooms in a dehydrator at 110 to 120 degrees F (43 to 49 C) overnight.

You’ll know that your shiitake mushrooms are dry enough when they’re light, brittle and crispy like a potato chip.

How to Choose The Best Shiitakes

If you have the option, try to avoid pre-packaged shiitake mushrooms when possible. Looking through a loose container of mushrooms will allow you to individually evaluate each mushroom and assess its quality. One bad mushroom in a prepackaged container can quickly cause all of the other mushrooms it’s in contact with to spoil as well.

You want to pick out shiitake mushrooms that have thick caps. They’ll give a nice meaty bite to any dish that you cook them in. This is particularly important if the mushrooms will be kept whole during cooking.

Picking shiitake mushrooms with skinny or short stems can help to cut down on the cost. Stems are too woody and tough to be eaten. If you aren’t using them to make a soup or stock, the stems will just be discarded. So you’re paying for extra weight for no reason. It’s considered bad manners to pick all of the stems off shiitake mushrooms in-store before buying them, but you can still select mushrooms that minimize the amount of stem that you’re paying for.

Where your mushrooms come from will impact their quality. Shiitake mushrooms grown in Japan are of higher quality and are grown with more care compared to those coming from China, but they’re also more costly.

Make sure that the shiitake mushrooms you’re buying look fresh. Avoid mushy or slimy mushrooms. They also shouldn’t have a bad odor to them. Really fresh shiitake mushrooms will have powdery white dots on their caps.

Lastly, resist the urge to buy pre-sliced shiitake mushrooms. Your store may offer both whole and sliced mushrooms. It can be tempting to buy them sliced to save some extra work in the kitchen. However sliced mushrooms are usually of a lower quality. Once they’re cut up, you can’t tell if a rotten piece was cut off or if they were broken to begin with. Slicing mushrooms in advance also causes them to dry out more and you’ll end up with more chewy and tough mushrooms.

Mushroom growing on log

When Are Shiitakes in Season?

Commercial shiitake mushrooms are available in stores year-round.

If you’re growing your own shiitakes, the mushrooms should start to appear about six to 12 months after your logs are inoculated.

They can grow in the spring, summer or fall. However new mushrooms will usually pop up after a day of heavy rain. The extra moisture and humidity triggers the mushrooms to grow.

Once your shiitake logs are established, you can continue to harvest from the same log for up to eight years!

Types of Shiitake Mushrooms

In most cases, you won’t get to select the type of shiitake mushrooms that you’re buying. Stores usually just have a generic label of “shiitake” and don’t go into more details. The grading systems used below are primarily used within Japan by chefs.

Culinary experts may distinguish between different types of shiitake mushrooms. Generally, shiitake mushrooms with a cracked appearance on their caps and thicker flesh are seen as higher quality. The striking contrast between the black and white flesh can make the caps appear like a little loaf of bread.

Tenpaku Donko are considered the highest quality grade of shiitake mushroom. They are only cultivated during winter and the low temperature causes natural cracks in the mushroom’s cap.

Chabana Donko is another sought-after grade of shiitake that’s also exclusively grown in the winter months. The cracking on its cap resembles a flower-like pattern and they have thicker flesh than lesser quality mushrooms.

A Donko shiitake has a large, thick, round cap. They have a strong meaty flavor and are quite chewy, but not considered to be as high-quality as the grades above.

Yori grade shiitake are thinner mushrooms with a more open cap. They are associated with Japanese New Year and are often used in dishes around that time of year.

Koshin grade shiitake have a thinner cap and they’re mushrooms that are harvested after the cap has fully opened. Koshin grade mushrooms have the strongest aroma of any shiitake variety. They’re normally chopped up and used in soup or rice dishes.

Shiitake Mushroom Lookalikes

Since shiitake mushrooms that you eat will either come from commercial growers or be grown on logs that you’ve intentionally inoculated yourself, it’s rare that you’ll encounter similar looking mushrooms. But there is one that you should look out for.

Galerina marginata mushrooms can sometimes grow on wild logs in forests across North America and Europe and have even been found in Australia. These mushrooms are also called the deadly skullcap or funeral bell. As the name suggests, they are highly poisonous and should be avoided.

Their yellow-brown caps can appear similar to shiitake mushrooms at some life stages. Although their cap tends to be a more orangish color whereas shiitake are more brown.

Galerina mushrooms usually have a ring around the stem, but this can break down as the mushroom matures.

The most reliable way to distinguish a shiitake mushroom from a galerina is to take a spore print. Galerina mushrooms will always produce a rusty brown spore print, whereas shiitake spore prints are white. To get a spore print, cut a mushroom off at the stem and place it gills-down on a piece of paper. Then cover it with a bowl to keep it moist and let it sit overnight.

Chances of similar-looking mushrooms growing out of inoculated shiitake logs is very rare. However it’s still worth some skepticism and looking out for other varieties of “little brown mushrooms” that can also grow from logs.

History of Shiitake Mushrooms & Fun Facts

In China, shiitake is called the “black forest mushroom.”

It’s believed that shiitake mushrooms have been on earth since the cretaceous period, over 100 million years ago.

It’s thought that the spores of shiitake mushrooms were originally spread across Asia on the winds of strong storms during typhoon season.

Shiitake mushrooms have been cultivated in China for at least six hundred years, but they were not grown in the United States until 1972, when a ban on importing live shiitake cultures was lifted.

Mushrooms growing in bags in wooden container

Final Thoughts

Shiitake are one of the most popular edible mushroom varieties in the world. This is especially true in Asia, but they’ve also attracted quite a following in North America and Europe.

Being relatively easy to cultivate means that shiitakes are available fresh or dried year-round in most places.

If you’ve only tried button or portobello mushrooms before, you really need to try shiitake mushrooms to experience the taste for yourself. They offer a chewy texture and rich savory flavor that is about as close to meat as you can get with a fungi or vegetable.

If you’re interested in growing shiitake mushrooms for yourself, be sure to check out our guide.