I was just out of high school when I came across the book Natural Food Feasts at a thrift store. This fantastic book was written in the 1970s and must have been groundbreaking at the time: each chapter is devoted to food of a specific region of the East. The recipes are exotic, but Shepard went out of her way to ensure that the home cook could, with common ingredients, replicate dishes from China, or Japan, or India. It relies on freshness of food, simplicity of technique, and offers variations and substitutions on almost every dish, making it perfect for a vegan or vegetarian. I am so sad that it’s out of print, and I treasure my beat-up copy.
Perhaps the most wonderful door this cookbook opened for me is the one that led to dried shiitake mushrooms.
I firmly believe there is no more important pantry staple than dried mushrooms, with shiitake reigning king of the dried fungi. I’d no more stock a pantry without dried mushrooms than I would without dried pasta. It is a pantry staple, a condiment, a main dish. When you open a container of dried shiitake you will be greeted with a heady perfume that is reminiscent of dark chocolate. They are earthy, but more than that, they are complex.
Using dried shiitake used to seem like such a chore. I followed the directions in Natural Food Feasts to the letter: I boiled a kettle of water and measured it carefully into a bowl. I added the mushrooms and found another bowl to place on top so that the heat would be trapped and the mushrooms weighed down and submerged. I’d wait a full forty five minutes. I followed the instructions faithfully because dried mushrooms are sublime, but now I know all that isn’t necessary. Maybe it used to be, but the product we have today is far less finicky.
I have tried several brands of mushroom and my favorite by far is Shiitake-Ya*. It sounds strange to say but their dried mushrooms are the freshest I’ve tried. They reconstitute quickly and retain a pleasant texture. It’s worth it to buy sliced shiitake, instead of the full round caps, because they re-hydrate quickly and are easily broken into smaller pieces should you find yourself really pressed for time (or just really hungry).
In some cases I even prefer using dried shiitake to fresh, because you get two ingredients for the price of one: sure you get the meaty hunks of mushroom, but you also get the rich, silky mushroom broth, which can be even better.
Every so often you will be confronted with a package of dried mushrooms that will not tell you how to prepare them. Don’t worry about it, it’s dead easy. You can add the mushrooms to the water once it comes to a boil, or you can add them before you bring them up to temperature. You can leave them simmering, or you can take them off the heat to soak. You can cover them or uncover them.
They are flexible and can work around the dish you add them to, but should you be making them on their own, here’s the basic rundown:
- The recommended ratio of dried mushrooms to water is 1:1. I never bother to measure, though, because once you start using them regularly you’ll get a feel for it.
- Add your water and dried mushrooms to a sauce pan of water. I used a glass kettle because I love to boil in it and because it photographs well, but you certainly don’t have to.
- Bring the water to boil, and I like to keep the lid on the pan (or pot) while they cook to help the rehydration process. If you do this you’ll have to turn the heat down so it won’t boil over, but boiling them uncovered works well, too, it just might take a bit longer.
- I still see recommendations all over the place to boil them for 20 to thirty minutes, but start tasting at the 15 minute mark. You will be surprised how quickly they cook. They will be soft and tender.
- When they are done to your liking, strain them to remove and save that precious cooking liquid. They are ready for stir frys, sautes marinating, or whatever! If I’m not ready to use the broth right away I freeze it in an ice cube try and then store in a zippy bag for later. Be sure they are out of the way so your guests don’t confuse them for ice cubes! We once disappointed a cousin of Anthony’s who put mushroom stock cubes in his Coke.
- Shiitake stems are tough, and while I leave them on while I reconstitute the mushrooms for their broth, they do have to be removed before eating. No amount of soaking will soften them.
Uses for dried shiitake:
SOUP – use the broth in place of water or chicken stock in a recipe. This works especially well with grain soups such as barley or wild rice, and it adds instant complexity to vegetable soup that would otherwise fall flat. You can add the mushrooms themselves toward the end, or just add the dried mushrooms when you start the soup and you’ve added stock and mushrooms in one simple step.
REDUCTION – Have you seen those ads on TV for Swanson’s Flavor Boost? It’s basically just reduced stock, and everything you’d add that chemical concoction to you can add mushroom broth instead. After you’ve strained the mushrooms return the pot to the heat and simmer for awhile until the stock is reduced. It will be thicker, richer, and taste much better in your stir fry or braise.
STEAMED VEGETABLES – Steam those vegetables in flavorful mushroom broth in place of water.
RICE – Along the same lines of vegetable cooking, replace the water for broth when you steam rice or make pilaf. Jasmine rice cooked with shiitake is heavenly. I make it in a rice cooker, and when I don’t have broth on hand I just add the mushrooms to the rice and water and presto, steamed shiitake rice and mushrooms to boot.
RISOTTO – I can’t make risotto anymore without adding dried shiitake. My personal favorite is Shiitake Butternut Risotto and I added mushrooms to the chicken broth for extra mushroom-y flavor.
CREAMY PASTA – Subtract the lemon and add dried mushrooms to Lemon Garlic Chicken Alfredo. My secret shame is that I often add them to boxed alfredo pasta to give the convenience food body and flavor.
RAMEN – What would Bohemian Ramen be without the humble dried mushroom?
*This item is available for sale in my Amazon affiliate store, which means I get a small percentage of each purchase. If you decided to buy them through me, that would be cool. I’d love to keep my daughter in preschool without resorting to writing sponsored posts for V!agra.