Found in late summer through fall, maitake mushrooms have been revered for their culinary and medicinal benefits for thousands of years. Those legendary benefits are now backed by modern science.
We LOVE mushrooms. Nope, not the boring button mushrooms you get at the grocery store, but the interesting and indescribably flavorful varieties you can learn to forage in the woods or cultivate in your garden.
Fall Maitake Mushrooms and Other Seasonal Fungi
Just as there are seasonal fruits and veggies, there are also seasonal mushrooms.
A few of our favorite seasonal wild mushrooms include blewits in early winter; morels in the late winter/early spring; chanterelles, lactarius, boletes, and chicken of the woods in the summer; and lion’s manes and maitakes in the fall.
Maitake, the “Dancing Mushroom”
Of all these fungal species, perhaps the most interesting – and possibly largest – is maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa). Each maitake mushroom can weigh up to 50 pounds.
The largest maitake we’ve ever found was a little under 30 pounds, and we had trouble getting it to fit in the trunk of our car. Imagining a 50 pound maitake is a bit intimidating!
Where do maitake mushrooms grow?
We’ve always found them at the base of old, sick or dying oak trees (they eat the lignin in the tree’s dying roots). Maitakes can also be found around elm and maple trees.
The name “maitake” means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, where the mushroom is also native. There’s a good reason for this name…
Maitake mushrooms were so highly valued that people would literally dance with joy when they found one. Not to mention, they could sell their maitake mushrooms for a huge amount of money due to their revered culinary and medicinal benefits.
Interestingly, Native Americans also revered maitake mushrooms for the same reasons. (The Cherokee people called them “wishi” and revered them as food and medicine.)
Maitake Mushrooms: Delicious “Umami” Medicine
Maitake mushrooms are a high-protein food chock full of interesting health-promoting compounds. They also taste great.
You probably know that the five basic tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (aka savory/meaty). Maitake mushrooms, high in L-glutamate, fall into the fifth taste category, umami, due to their rich, meaty flavor.
With 25% protein content and high concentrations of B-Vitamins, maitakes make a heck of a good meat replacement or meat enhancement.
We love using maitakes in soup recipes.
Do maitake mushrooms have medicinal benefits?
As it turns out, the ancient lore around maitake mushrooms’ medicinal benefits is also true. Among other benefits, modern science has confirmed that eating maitake mushrooms:
- stimulates both the innate and adaptive immune system,
- lowers blood sugar (which is especially helpful if you have diabetes), and
- inhibits cancer cell growth.
This is one of the many reasons we love foraging. We can go out in the woods for an afternoon hike and harvest a year’s worth of delicious gourmet medicine for free!
Maitake mushrooms have no poisonous lookalikes
Another wonderful attribute of maitake mushrooms is that they have no poisonous lookalikes in North America. This makes them an ideal mushroom for beginning foragers.
To be clear, there are other mushrooms that look quite similar to maitakes, the most visually proximate being:
These two lookalikes are technically edible, but are not nearly as highly regarded as maitakes for their culinary properties, partly because they can be quite tough in texture.
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Another somewhat close lookalike to maitakes that we think is arguably an even better edible is umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus). These are quite rare – we’ve only found three of them in over a decade of mushroom foraging, and we jumped for joy each time.
A beginning mushroom forager might also think cauliflower mushrooms look like maitakes, but once you’ve seen both, there’s no mistaking them.
A massive maitake mushroom harvest… and what to do with lots of maitakes
Another wonderful thing about foraging is that you get to intimately know and connect with the wild areas around you.
During certain times of the year, we know exactly where to go to find certain wild fruits, veggies, herbs, and mushrooms that we don’t grow at home.
This is certainly true of maitakes. In our area (Greenville, South Carolina), mid-late November means it’s time to go to our favorite secret maitake tree, a massive old oak that’s probably 10 years away from the end of its multi-centennial life.
Its roots are slowly dying, providing ever more food for the saprobic maitake fungi that is slowly breaking down the root’s lignin (the polymer in plant cells that gives trees and other plants their tough, woody structure).
Once the lignin is compromised, the mushroom is able to access the cellulose in the plant cells. (This is akin to us cracking open a hard shell in order to eat the nut inside.)
If mushrooms like maitakes hadn’t come along, trees would not be decomposed and we’d end up with huge deposits of carbon, as happened in the Carboniferous Period.
Over time and under massive pressure and heat, all that carbon eventually formed vast deposits of underground fossil fuels. Yes, if white rot fungi, of which maitakes are a member species, had come along and figured out how to break down lignin earlier, we wouldn’t have fossil fuels today.
Each year we go back to our secret oak tree, our maitake harvest gets larger as its food source grows. This year, there were four huge maitake mushrooms growing at the base of the tree.
Two of them had just passed prime and two were in absolutely peak condition–still brown on the top surfaces, moist, and tender. In total, there was far more than we could carry, much less fit into our storage freezer.
We lugged two maitakes back to our car and gently put them in the trunk. Did we dance in accordance with Japanese tradition? Dang right we did.
In accordance with modern tradition, we also texted photos of our giant haul to certain mushroom-foraging family members and posted photos on our social media accounts.
How to process and store lots of maitake mushrooms
Once home, we took a few more photos to commemorate the glorious harvest and set to work processing our maitake mushrooms for long-term use.
First, we made a huge pot of turkey dumpling soup featuring maitake mushrooms and left over Thanksgiving turkey. This was for immediate consumption throughout the week.
Next, we made a huge pot of cream of mushroom soup and also threw in a large bag of dried chanterelles we’d had in our cupboard for a couple of years. (The combination of maitake + chanterelle flavor is divine.)
We cooled this soup and stored it in our freezer for long-term use to be used as-is or added to certain recipes that call for cream of mushroom soup.
2020 update: check out our maitake soup recipe, inspired by Thai tom kha gai soup!
What to do with the remaining 10+ pounds of maitake mushrooms?
Since maitake mushrooms do freeze well, we chopped them into chunks and put them in freezer bags. We’ve given away quite a bit to friends and family and the rest will be stored in our freezer until we’re preparing a recipe that requires savory mushrooms.
Need other ideas that work well for storing this much mushroom?
If you have a dehydrator, you might also want to consider making maitake powder. (We love our Excalibur dehydrator, which we’ve used almost weekly for 10 years.)
Like all mushrooms, 80-90% of a maitake’s weight is water. That means 10 pounds of fresh mushroom will become 1-2 pounds of dried mushroom, which you can then throw into a blender to turn into powder.
Then store the powdered maitake in a ziplock or a spice jar and add it to soups, spice rubs, etc as-needed.
Maitakes picked at their peak should be fairly easy to clean. Trim off the base where the mushroom touched the ground, pull of any leaves or sticks that the mushroom enveloped while growing, and get rid of any bugs that happen to be residing in the internal pockets.
The natural world is a grocery store brimming with delicious, medicinal foods. However, before “shopping” there, you just have to learn the rules so you know what is safe to eat and what isn’t.
Three of the best books we can recommend to help get you started:
- Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer;
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms;
- Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation by our friend Tradd Cotter. This book is especially helpful if you want to bring the forest to your garden by growing your own gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.
Grow Your Own Maitake Mushrooms
We’ve never grown our own maitakes since our wild spots produce so prolifically.
According to mycologist Paul Stamets, cultivated maitakes only grow to clusters weighing a couple of pounds. This is likely due to the fact that a wild maitake has a massive underground tree root system as a food source, whereas a cultivated maitake will only have a relatively small amount of wood to eat (a single log).
If you want to grow your own maitakes, here are a few good options:
- inoculated maitake plugs that you can drill into logs or tree stumps;
- maitake growing kit;
- pre-inoculated maitake log.
Whether you’re wild-foraging or growing your own maitakes, we hope you enjoy these gourmet medicinal mushrooms and dance with joy every time you get a harvest!