Found in the fall throughout North America, maitake mushrooms have been revered for their culinary and medicinal benefits for thousands of years. Their legendary benefits are now backed by hard 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.
Just as there are seasonal fruits and veggies, there are also seasonal mushrooms. For us, our seasonal wild mushroom list includes blewits in the early winter with 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.
Of all these varieties, perhaps the most interesting–and certainly the largest–is maitake (Grifola frondosa), which can weigh 50 pounds or more per mushroom. The largest maitake we’ve ever found was a little under 30 pounds, so imagining one any larger than that giant 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 tree’s dead roots), but apparently they can also be found around elm and maple trees.
The name “maitake” means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, where the mushroom is also native. Why? Well, maitake mushrooms were so highly valued that people would literally dance with joy when they found one – not to mention they could sell the mushrooms for a huge amount of money due to their revered culinary and medicinal benefits. Interestingly, Native Americans also revered these mushrooms, which they called “wishi,” for the same reason as the Japanese.
Maitake Mushrooms: Delicious “Umami” Medicine
Maitake mushrooms are a high protein superfood. You probably know that the five basic tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (aka savory/meaty). Maitake, high in L-glutamate, falls into the fifth taste category, umami, due to its rich, meaty flavor. With 25% protein content and high concentrations of B-Vitamins, it makes a heck of a good meat replacement or meat enhancement. (We find it to be AMAZING in soups!)
As it turns out, the ancient lore around maitake mushroom’s medicinal benefits is also true. Western 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 medicine for free!
A Massive Maitake Harvest… And What To Do With It
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 multicentennial 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 of them back to our car and gently put them in the trunk. Did we dance in accordance with Japanese tradition? You’re dang skippy. In accordance with modern tradition, we also texted photos to certain mushroom foraging family members and posted photos on our social media accounts.
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.
- Then, we made a huge pot of cream of mushroom soup and also threw in a large back 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.
- What to do with the remaining 10+ pounds of maitake mushrooms? Since maitakes freeze well, we chopped it into chunks and put it 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.
- 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. Store it 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.
Eating Forest To Table
The natural world is a grocery store brimming with delicious, medicinal foods. 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.
We’ve never grown our own maitakes since our wild spots produce so prolifically. However, 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 root system as a food source, whereas a cultivated maitake will only have a relatively small amount of wood to eat. If you want to try growing your own maitakes, here are a few options you can get from Amazon:
- 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 new harvest!