Foraged

Maitake mushroom guide: How to find, ID, and eat

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Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) are found from late summer through fall, depending on your climate region. These choice edible and medicinal mushrooms have been revered for thousands of years due to their many benefits. In this guide, you’ll learn how to find, ID, and eat maitake mushrooms. 


Two large, foraged maitake mushrooms in the trunk of our car. Want to learn how to find, ID, and use maitake mushrooms? You'll discover how in this article! 

Two large, foraged maitake mushrooms in the trunk of our car. Want to learn how to find, ID, and use maitake mushrooms? You’ll discover how in this article! 

Use the table of contents (below) to jump right to the section you’re interested in or enjoy the whole article! 

Table of contents: 

1. Introduction to maitake mushrooms
2. How to forage and identify maitake mushrooms (with video!)
3. How to grow maitake mushrooms at home
4. Maitake mushroom nutrition and medicinal information
5. How to clean, process, and store maitake mushrooms
6. Maitake mushroom recipes!

1. Introduction to maitake mushrooms

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 grow at home.

Case in point: maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa), aka hen of the woods, a choice edible gourmet and medicinal mushroom that can be both wild foraged and home grown. 

What do maitake mushrooms taste like?

Properly prepared, maitake mushrooms have a rich, earthy umami flavor and texture that rivals meat. Their excellent flavor is the primary reason they’re such a popular mushroom around the world. 

What are the origins of the name “maitake”?

The name “maitake” means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, where the mushroom is also native. There’s a good reason for this name…

Historically, maitake mushrooms were so highly valued in Japan 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.

Did we dance with joy when we found this giant maitake mushroom? Yes, we did. And we expect you to dance when you find maitakes, too.

Did we dance with joy when we found this giant maitake mushroom? Yes, we did. And we expect you to dance when you find maitakes, too.

Did Native Americans eat maitake mushrooms?

Interestingly, Native Americans also revered maitake mushrooms for the same reasons as other cultures. For instance, the Cherokee people called maitakes “wishi” and revered them as both a food and medicine.

2. How to forage and identify maitake mushrooms

To safely forage maitake mushrooms, you should know when, where, and how they grow. Plus, you should know their key distinguishing features. While there are no poisonous maitake lookalikes in the US, a novice forager should be especially cautious before foraging for any wild mushroom. 

See: Beginner’s guide to foraging, 12 rules to follow 

To start with, it might be helpful for you to see a quick video of maitake mushrooms growing in the wild next to a large oak tree: 

 

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A. WHEN do wild maitake mushrooms grow?

Maitake mushrooms fruit from late summer through late fall depending on your climate zone.

Like plants, wild mushrooms reproduce (e.g. produce fruiting bodies) in correspondence with certain seasons. We live in agricultural zone 7b on the outskirts of Greenville, SC. Here, we find maitakes roughly from Halloween (late October) through Thanksgiving (late November).

B. WHERE and HOW do maitake mushrooms grow in the wild? Which type of trees? 

Maitakes are considered either:

  • weakly parasitic on living trees (growing from the butts or roots close to the base), or
  • saprobic, growing on dead/decomposing roots and tree bases. 

We’ve only ever found maitakes growing at the base of old, dying, or recently deceased oak trees. However, they can also be found growing from elm and maple trees.

This growth habit means wild maitake mushrooms always grow at the base of trees or from roots near the base of trees, NOT from upper portions of trees. Nor will you find maitakes growing in open fields or areas where trees are not present. 

A maitake growing at the base of a living oak tree in late October in Greenville, SC. This was one of six maitakes growing around the same tree.

A maitake growing at the base of a living oak tree in late October in Greenville, SC. This was one of six maitakes growing around the same tree.

C. Maitake mushroom’s key features for identification:

Maitakes have the following feature and characteristics:

  • branching rosette/coral-like structure;
  • brown or gray surface color on top of smooth caps;
  • white pore surface (no gills);
  • soft/tender texture – can be easily cut or snapped;
  • spore print: white 
  • does not stain hands or rapidly oxidize when damaged. 

How large can maitakes grow?

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.

Thus, trying to imagine a 50 pound maitake is a bit intimidating!

Charlie the Cat demonstrating the size of two nice maitake mushrooms we recently found. -How to find and prepare maitake mushrooms

Charlie the cat providing visual context for the size of two large maitake mushrooms we found.

We often find multiple maitakes growing around the same tree, rather than growing as a single fruiting body. Another important note: you’ll find maitakes growing in the same spot at roughly the same time each year until the lignin in the host or dead tree has been completely degraded. 

D. Maitake mushroom lookalikes

Another wonderful attribute of maitake mushrooms: they have no poisonous lookalikes in North America. To be clear, there are other mushrooms that look quite similar to maitakes, the most visually proximate being:

  1. black-staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei), and
  2. Berkeley’s polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi)

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.

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. 

Umbrella polypores, a beautiful and edible maitake lookalike.

Umbrella polypores, a beautiful and edible maitake lookalike.

A beginning mushroom forager might also think cauliflower mushrooms look like maitakes, but once you’ve seen both, there’s no mistaking them. 

3. How to grow maitake mushrooms at home

If you have good maitake mushroom foraging spots that produce dozens of pounds of maitakes each year, you might not need to grow your own. However, if you’re not in prime foraging area or you don’t want to bother with foraging, you can also grow your own maitake mushrooms at home.

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 butt and roots as a food source, whereas a cultivated maitake will only have a relatively small amount of wood to eat (a single log or grow bag).

If you want to grow your own maitakes, here are two good options to consider depending on your circumstances and resources:

Option 1: For OUTDOOR maitake cultivation

Buy inoculated maitake spawn plugs. Then drill holes in freshly cut hardwoods (ideally oak), insert plugs, and coat with wax as per instructions that come with the plugs. 

This option is ideal if you have access to a yard or outdoor areas, plus tools (mainly a power drill).  

Option 2: For INDOOR maitake cultivation

Buy pre-made maitake grow kits and grow your own maitakes from a bag. A good source for maitake kits is MycoLabs

This option is ideal for people without access to yards or outdoor areas, such as people living in cities or apartments.

4. Maitake mushroom nutrition and medicinal information

A. Maitake mushroom nutrition

Maitake mushrooms’ rich umami flavor is primarily owing to high amounts of L-glutamate, an amino acid.

With 25% protein content and high concentrations of D and B vitamins, maitakes can make a good meat replacement — or at least make an excellent savory compliment served on or with meat.

Also, a single 6 ounce serving of maitake mushrooms can deliver about 400% of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin D.

B. Maitake mushroom medicinal benefits

In addition to tasting great, maitake mushrooms are also chock full of interesting health-promoting compounds. 

The ancient lore around maitake mushrooms’ medicinal benefits is starting to find support in modern medical research studies. Among other benefits, research has shown that maitake mushrooms:

  • stimulates both the innate and adaptive immune systems,
  • lowers blood sugar (which is especially helpful if you have diabetes), and
  • inhibits cancer cell growth.

Take a deeper dive into the medicinal literature via Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center integrative medicine guide to maitake mushrooms

If you forage maitake mushrooms, you also get the added benefits of exercising outdoors and forest bathing

5. How to clean, process, and store maitake mushrooms

Commercially grown maitake mushrooms are usually under 2 pounds in weight and don’t have dirt, grit, bugs, etc. 

A cross section view of a maitake mushroom. You can see where the dirt-covered base attached to an underground root (bottom right) and the branching structure that formed as the mushroom grew. This wild-foraged mushroom will require quite a bit of cleaning and processing before it's ready to eat!

A cross section view of a maitake mushroom. You can see where the dirt-covered base attached to an underground root (bottom right) and the branching structure that formed as the mushroom grew. This wild-foraged mushroom will require some work before it’s ready to eat!

Wild foraged maitakes often require quite a bit of cleaning and processing before they’re ready to eat or store.

Here’s how to clean and process a wild-foraged maitake mushroom: 

  1. Using a knife, cut off the dirt- or mulch-covered areas on the underside of the mushroom around the stem. Only remove the dirty outer surface areas, leaving as much of the mushroom flesh as possible. 
  2. Cut and/or pull the maitake into smaller hand-sized chunks (about 6 ounces each by weight). This allows you to more easily clean individual pieces while also checking the internal crevices for millipedes, slugs, insects, etc. A small brush is helpful for this step. 
  3. ONLY if necessary, briefly spray pieces of maitakes under a kitchen sprayer. Water-logged maitakes don’t store or freeze as well.   

If you plan to make soups or other recipes that call for small pieces, go ahead and cut your maitakes accordingly. If you plan to make recipes like maitake steaks that require larger chunks, leave them in the larger sized pieces from when you cleaned them. 

How to process maitake mushrooms - Diced maitake mushrooms (in back bowl) are ideal for soups and broths. Larger chunks of chopped maitakes (in freezer bags) are good for maitake steaks. 

Diced maitake mushrooms (in back bowl) are ideal for soups and broths. Larger chunks of chopped maitakes (in freezer bags) are good for maitake steaks, lacto-fermentation, etc. 

Do maitake mushrooms freeze well?  

Yes, maitake mushrooms freeze well so long as you use vacuum-sealed freezer bags

Dehydrating maitake mushrooms and making mushroom powder

One of our favorite ways to preserve large amounts of mushrooms is dehydrating them… If you have a dehydrator, you might also want to consider drying your maitake mushrooms and/or turning them into mushroom powder.

Like all mushrooms, 80-90% of a maitake’s weight is water. That means 10 pounds of fresh maitake mushroom will become 1-2 pounds of dried mushroom, which drastically reduces their storage space. We use an Excalibur dehydrator set to ~120F to dry maitakes in about 24 hours. (Put your dehydrator outside unless you want to breath in spores and have your house smell like a giant maitake!)

Once dried, you can either store the dehydrated mushroom pieces in jars or ziplock bags. Or you can go one step further and turn them into powder in a blender or food processor. Maitake mushroom powder is our preferred dry storage method since it saves so much space and makes it very easy to add them to food (just throw a few tablespoons into soups and sauces as you’re cooking!)   

6. Maitake mushroom recipes

Are you trying to figure out how to put your maitake mushrooms to their highest and best use? We’ve got you covered. 

Below are our favorite maitake recipes. Click the links to go to the recipe you’d like to try! 

1. Red wine maitake mushroom steaks (Difficulty level: easy | Time: 15 minutes) 

Red wine maitake mushroom steak recipe

2. Thai-inspired maitake mushroom soup based on tom kha ghai (Difficulty level: medium | Time: 1 hour)

Our maitake mushroom soup inspired by Thai tom kha gai.

3. American groundnut and maitake mushroom chowder (Difficulty level: medium | Time: 2 hours)

American groundnut and maitake mushroom chowder made with seasonal ingredients we value like gold.

More on eating fungi-to-table…

The natural world is a grocery store brimming with delicious, healthful foods. However, before you go “shopping” in the wild, you have to learn the rules so you know what is safe to eat and what isn’t.

When it comes to fungi, two helpful books we recommend are:

  1. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms;
  2. 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.

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!

KIGI,

Did you enjoy this maitake mushroom article? Please consider sharing it to Pinterest!

Did you enjoy this maitake mushroom article? Please consider sharing it to Pinterest!

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