Foraged Recipes

Wood ear mushrooms: how to forage, grow, and eat

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In this article, you’ll find out how to forage, identify, grow, and eat edible and medicinal wood ear mushrooms! 


Table of contents:

I. Introduction to wood ear mushrooms
II. How to forage & identify wood ear mushrooms
III. How to grow wood ear mushrooms
IV. How to eat wood ear mushrooms
V. Wood ear mushroom health and medicinal benefits
VI. Recipe: Wood ear mushroom and asparagus salad with citrus miso dressing

Wood ear mushrooms fruiting on a dead branch in South Carolina.

Wood ear mushrooms fruiting on a dead branch.

I. Introduction to wood ear mushrooms

Wood ear mushrooms (Auricularia spp.) are a clade of visually distinct edible mushroom species that can be found on multiple continents and in a diversity of climate regions around the world, from the tropics to cold temperate forests. These mushrooms are especially prized in Asian cultures and cuisines (often called “black fungus”) where they’re used in soups, salads, dumplings, and other savory foods.

Wood ears mushrooms don’t offer much flavor on their own, although they absorb the flavors of whatever dish they’re added to. Unassisted, their flavor might best be described as mildly earthy. (Wood ears should only be eaten cooked, not raw.)

Asian-inspired wood ear mushroom and asparagus salad with miso citrus dressing. (Recipe at bottom of article.) This is a great use of wood ear mushrooms!

Asian-inspired wood ear mushroom and asparagus salad with miso citrus dressing. (Recipe at bottom of article.) This is a great use of wood ear mushrooms!

Despite their lack of flavor, wood ear’s chewy, rubbery texture adds a wonderfully unique mouthfeel to dishes. In many cultures, these mushrooms have also been used medicinally. Interestingly, modern scientific research is beginning to affirm the efficacy of many of their traditional medicinal uses, as we’ll detail below.   

Different common names

Wood ears have many common names including ear fungus, tree ear fungus, jellyfish fungus, jelly ear fungus, and black fungus. While there are slight visual differences between wood ear species, they all generally:

  • resemble ears (or perhaps jellyfish),
  • grow on dead or dying trees and rotting wood, and
  • are dark in color (nearly black when dried).

North American wood ear mushroom species

There are at least four known species of wood ear mushrooms that grow in North America: 

1. Auricularia americana – Description: Wide geographic distribution; red-brown color. The only wood ear species that grows on dead conifer wood. 

2. Auricularia angiospermarum – Description: Same as A. americana, but grows on hardwoods. This is the primary wood ear species we find growing in our area (Upstate South Carolina). 

3. Auricularia fuscosuccinea – Description: Only grows in the south and features a lighter yellow-brown color. 

4. Auricularia nigricans – Description: In the US, it’s only found in Florida and Louisiana; it’s more common in the Caribbean and South America. More cup-like shape and harrier cap surface relative to other wood ear species.  

II. How to forage and identify wood ear mushrooms

Wood ear mushrooms are fairly common and easy-to-identify. Since wood ears are edible and very difficult to mistake for poisonous mushrooms, they’re a good mushroom for beginning foragers. 

Here’s how to forage and identify wood ear mushrooms: 

1. When to find wood ear mushrooms:

The best time to find wood ear mushrooms is in the cool months of spring and fall. Look immediately after heavy rains. The rain part is especially important because wood ear mushrooms significantly enlarge when they’re saturated, then shrink and desiccate under dry conditions making them much harder to spot. 

These dried wood ear mushrooms don't stand out nearly as prominently as when they're saturated.

These dried wood ear mushrooms don’t stand out nearly as prominently as when they’re saturated.

In warmer southern climates like ours (Zone 7b), we also find wood ear mushrooms in the winter, but not in the summer. 

2. Ecology:

Wood ear mushrooms only eat decaying wood, not living tree tissue. You will not find them growing out of soil or leaf litter. 

Most wood ear fungi species are saprobic to hardwoods, although Auricularia americana can be found on conifers. The ecological role of these fungi is to decompose wood, unlocking the nutrients within the cells and recycling them into bioavailable forms in the soil for other trees/plants to utilize. 

3. Appearance and features:

  • Fruiting bodies can be solitary but are usually clustered.
  • Can form on logs or even small branches of dead or dying trees. 
  • Ear-shaped and attached to wood via very short stalk.
A closer look at the stalk attaching the fruiting body of a wood ear mushroom to the wood it's digesting.

A closer look at the stalk attaching the fruiting body of a wood ear mushroom to the wood it’s digesting.

  • When saturated, texture is rubbery and gelatinous but not squishy or brittle. When dry, they’re hard and crunchy. 
  • Depending on species, color can range from pale brown to dark brown with hints of yellow or auburn.
  • Caps are very thin and can range in size from 1/2″ to 4″. Darker-colored top surface of caps is smooth or slightly hairy/fuzzy; lighter-colored  bottom surface is smooth.    
  • Spore print: white. 
Wood ear mushroom identification - A closer look at the top surface of wood ear mushroom caps (left) and bottom spore-emitting surface (right).

A closer look at the top surface of wood ear mushroom caps (left) and bottom spore-emitting surface (right).

Wood ear mushroom lookalikes

As we detail in our beginner’s guide to foraging, you should never eat any wild plant or fungi you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly identified and know to be edible. Thankfully, wood ear mushrooms are fairly easy to identify and do not have deadly lookalikes, although they do have a few benign lookalikes that you may want to be aware of. 

1. Witch’s butter

In our area, we see both yellow witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica and Tremella aurantia) and brown witch’s butter (Exidia recisa). Due to its color, yellow witch’s butter is impossible to mistake for wood ear. However, brown witch’s butter looks similar to wood ear.

The easiest way to tell them apart: brown witch’s butter is smaller, more gelatinous/squishy, and has a more clumped growth formation. Witch’s butter is also edible.  

Brown witch's butter fungi (Exidia recisa).

Brown witch’s butter fungi (Exidia recisa).

2. Cup fungi

Some species of cup fungi have a similar color and shape to wood ear mushrooms. However, most cup fungi species grow on the forest floor (not on wood) and their caps easily break when you bend them (unlike wood ears, whose caps are rubbery and flexible).

Harvesting and storing wood ear fungi

Harvesting dry wood ear fungi is not recommended or you’ll end up tearing out large pieces of bark and wood that are attached to the mushroom’s stalk. Instead, harvest when the mushrooms are saturated after a rain or soaking from a garden hose. 

You can either pull the mushrooms off the wood or use a sharp knife to cut them where their stalk attaches to the wood. 

After harvest, you’ll most certainly need to do a bit more surgery to remove small bits of bark around the stalk. Before cooking, give the mushrooms a final rinse to remove any remaining debris. 

A wood ear mushroom after being pulled off a log. This mushroom will need to have the bark bits cut off with a knife and be washed before cooking or storing.

A wood ear mushroom after being pulled off a log. This mushroom will need to have the bark bits cut off with a knife and be washed before cooking or storing.

Once cleaned, you can store fresh wood ear mushrooms in a jar or bag in your fridge for one week. For long-term storage, dry them by laying them on a cookie sheet or cooling rack for a few days before storing them in jars or bags. Dried wood ear mushrooms stored in airtight containers in a pantry can last for many years. 

III. How to grow wood ear mushrooms

In Asia, wood ear mushrooms are often grown on spawn bags in large commercial operations. Since they’re not a commonly eaten or cultivated mushroom here in the US, you can’t currently buy spawn bags or grow kits.

However, wood ear mushrooms are quite simple to grow outdoors even if you have zero experience growing mushrooms. For instance, we grow native Auricularia angiospermarum wood ear mushrooms on some of the logs outlining our garden paths and beds — and you can too!

Wood ear mushrooms on a log outlining a path in our garden. These are just starting to fruit in December.

Wood ear mushrooms on a log outlining a path in our garden. These are just starting to fruit in December.

Here’s how you can grow your own wood ear mushrooms in your yard or garden:

Step 1: Forage your own native wood ear mushrooms using the guidelines provided above. 

Step 2: Get logs or branches cut within the past month. Three out of four native North American wood ear mushroom species consume hardwood trees; only Auricularia americana consumes conifers. For your new logs/branches that you intend to inoculate, try to use the same species of wood that you found your original foraged wood ears growing on. 

Step 3: Put the logs/wood in a fully shaded spot and wet them with a hose or sprayer. Then place saturated wood ear mushrooms bottom-surface-down on the wood, which will allow the emitted spores to land on the wood and inoculate it. Once per day over the next week, lightly mist or water the mushroom logs. 

Step 4. After two weeks, you can place your logs where you want them to outline a path or bed in your garden. Or just leave them in place as part of a mushroom garden feature in your yard. It may take 8-12 months for your first wood ear mushrooms to fruit. 

A log from our garden with fruiting wood ear mushrooms.

A log from our garden with fruiting wood ear mushrooms.

Want a lazier approach or don’t have your own yard/garden? Simply place freshly foraged wood ear mushrooms atop recently fallen trees or branches in an outdoor space that you have access to, then wait.  

IV. How to eat wood ear mushrooms

As previously mentioned, wood ear mushrooms are nearly flavorless. However, they absorb the flavors of the foods they’re used in while providing a unique mouthfeel akin to a rubbery noodle.

Harvested and cleaned wood ear mushrooms ready to be cooked and eaten.

Harvested and cleaned wood ear mushrooms ready to be cooked and eaten.

If you’ve eaten soups at Chinese and other Asian restaurants, you’ve most likely already eaten wood ear mushrooms (aka black fungi). Other than soups, our favorite way to eat wood ear mushrooms is in chilled Asian-inspired salads using fresh produce and potted citrus from our garden (see recipe at bottom of article).        

Only eat wood mushrooms after cooking, never raw. If using fresh, hydrated wood ear mushrooms, make sure any bark has been trimmed from the stalks and debris washed off prior to cooking. If you’re buying dried wood ear mushrooms, try to source certified organic mushrooms to reduce the likelihood of pesticides or other contaminants (here’s a good brand).  

When making dishes like wood ear mushroom salad, some sources say to boil the mushrooms prior to use. However, this cooking method means many of the nutrients and medicinal compounds will leach into the water that you’ll toss down your drain. Instead, we recommend:

  1. a quick soak in cold water just long enough to rehydrate the mushrooms (about 30 minutes),
  2. steaming them in a basket/metal strainer over boiling water for 10 minutes (which doesn’t remove their nutrients or healthful compounds). 

V. Health and medicinal benefits

Need another reason to eat wood ear mushrooms? They have many unique health and medicinal benefits. 

Wood ear mushrooms have a long history of medicinal use, and modern research has confirmed many of these traditional uses. Examples of wood ear mushrooms proven medicinal benefits: 

  • Exhibit antimicrobial action against E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, both of which can be deadly to humans. (source)
  • Prevention of epileptic seizures. (source
  • Treatment and prevention of numerous types of neurological disorders. (source)
  • Potent antioxidant capacities. (source)
  • Anti-tumor effects. (source)
  • Weight control and cholesterol modulation. (source)

Not a bad resume for a brown, ear-shaped mushroom that eats dead trees!

VI. Recipe: Wood ear mushroom and asparagus salad with citrus miso dressing

Want a simple-to-make wood ear mushroom recipe that shows off the culinary potential of this unique medicinal mushroom? We’ve got you covered with our wood ear-asparagus salad recipe! 

Wood ear and asparagus salad with miso-citrus dressing.

wood ear mushroom salad recipe with miso citrus dressing
Print

Wood ear mushroom and asparagus salad with citrus miso dressing

Course: Appetizer, Salad
Cuisine: American, Asian
Keyword: wood ear mushroom salad, wood ear mushrooms
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cool time: 1 hour
Servings: 2
Author: Aaron von Frank

A savory, slightly sweet Asian-inspired salad made with wood ear mushrooms and asparagus, seasoned with citrus miso salad dressing.

Ingredients

For dressing

  • 2.5 tbsp fresh citrus juice (We use four ripe calamondin oranges. Tangerine or Meyer lemon juice is best alternative to ripe calamondins.)
  • 2 tsp organic mellow white miso
  • 1/2 tsp whole sichuan pepper (pan toast then grind)
  • 1 tsp coriander (pan toast then grind)
  • 1/2 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • pinch of freshly grated ginger

For salad

  • 1 cup wood ear mushrooms, measured hydrated not dried
  • 4 fresh raw asparagus spears chopped into small rounds (We use combination of purple and green asparagus - note that freshly harvested asparagus is way better than store-bought!)
  • 1 green onion leaf cut into small rounds (alternate: onion or garlic chives)
  • (optional) few tablespoons of thinly sliced citrus peel (We use peels from ~2 calamondins. Only use peel if using citrus with good edible peels like kumquats, Meyer lemons, calamondins, etc.)
  • 4 tbsp  cilantro leaves - about a palm full  (Also consider using a teaspoon of crushed green coriander if you have it available)
  • seasonal edible flowers for garnish (In pictures, we used cilantro, kale, and onion chive flowers)

Instructions

  1. Start by toasting coriander and sechuan pepper corns in a pan over medium heat until slightly toasted and aromatic (about 2-3 minutes). Transfer to mortar and pestle, let cool, then grind into powder. Juice calamondins. Then combine all salad dressing ingredients and mix. Set aside.  

  2. Bring pot of water to boil then steam-cook your hydrated (*not dried) wood ear mushrooms over boiling water for 10 minutes. While mushrooms are steaming, slice asparagus into small rounds and prep other fresh ingredients (green onions, cilantro). 

    *If starting with dried wood ear mushrooms, rehydrate them in cold water for 30 minutes before steaming.

  3. Remove mushrooms from heat, pour into bowl, and toss mushrooms in salad dressing. Let come to room temperature then add other fresh ingredients (except for garnish). Stir to combine, then refrigerate for at least one hour. Garnish and serve. 

And now you knowhow to forage, identify, grow, and eat edible and medicinal wood ear mushrooms! 

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

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