[see also Black Trumpet Mushrooms]
This blog post is not to be used for mushroom identification purposes. If you are interested in wild mushrooms you should seek professional (and possibly psychiatric) help. I take no responsibility for the consequences of your bad judgment. I have enough trouble dealing with the consequences of my own.
Last fall, my friend Charles and I collected a number of Grifola frondosa mushrooms. Commonly known as "hen of the woods" or "maitake" mushrooms, they are easy to spot and identify . Being novice mushroom collectors, we decided that it would be best to start with a type that was simple to identify and fairly easy to locate. We ended up collecting about twenty or thirty pounds of maitake between the two of us. It was so much that it would have been impossible for us to eat it all before it went limp in the refrigerator.
My wife has less interest in this sort of thing than I do. She is a bit more down to earth and prefers her food to come from somewhere other than the base of a tree at the side of a country road. Even if she had been more enthusiastic about the earthy flavor of these hen of the woods mushrooms, we never would have eaten our entire share in the short time that they were available.
Charles had the same dilemma. His wife, though more interested, was pregnant at the time. Their other child was only three and it seemed a bit dangerous to start feeding him wild mushrooms at such a young age. The obvious solution was to experiment with various means of storing our bounty. Between the two of us, we tried three methods of preservation: canning, drying and loose freezing. I thought it might be interesting to report on the results of these experiments and to pass along what we learned in the process.
Hen of the woods mushrooms are found in the northeast between late August (in Maine) and November (southern New York). In Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, we had good luck from late September through the end of October, 2008. We got started a little late, however. Charles reports that his wife spotted the first Grifola already, during the last week of August. So the hunt is on.
The Grifola frondosa mushrooms that we collected last year were up to a foot in diameter and ranged from one to five pounds in weight. They look a bit like the grey-brown children of a cauliflower and a coral. They do not taste very good raw but, freshly picked and sauteed, they are richly flavorful mushrooms that cook up nicely in butter and garlic. Frondosa make a brilliant side dish and a delicious mushroom soup. They go well with poultry and would be a great addition to chicken or turkey stuffing. I like them with my eggs instead of home fries. One might substitute these mushrooms anywhere that a cooked portabello would be appropriate but where twice as much flavor is acceptable. It is always bad form, of course, to serve wild mushrooms to anyone who is not very excited and completely aware of the potential consequences of mis-identification, so I did not experiment too widely with larger-scale preparations and was hesitant to involve my extended family in the process. In the end, my sister was the only one brave enough to try one. She was thrilled with the result and will be excited to hear that the season is once more upon us.
The methods that I, personally, used for storage were loose freezing (as opposed to vacuum freezing) and drying. I bought a vacuum bag sealer too late in the process but intend to try this method soon as an alternative to loose freezing.
To freeze the mushrooms, I used the following process:
- I washed each head in a large pot. To do so, I filled the pot with water, turned the head upside down and dunked it forcefully into and out of the water until the water was dirtier than the mushroom itself. This process was repeated with fresh water until there was no more dirt to come free.
- Next, I separate the heads into smaller, cauliflower-like, stalks, picked out the twigs, cut off the embedded dirty bits and rewashed the remaining stalks thoroughly again.
- I then dried the stalks and froze them overnight on a cookie sheet. This helped keep the stalks from freezing together so that I would be able to thaw only what I needed for any given recipe.
- Once frozen, I placed the stalks into Ziplock® freezer bags and pressed out all the air I could. This was a real challenge, as the frozen stalks had a lot of air between them and were sharp enough to penetrate a freezer bag.
To dry the mushrooms I used a similar process, the only difference being that I placed the cookie sheet in a warm oven on the lowest setting (170 degrees) with the oven door open. I let them sit like this for perhaps 24 hours, warming up the oven every few hours and then shutting it off. In the end, I closed the oven door for an hour with the heat on. I think I would probably experiment with closed door drying next time, as this seemed to dry them much more quickly. I don't want to cook them, though, so this will require some experimentation. My result, however, was quite satisfactory. The pieces were extremely lightweight, shriveled and could be easily snapped without bending, even at their thickest points. An entire three pound maitake, dessicated, can fit into a 16 ounce hummus container, and I have successfully stored such a mushroom for an entire year.
To can mushroom soup base, you are pretty much on your own. I did not prepare the mushrooms this way, so I cannot give any advice except the basics and to suggest that canning is a potentially dangerous process so you should proceed with caution. Charles found the recipe here and, against the advice of the author, substituted chicken stock for water. He also held out the cream, to be added after the can was opened. It was a delicious, peppery soup that went well with poultry and winter vegetables.
Preparation of Stored Mushrooms
The frozen mushrooms were easily thawed and prepared just as if they were fresh. As time went on, however, they began to exchange odors in the freezer with my other frozen goods. They also became tougher as the water from the mushrooms turned to frosty crystals on the stalks and florets. After three months, I lost interest in the frozen version and, after six months, I tossed the remaining pieces.
I had kept the dried mushrooms in a small container in the back of our kitchen storage cabinet. I had not bothered to reconstitute any of them until this weekend for no reason except laziness and the fact that nobody else in my household was likely to eat them with me. The coming mushroom season made me curious, however, so last night I decided to soak enough for breakfast.
This morning I tried the reconstituted Grifola frondosa, and they are definitely worth the trouble. They were a bit less tender than fresh but, considering their year in storage, plumped up more than I expected. I compensated by cutting them smaller than I would have with fresh, and they were a tasty side to my morning eggs. I would consider them as a fun, healthy alternative to bacon or home fries.
To prepare dried hen of the woods mushrooms:
- Place the dessicated bits in a bowl and cover them with plenty of warm water. Place a plate on top to keep out any insects or stray debris.
- Let them sit for 30 minutes or more, until they are elastic and easily cut with a sharp kitchen knife. They will not grow back to their original size, and the stalks will remain somewhat shriveled. I estimate that they are perhaps half their former size.
- I chose to slice the pieces more thinly than I would have with fresh or frozen mushrooms. I diced them into 3mm to 5mm bits and pan fried them with salt and butter. The results were exceptional. If I'd had garlic on hand, I imagine that the flavor would have been indistinguishable from fresh. They could easily be substituted for fresh mushrooms anywhere that diced bits would be acceptable.
Reconstituted mushroom observations:
- The reconstituted pieces were a little bit tougher than fresh or freshly frozen mushrooms. The stalks were the toughness of, perhaps, al dente green beans (without any unpleasant stringiness), the fronds were almost as tender as fresh -- the texture reminded me of a seaweed salad.
- The reconstituted mushrooms were not quite as fragrant while cooking. This is not a bad thing, really, as the fresh mushrooms have the tendency to fill a room and linger -- a bit like lobster -- well after the meal is over. Twenty minutes after cooking the dried version, the smell was almost gone. If they were fresh, I would have been smelling them for 24 hours. This may have something to do with the lack of garlic, however, so I will need to test this with garlic later.
Compared to freezing in loose bags, except for the very short-term, drying is definitely preferable. The resulting product they will keep indefinitely and can be stored without electricity in a very small space. I think I would prefer this method for long-term storage even to freezing in vacuum-sealed bags. However, vacuum freezing gives easier access without reconstituting and, if done correctly, will probably give a better result for at least the first three to six months.
Canning is a great way to provide quick access to a liquid version but is obviously less flexible than drying or freezing. Soup could easily be made from the dried stalks, and I imagine there would be no discernible difference in flavor. The difference would be in the prep time. It is always nice to have a nice can of soup on hand on a cold winter day.