Steeped to a soft plumpness, dried black mushrooms exude an earthy fragrance and deep umami notes that form the backbone of many Chinese dishes. These mushrooms are enjoyed in a wide array of dishes as a flavouring and textural component, and also during Lunar New Year for their symbolism. Although dried black mushrooms are relatively easy to incorporate into a variety of cooking methods, a little preparation and informed shopping will put you ahead of the game in terms of using these versatile ingredients.
Dark and toothsome shiitake mushrooms may be one of the most commonly available or familiar varieties within North America, found both wild and cultivated throughout China and Japan for centuries (one mycological society says that traces of these mushrooms can be found as far back as the cretaceous period). Dried black mushrooms are often divided into three categories, escalating in both thickness and price: fragrant (xiang gu), winter (dong gu) and flower mushrooms (huagu). Mushroom connoisseurs often seek out flower mushrooms for their thicker and more fulsome caps, which have a cracked petal-like appearance. These flower designations are sometimes further broken down into other subcategories, such as white flower mushrooms, which are lighter in colour and thicker in texture, with an according rise in price.
Black mushrooms are sold both fresh and dried in many major supermarkets and Chinese grocery stores, in clear plastic bags that are generally 400 to 600 grams. Be sure to inspect the caps before buying: some experts warn against flower mushrooms that have striations that appear too even and can be cuts made by unscrupulous manufacturers.
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Dried black mushrooms, much like other dried fruits and vegetables, do better in a dark and dry pantry or area of the refrigerator in an airtight bag or container. Keeping moisture out is key, as dried mushrooms can easily grow mold and spoil. Stored properly, dried mushrooms have a long shelf life (be sure to check the packaging for an expiry date), but may lose some of their fragrance over time.
Black mushrooms have soft and fleshy caps when rehydrated, but the stems remain chewy and tough, no matter how long they soak, and are best removed (the stems can be reserved to make stock or soup).
Although many recipes call for soaking dried black mushrooms in hot or boiling water for 15 minutes to make them pliable enough to use, a cold overnight soak allows the mushrooms to retain more of their fragrance. This stage is a golden opportunity to infuse them with further flavour without much added effort. My mother, ever the efficient cook, uses this stage to prepare the mushrooms so that they can be added directly to soup noodles, braised dishes or at the end of a stir-fry rather than waiting for them to cook. There are a few ways to prepare these mushrooms using either the stovetop, the microwave, or boiling hot water, and all three methods produce mushrooms that can be eaten plain, used in salads, to top rice or added to cooked dishes.
Note that thinner fragrant mushrooms will cook faster and require less soaking time while flower mushrooms may take a bit longer for both elements.
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Quick, high heat method:
Lower heat method:
Boiling water method
Curious about incorporating dried black mushrooms into your cooking routine? These versatile fungi can be added to just about any dish that might feature mushrooms. For a more traditional Chinese approach, try adding them to the table for your next Chinese hot pot night or to your next batch of hot and sour soup or congee. They also work great as the base of a hearty mushroom risotto (be sure to use that soaking liquid as your stock!) or tossed with a simple quinoa salad. The options are endless!
Looking for more mushroom inspiration? Try these Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Sweet Potato and Black Beans.