Before the 1960s, taste was described using four words: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Today, thanks in part to the shiitake mushroom, we use a fifth: umami. This sensation is caused by a chemical called guanosine monophosphate, which is found in large amounts in shiitake mushrooms. Add them to soups and salads, in place of button or cremini mushrooms in any recipe, or use as a substitute for your protein in vegetarian versions of your favorite dishes. Here's how to make the most out of this meaty mushroom.
Find the Fungi that Fits
Shiitake mushrooms are found in two forms: dried and fresh. Just like any produce, fresh is always preferred if you can find it, but if you can't, dried shiitake can be acceptable for soups or in sauces, and due to the drying process can have even more flavor than the fresh kind. If a recipe is going to put the mushrooms out front without the benefit of sauces or accompanying flavors, though, stick to the fresh variety, which will have a more pleasing texture.
Cleaning and Preparing Shiitake
Mushrooms are porous, which makes them moisture magnets. To avoid having your mushrooms go mushy, use a damp and clean cloth to wipe fresh shiitake instead of running water. If you're using dried shiitake, rinse with water before you rehydrate.
Caps and Stems
Most recipes call only for shiitake caps. If you're using a recipe and it doesn't specify, assume that it's calling for only the caps. Don't throw out the stems though -- they might be tough and almost too full of woody flavor, but they're still useful. Put them in your next stock -- the chemical that provides the umami sensation will come out and give your stock an exceptionally full flavor.
It’s All About the Liquid
The porous nature of mushrooms means that they soak up any liquid they're cooked in, along with any flavor that's in the liquid. Use this to your advantage by using full-flavored sauteing liquids like stocks or wine-based sauces.
You Can’t Rush Perfection
The mushroom flavor found in such high quantities in shiitake is provided by a variety of enzymes found in the flesh of the mushroom. When cooked too quickly, these enzymes don't have enough time to release their maximum flavor, so don't rush things. Give them more time to cook and your mouth will be rewarded with the most magnificently mushroomy experience possible.