I became hooked on pickled mushrooms when I lived in Russia. The cultural tradition spans much of Eastern Europe, where foraging and preserving mushrooms is a common practice in rural households. Foraging safely for mushrooms takes time and knowledge. Fortunately, as interest in the benefits of mushrooms expands, it’s becoming easier to hunt out specialty mushrooms in local grocery stores and directly from mushroom farmers.
Where I live now, in northwest Montana, mushroom foraging is popular, especially the spring hunt for highly prized and hard-to-grow morels. But two neighboring mushroom growers also produce numerous varieties and sell them at farmers’ markets, in local grocery stores, and to area restaurants, so there’s plenty of opportunity to pickle and enjoy oyster, trumpet, lion’s mane, chestnut, and shiitake mushrooms.
Eating your medicine
All mushrooms are immunity boosters, thanks to the complex carbohydrate beta glucan that protects our bodies from infection. Shiitakes in particular pack in the nutrients, and they contain more zinc than other edible mushrooms, which is one reason that shiitake mushrooms are especially good at strengthening the immune system.
Shiitakes are also adaptogens, a class of herbs and fungi that help our bodies adapt to stress and become reenergized. Rather than a quick fix to headache or anxiety, adaptogens slowly balance our bodies and improve their stress response. Over time, the human body can become better at managing stress and avoiding symptoms of it, like fatigue and depression. Being stressed can weaken the immune system, so eating shiitakes regularly can give a double dose of stress relief and virus-fighting power.
Shiitakes are probably the only adaptogenic mushroom you’ll find in a grocery store. Like other mushrooms, they’re loaded with other benefits, including vitamin D, B vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and probiotics. Researchers have also found that shiitakes have properties that may prevent or delay the development of cancer.
Lentinan, a polysaccharide in shiitakes, also gives shiitakes regenerative benefits for hair and skin, says Shawn McDyre, who co-owns and grows mushrooms at Sun Hands Farm. “Polysaccharides are the basis of most of the health benefits of mushrooms, and millions of people take supplements including shiitake extract,” said McDyre. “Lentinan is a very beneficial polysaccharide and the most studied existing in shiitakes.”
Cooked versus raw shiitakes
Some beneficial components of shiitakes may also have a downside. In rare cases, people who eat raw shiitakes can develop a skin rash. Fortunately, cooking shiitakes solves the issue as it breaks down the mushrooms’ molecular structure. It’s less certain whether marinating the mushrooms in an acid like vinegar has the same effect, so I recommend cooking and then pickling shiitakes.
Many recipes for pickled shiitakes start with dried mushrooms, but I prefer the texture and flavor of fresh ones. You can pickle fresh shiitakes with the stems on, but they tend to stay tough even after a couple of days. Instead, set the stems aside to cook into a stock or dry as a umami powder to sprinkle on popcorn or roasted nuts.
Using pickled mushrooms
Pickling mushrooms is a great way to infuse their rich, meaty texture with a spice-infused brine. The result is delicious, and makes it easy to enjoy mushrooms’ numerous nutrients and health benefits as a snack or incorporated into a quick meal.
Since the mushrooms have been previously cooked, you can pop them straight into your mouth, but they also make a fun addition to a charcuterie board, and are a fantastic addition to a cheese plate. I also like to pile them onto rice or noodle bowls with other fresh and pickled vegetables, drop them into soup just before serving, or skewer and quickly grill them with wasabi-marinated shrimp. The seasonings, inspired by Chinese five-spice blends, also provide an interesting flavor to a tomato or cream sauce for pasta.
Quick Pickled Shiitake Mushrooms
SERVESMakes 2 cups
PREP TIME15 min
COOK TIME05 min
8 oz shiitake mushrooms (about 4 cups)
1 T plus 2/3 cup rice vinegar (4.3% acidity)
1-1/2 cups water
2 t pickling or sea salt
1 t raw cane sugar
6 thin slices fresh ginger
1/4 t fennel seed
1/2-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
6 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 t sesame oil, for serving (optional)
Using a sharp paring knife, cut off the stems of the shiitakes where they attach to the cap. Slice large mushrooms or cut them into approximately 1-inch-diameter pieces; smaller mushrooms can be left whole.
In a medium saucepan, combine the mushrooms with 1 tablespoon of vinegar and the water and bring them to a simmer, uncovered, over medium-high heat. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until they just start to soften. Set a fine-mesh colander over a bowl and strain the mushrooms, reserving the cooking liquid. Place the mushrooms in a clean container with a lid.
In a small glass measuring cup, combine 1/3 cup of the mushroom cooking liquid with the remaining vinegar, salt, and sugar, whisking until the salt and sugar dissolve. Pour the mixture over the mushrooms, and then stir in the ginger, spices, and bay leaf. Leave for 2–3 hours at room temperature, stirring occasionally. The remaining mushroom stock can be saved for another use.
To serve, strain the mushrooms, tossing them with sesame oil, if desired. Keep leftover mushrooms in the fridge submerged in their brine, without oil. Pickled shiitakes have the best texture in the first couple of weeks, but the brine flavors will get stronger the longer they’re stored.