There are so many different types of mushroom just waiting to be tried, and the maitake mushroom, or ‘hen of the woods’ is one mushroom we’re sure you’ll love. Not only is it delicious, it is also thought to have health-giving properties, and Japanese legend says that people danced for joy when they first discovered it.
What is maitake mushroom?
The maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is an edible mushroom with an intensely earthy, peppery flavour. It grows at the bottom of oak, elm, and maple trees in pale brown, frilly clusters that look a little like chicken feathers, hence the nickname ‘hen of the woods’.
A native of North America, Europe and China, the maitake has been eaten in Japan and China for hundreds of years, but only became popular in the USA over the last two decades. The name ‘maitake’ is Japanese for ‘dancing mushroom’, because people are said to have danced for joy when they discovered it.
Maitake has long been considered to have medicinal properties in China and Japan, and modern scientific studies suggest that they may really have been onto something. This fascinating fungus has only come to the attention of modern science relatively recently, and more tests are needed, but early results look promising.
Several potential health benefits have been linked to maitake mushrooms, including the following:
Can help boost your immune system
Maitake is rich in bioactive substances known as beta-glucans, one of which, called D-fraction, is thought to be particularly good for your immune system. D-fraction encourages the production of lymphokines (protein mediators) and interleukins (secreted proteins) that can improve your immune response.
May improve heart health
Studies suggest that maitake mushrooms may be able to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol without affecting ‘good’ HDL. This decreases the risk of heart disease, and is also thought to be thanks to beta-glucans.
Can help manage type 2 diabetes
Another maitake beta glucan, called SX-fraction, may help sufferers of type 2 diabetes to manage their condition. SX-fraction is thought to help activate insulin receptors, allowing your body to use glucose more efficiently, and thus helping prevent spikes in blood sugar.
If you do have diabetes and are thinking of taking maitake or maitake extract, always consult your doctor first, as anything that affects blood sugar may interfere with your medication.
Maitake can be difficult to digest, particularly if eaten raw, and may on rare occasions cause an upset stomach. There is also the potential for allergic reaction, although this too is rare. If you have never eaten maitake before, it may be advisable to try a small piece and wait for 24 hours before eating it in large quantities.
How to recognise them
Maitake are most commonly found in Japan, China, the northeastern United States and Canada, but may also be found in temperate parts of Europe, and in the southeastern and northwestern US. If you live in any of these areas, you may wish to go foraging for maitake, but as with any mushroom, it’s important to know what you’re looking for.
Your best chances of finding some are in hardwood forests, especially if there are plenty of oaks. They grow in the fall through to late November, and love damp conditions, so searching for them a few days after heavy rain is a good idea. You will find them growing around the base of trees, often somewhat camouflaged among the dead leaves.
In terms of appearance, the maitake grows in large, frilly clusters, and from a distance it will look like a light brown cauliflower, or a fluffy chicken sitting on its nest. Clusters can be anywhere from 4 inches across to upwards of 36 inches. If you cut into one, you will see that it is whitish in the centre, with a branching structure that divides into many different lobes, again, much like a cauliflower.
The lobes should be firm but flexible, with frilled edges. They are not uniform in colour, instead sporting several different shades of pale greyish brown, with cream coloured undersides that are covered in tiny holes.
The best way to identify a maitake mushroom is to study as many pictures of them as possible. If you find something you think is a maitake, compare it to a picture, and only eat it if you’re sure. The good news is that maitake grow in the same place every year, so if you are lucky enough to find one, you can come back next year and there should be another one in its place.
Maitake can be prepared in several different ways. They are delicious sautéed in butter, grilled or stir-fried, and can be added to salads, pasta, pizza, omelettes, noodles and soup. They are best paired with other strong flavours, and taste particularly good with salty, savoury ingredients.
If you want to try maitake mushrooms for yourself, we know you’ll love these mouthwatering maitake recipes.
Sauteed maitake mushrooms: simple and delicious, this recipe from A Couple Cooks uses a few seasonings to really bring out the beautifully earthy flavour of maitake.
Grilled Thai marinated maitake mushrooms: maitake has a meaty texture that’s perfect for grilling, and this tasty side from Vegan in the Freezer uses an Asian-inspired marinade for extra colour and flavour.
Soba and maitake mushrooms in soy broth: this Japanese-inspired vegetarian noodle dish from Bon Appetit is bursting with rich, savoury flavours, and really shows why the Japanese think this mushroom is worth dancing for.