Shiitakes: A Lot More Than 'Just a Mushroom'

Jul 6, 2017

Shiitakes drying out in the sun, gills up, absorbing vitamin D. I buy a pint to eat fresh while they're in season and dry an extra pint to use as an ingredient during the winter months.
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

It was a surprise to discover that shiitake mushrooms are a good source of protein, good enough to replace beef even. And who ever thought of a mushroom as an animal?

Tucker Pforzheimer (left), Truman French (right) of Martha's Vineyard Mycological under their shiitake tent surrounded by fruiting logs
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

Tucker Pforzheimer  explained that mushrooms, like animals, create their bodies from digesting other sources of food and it's actually protein.

Tucker P is co-founder along with his friend and business partner Truman French of Martha’s Vineyard Mycological. They grow shiitakes using strains from Japan and inoculating oak logs with the spawn.

Truman says “the shiitakes are taking the cellulose in the logs and converting them into a protein, much as if you eat celery, you take and convert that into animal protein, and the protein that they're converting into is chitin. Which is similar to what actually insects are doing.”

Another surprising fact:  when you put shiitakes in the sun to dry them, they tan! And they absorb all that good Vitamin D.

“ It's the same pigment that's in your skin  - melanin, and that's why the caps, they more they’re in the sun -  they get darker.

Of course they do. These mushrooms could not get any weirder. Lucky for us though, Martha’s Vineyard has the perfect medium for growing shiitakes.

“We’re fortunate on the Vineyard because it typically grows basically monoculture oak” Truman says “so if you see 95 percent of the trees here are oak varieties, and shiitakes fortuitously enough are oak mushrooms.”

In fact shiitake in Japanese literally means: oak mushroom.

If the Vineyard had large amounts of manure, which is what portabellas are grown on, Truman says they would produce those, but since there isn't a huge cattle industry here they’re using a local waste product, which in this instance is oak, and shiitakes prefer oak.

It may seem like food production in terms of rot  they see it more as utilizing underutilized waste products, which is what wood is on Martha's Vineyard. As Truman points out,  "there's no viable timber industry. So previously, anything that was being cut down was just being chipped or burned. Instead this is a nice intermediary stage where you can get some food production out of it."

It’s easy to get  all dreamy and “mystical mushroom” out at the shiitake yard. It feels like the middle of nowhere and under the forest canopy, they’ve stacked tall piles, like Lincoln logs that are in various stages of decay. The logs have been inoculated with strains of mycelium -  the fungal body- and they’ve got fantastical names: Double Jewel,  Blotchka, and Night Velvet.  And the latest is Beltane.

Tucker points out ones that look like they're coming out in little clusters, little pins called primordia.

During the summer months they’re harvesting around 40 pounds of shiitakes a day and that’ll probably keep increasing until the weather cools.

Their shiitake “yard” is about a tenth of an acre and they're producing five to six hundred pounds of protein per week off of that. Comparing that to beef production with cattle, it would be 20 to 30 times that size.

Tucker explained how water-intensive beef is, “Not because the cows are drinking a lot of water, but because they're being fed very water intensive crops. So corn, grains, barleys, it's all being grown in a very water intensive way. And so ultimately the pound of beef that you're producing has used, about 70 times as much water as we would use here to produce a pound of mushroom protein.”

Cooking with these wild-harvested mushrooms is really familiar. Tucker sears them. “You cook them like meat, like you're tossing bacon on a skillet. Think of it like that because they're not going to give up a bunch of water. They're very dry. They're dense, and because it's protein, it browns, the edges get crispy, gets a nice sear on it, just like a really nice piece of meat.”

Truman, on the other hand prefers to drizzle them with butter or olive oil and then cook them under the broiler.

The shiitakes you find in a grocery store, the ones wrapped in plastic, they’ve been grown in temperature-controlled and artificially humidified warehouses on a sawdust medium that’s been sterilized through pasteurization.

Truman points out that this actually increases your carbon footprint by four or five times. Wild harvesting is a much more environmentally gentle way to produce mushrooms.

MV Mycological’s mission - to produce what's sensible to grow in an area and stick to things that you can do locally  -  and keep it at scale.

Tools of the trade, mushroom harvesting knives.
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

               SHROOM CHOWDER

From Truman French of Martha's Vineyard Mycological  (you can see more photos there)
Wild Harvest ShiitakeButterPotatoOnionWhite flourWater
Half & Half
Salt and pepper
 Make a tapenade: In a food processor, puree a half stick of butter and a quart of finely chopped shiitakes for two minutes.
 Then make a roux: Mix the tapenade with the onions, the other half stick of butter, and 4 Tbs. of flour in a pot for 10 minutes. When thick, add 6 cups of water, 2 1/2 cups of diced potatoes, another quart of diced shiitakes and stir for 20 minutes.

Finish with 2 cups of half & half, salt, pepper and 10 minutes before serving.