Chinese Dried Black Mushrooms

(冬菇 mandarin: doong-goo; Cantonese: doong-goo)

I have called these dried black mushrooms “Chinese” to distinguish them from other dried black or brown mushrooms frequently seen in specialty stores, but they are in fact common to Japan and Korea as well as to China. “Dried Oriental mushroom” or “shiitake,” the Japanese name, might be as good or better for buying purposes than the name I have chosen, all referring to a dried and wrinkled “black” mushroom (Lentinus edodes), with a cap that can be brown-black, gray, or even tan, and an underside of fawn-colored gills. The caps range in width from 1 inch or less (small) to 1¼ inches (medium) to 1¾ inches (large) and even upwards of 2¼ inches (giant). They are typically bagged by size, with or without stems, and are always expensive relative to other Chinese staples. In my kitchen, I am generally using medium or large mushrooms.

There are two types to distinguish between for cooking purposes. The first is what is usually called in Chinese “fragrant mushroom” (香菇 mandarin: hsiang-goo; Cantonese: hung-goo). The cap is rather flat, thin, and unbroken in color. This is the less expensive variety, prized more for its taste and dusky aroma than for its texture. Hence it is frequently chopped or thinly slivered.

In contrast is what is usually called “flower mushroom” in Chinese (花菇 mandarin: hwa-goo; Cantonese: fa-goo), a thicker cap with clefts and fissures that show up as white-tan lines against the dark color of the cap. The texture of this variety is plush and velvety upon soaking, and one accordingly pays a higher price. “Flower mushrooms” are typically left whole to show them off, or variously cut into halves or quarters.

I keep both sorts on hand, buying them in 8- or 16-ounce plastic bags to get a better buy, though a 4-ounce bag will be a less imposing investment if you are new to Chinese cooking and not yet hooked on black mushrooms. They keep for years, stored airtight in a plastic bag and kept like flour, in a dark and somewhat cool place.

Black mushrooms must be softened until supple before using, in water to cover. The best flavor is had by soaking 1–2 hours or overnight in cold water, though a faster job can be done with very hot tap water in 15–30 minutes, the exact time to depend on the thickness of the caps. Once soft, snip off the woody stems with a scissors, then rinse the caps under cool running water to remove any sand trapped in the gills (the thicker “flower mushrooms” will more often be sandy than the thinner “fragrant mushrooms”). If you like, you can strain and save the soaking liquid and stems, then simmer them down when convenient to potent reduced black mushroom stock, which can be an interesting addition to soups and stir-frys.

For information on fresh black mushrooms, see Mushrooms.