MAITAKE MUSHROOM "The dancing mushroom"
In the northeast and mid Atlantic region of the United States, the Maitake mushroom is usually the sign that summer is over and fall is quickly approaching. Maitake (My-Ta-Key), Hen of the Woods, or Sheep's head are a few of the common names you'll hear this mushroom called. Maitake is Japanese for "dancing mushroom" and there are a couple different theories to how this name came about. Two of the main theories are that prior to the 1970's Maitake mushrooms weren't cultivated so foraging was the only way to get them. Highly sought after for both culinary and medicinal purposes it's said that when found, a forager would "dance for joy" because the mushroom was worth its weight in silver. The other is said that the fruiting body looks like "butterflies doing a wild dance". Personally I like the first theory the best and that's because it's not so much a theory as it is a reality. Wild Maitakes are highly prized and sought after by top chefs with fresh ones going between 20 & 30 dollars a pound and dried going for as much as 150$ a pound! And these aren't small mushrooms! It's not uncommon for Maitakes to reach several pounds and go for hundreds of dollars a piece! I personally have found a couple thousand dollars of Maitakes in a single afternoon! Because of this reason Maitake hunters are VERY secretive about their hunting grounds. In the book "Medicinal Mushrooms, an exploration of tradition, healing, & culture", author Christopher Hobbs talks about how Japanese foragers were so secretive about their foraging spots they wouldn't even tell their own family.
Unlike other shelf-style polypore mushrooms that get hard and fibrous the farther you go down the mushroom from the edge of the mushroom, the Maitake is pretty tender through out and all parts of the fruiting body are edible. This mushroom is not only tender and flavorful with a slightly sweet hint, but as you probably have guessed by now it's extremely healthy too. It has been attributed to health in Japanese cultures and in the late 70's when commercial propagation started to take a hold, more medicinal research started happening. The polysaccharides (sugars and starches in simplest terms) in this mushroom have been found to have properties that can both boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, help stabilize and lower glucose levels, and have antitumor properties. As of recent this mushroom is also being studied to help people with severely compromised immune systems such as patients with cancer or HIV/AIDS. Along with the immune boosting qualities Maitakes have proteins that help carry healthy metals to the intestines where they can be absorbed. Since This mushroom does have potential to effect the blood glucose level it's strongly recommended that this mushroom be eaten in moderation if you are diabetic.
Although this mushroom is delightful in a wide array of cuisines, to really get it full benefits alcohol/ethanol extraction is needed. Basically you're going to want to soak it in alcohol, typically anything above 40 proof. Let it soak for about a month then how I recommend taking it is add some STRONG simple syrup to the alcohol to make it really sweet and add a couple of droppers full of the sugar/alcohol/mushroom tincture to your coffee or tea. Typically you want your ratio of mushroom to alcohol to be at the very least 10:1 but I personally like 10:2 (meaning if you have 100g of liquid you'll want 20g of mushroom). Along with internal studies, topical studies are being done and there is research shown that using this alcohol or ethanol extraction for skin products can help fight eczema and other dry skin conditions.
Since all parts of this mushroom are edible and they are a pretty firm mushroom they are great for marinating and grilling, or sautéed hard and used as a meat substitute. Chicken fried Maitake with a really sharp Mornay sauce (cheese sauce) is high on my list of favorites! You can find this mushroom commercially grown in Asian grocery stores in neat little packages. Or if you prefer to try to forage some yourself look in old growth Oak forests, although I have very occasionally found them on Elm. Maitake only attach themselves to dying or diseased trees so look up to see if there are a lot of dead branches or dead spots on a tree. The most important thing to do when you find a Maitake (especially if its your first one ever) is make sure you look on the OTHER side of the tree as well. It's not uncommon to have 2, 3 or even 4 fruitings off of one large tree. Since Maitakes grow very low or even on the ground and there are lots of nooks and crannies, you're going to want to check them well for bug infestation. There inevitably will be some critters (and that ok!) but just make sure that they haven't completely destroyed and inhabited the mushroom. Look for mushrooms that have a creamy white underside, as they get older they start to yellow and get tough. If you're buying dried Maitake make sure that you are buying the "petals" of the mushroom. When you get into the core of this mushroom it gets very tough and fibrous as you dehydrate it and although it will rehydrate, it doesn't have the best texture. If buying online at a site like Etsy, ask the seller how they were dehydrated. If they don't say anything about letting them dry in the sun for any length of time, find another seller. Much of the mushrooms natural vitamins and mineral are locked in only if they are dried in the sun for very minimum a few hours
I recently read a blog that stated "they can (Maitake) actually be cooked and eaten as well". Let me elaborate on this, ALL wild mushrooms MUST be cooked. Many wild mushrooms have mild poisons or toxins that are destroyed with heat or another form of denaturing. Have fun discovering the plants and mushrooms in your backyard, but make sure that you're getting your information from someone that can actually identify them so you can explore safely.
All photos were taken by Jonathan Till