Wood ear mushrooms are strange-looking fungi, but they are edible and have various benefits for health. They grow in many areas worldwide but are especially common in Asia, where they are widely cultivated and consumed.
This article explains wood ears’ nutritional value, beneficial properties, and more. Read on for our in-depth guide.
Wood Ear Mushrooms: The Basics
Wood ear is one of many names for the common fungus Auricularia auricula. It is also known as jelly ear, tree ear, and black fungus in English, mu er in Chinese, and kikurage in Japanese. As many of these names suggest, these mushrooms look quite similar to a human ear.
Wood ears are saprophytic mushrooms, meaning they feed on decaying organic matter, in this case, wood. It is possible to find them growing on dead trees in temperate and subtropical regions, and they are widespread throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
These mushrooms are widely cultivated for food in Asia, and the continent produces a staggering 100,000+ tons annually.
In recent years, scientists have also become interested in wood ears’ potential health benefits. Like many other mushrooms, they contain numerous bioactive compounds that promote wellness as part of a healthy lifestyle. Let’s take a closer look.
Wood Ear Mushroom Health Benefits
Wood ear mushrooms contain many beneficial compounds, including complex carbohydrates, amino acids, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals, and more.
- Blood sugar-lowering
Additional research suggests that wood ear mushrooms have antioxidant properties and antimicrobial activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli bacteria. They may also have antiviral effects.
However, while the above findings are exciting, they are based on laboratory studies, and further research is necessary to confirm whether they are reproducible in humans.
Wood Ear Mushroom Nutrition
Wood ears are low-fat and low-calorie while being rich in protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some of their key micronutrients include:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
Therefore, these mushrooms make a great addition to any healthy diet. Next, we will explain how to find wood ear mushrooms and prepare them as food.
Wood Ear Mushroom Identification
Wood ear mushrooms have a distinctive appearance and are relatively easy to identify. They have a long fruiting season and grow on many different types of wood, especially elder.
As we mentioned earlier, the mushrooms look somewhat like a human ear. However, they grow in various shapes and sizes, ranging from approximately 1–6 inches in diameter. They are light to dark brown with a rubbery or jelly-like texture and a slightly velvety surface.
There are not many wood ear mushroom look-alikes, but it is possible to confuse them with poisonous cup mushrooms, such as Peziza vesiculosa. The main difference is that cup mushrooms grow facing upward (hence the name), while wood ears always grow facing down. Cup mushrooms also tend to have a more brittle texture than wood ears, which are very flexible.
The best way to get a positive identification is to take a spore print. Wood ear spores are white and look sausage-shaped under a microscope.
If in doubt, avoid harvesting wood ears in the wild and purchase them from a store or online instead. They are widely available in Asian supermarkets, where they are usually sold dried.
How to Eat Wood Ear Mushrooms
If you have fresh wood ear mushrooms, you can simply clean them with a damp cloth and add them to your dish of choice. The whole mushrooms work well in soups, or you can slice them thinly and add them to stir-fries.
If you have dried wood ears, you will need to rehydrate them before use. Do this by soaking them in boiling water until they return to their natural jelly-like state. You can then use them in the same ways as the fresh mushrooms.
Can You Eat Wood Ear Mushrooms Raw?
No, you cannot eat wood ear mushrooms raw. Like many fungi, raw wood ears can harbor harmful bacteria. Therefore, you should always cook them well and ensure they are piping hot before serving.
What Do Wood Ear Mushrooms Taste Like?
Wood ears have a mild flavor in comparison to other mushrooms. They are generally added to dishes for texture and nutrition rather than their taste.
As they are quite bland, wood ears combine well with strong-tasting and aromatic ingredients like soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, and garlic.
Wood Ear Mushrooms: Final Thoughts
Wood ear mushrooms are a common species that grows in many areas worldwide. Although they are not the tastiest mushrooms, they are nutritious and have many potential health benefits.
Although wood ears are easy to recognize, it is essential to be cautious when harvesting wild wood ears. Like all mushrooms, you should only pick them if you are 100% sure about their identification. Otherwise, play it safe and purchase them online or from a physical store instead.
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