Wood ear mushrooms are one of the delights of a cold-weather walk, whether it’s a damp day in early spring or when the temperature is kind enough to hover above freezing in deep winter. Their dark caps, tender as velvet and disconcertingly alive between the fingers, cling to logs and sometimes to injured, living trees, upon which they feed. It is easy to dislodge them with a gentle tug. They are pliable after rain or under snow-melt, but shrivel up in the absence moisture, turning as rigid and brittle as old sea shells. As soon as any fresh precipitation occurs, they plump right back up again, resilient and—to the people who know and love them—irresistible.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
In the United States wood ears are sold almost exclusively at Asian markets. They are one of the oldest mushrooms in cultivation, grown for centuries in China, where they are held in esteem as a functional food. The mushrooms of commerce are sold dry, sometimes labeled as black fungus or cloud fungus. Rehydrated, they behave exactly as they do on their favorite log after rain, becoming floppily tender. But they are at their most opulently soft when fresh, which is why my eyes light up when I see a log frilled with the brown and black caps that are sometimes frosted with a fine layer of fuzz on their upper surface.
Wood ears belong to the species complex Auricularia. For the average mushroom hunter, narrowing down a wood ear find to a particular species is difficult, and I don’t try. They belong to a group of mushrooms known collectively as jelly fungi, whose unifying quality is…? Yes! Their gelatinous nature. Wood ears are wobbly.
Despite their association in standard mushroom literature with elderberry shrubs (Sambucus species) I have only once seen wood ears growing on dead elder wood. Mostly, they are on logs, large and small, whose identity has been stripped along with their bark. In Brooklyn they also appear on living street trees—more than one London plane in my neighborhood has a seam of wood ears growing up its trunk, fissured by trauma or disease.
Unlike most other mushrooms, which tend to be associated with a particular season, wild wood ears can be found year-round, as long as conditions are humid enough: floppy and huge when mature, or pertly cupped when very young.
Somehow the wood ear flushes of the cool months are the most choice. Perhaps because they seem so alive when everything else is resolutely hibernating or dead.
When I first began gathering wood ears I turned to traditional East Asian recipes for guidance, adding the mushrooms to Chinese-style hot and sour soups where they took on the flavor of the liquid.
That first bite of a wood ear is memorable. If you have never eaten one before, expect a sharp crunch, as your teeth break the cap, followed by a burst of the jelly that is held between the cap’s layers. They combine an oyster slipperiness with a cartilaginous snap that may be disconcerting to first timers, but which wood ear cognoscenti expect and appreciate. It’s your okra (or cilantro?) moment. Love it or hate it. Rather to my surprise, I began to look forward to that signature slipperiness: crisp, followed by slither and slurp.
Wood ear cooking tips: Eat them cooked, not raw (all mushrooms contain chitin, which is broken down by heat; it can cause digestive issues, otherwise.) While they are included in cold salads, those mushrooms have been blanched in boiling water, first. For serving warm in a savory dish, keep them submerged in liquid, or they dry out and become bendy in a not-very-good-way. They are superb sponges for flavor (and will also absorb excess salt or heat from chiles, if you have over-seasoned dinner). Keep them intact if their role is to be that sponge, but if you’d like to use their thickening properties, snip them into ribbons, to release their gel.
To prepare wood ears, wash them well and cut off just the small tough “foot” where they attach to their log of choice. Covered in the refrigerator they will last for at least two weeks.
Caution: While Auricularia mushrooms in general are edible, a couple of species have been studied for their (proven) blood-thinning properties. To err on the safe side, don’t eat a big wood ear meal before surgery or if you take blood-thinning medications.
A dish I return to with anticipation in late fall is a rustic, saucy stew where the wood ears swim with cream and fresh field garlic (Allium vineale). For omnivores I deploy flavorful chicken legs and high-quality bacon as the stew’s base, the mushrooms absorbing their flavors as they cook. The same method turns vegetarian very well: I substitute one pound of pan-sautéed Brussels sprouts, adding them to the brothy onion and potato base 15 minutes before serving.
Wood Ears with Chicken and Cream
Serves 2 hungry humans
This rustic, one-skillet stew is mouth-wateringly good. The chicken browns while the mushrooms became sponges, their soft black collars plumping up like oysters to absorb the sauce.
- 2 oz bacon, cut into small pieces
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 2 whole chicken legs (or 4 thighs)
- Black pepper
- 4 branches thyme
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 4 oz fresh wood ears*, trimmed of any tough bits and very well washed
- 4 small red potatoes, halved
- ½ cup cream
- ¼ cup finely-snipped field garlic (or chives)
(To substitute dried wood ears, you need just 0.5 oz dried; soak in cold water for 2 hours to reconstitute.)
Preheat oven to 400’F.
In a saucepan (that has a lid) sauté the bacon pieces over medium-high heat until the fat begins to run. Add the onion, and stir well so that its layers come apart. Place the chicken legs on top of the onions, season with salt and pepper, and add the thyme, broth, and lemon juice. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Transfer the saucepan, now covered with its lid, to the hot oven for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, and add the mushrooms, tucking them under the chicken (so that they remain moist). Arrange the potatoes around the chicken, pour in the cream, and add the field garlic. Return to the oven minus the lid and cook for another 45 minutes.
Serve in shallow bowls, and ready yourself for the snap and the slither.
For more foraged mushrooms, see:
- Matsutake: The Sought-After Pine Mushroom (and Its Lookalikes)
- Maitake: The Expensive Mushroom You Can Forage for Free
- Forager’s Guide: Are Those Mushrooms Edible?