The wood ear is a unique mushroom with a number of cooking and medicinal uses. It is often cultivated, but you can also forage it in the wild, even in winter. Let’s learn how to forage and use it right away.
HOW TO IDENTIFY A WOOD EAR
Wood ears are elastic jelly mushrooms with a shape that resembles an ear. They are 1-4 inches wide. The color is brown, cinnamon-brown, pink-brown, or red-brown. They mostly grow in groups on dead elder wood. Young mushrooms are usually smooth; old ones are wrinkled.
The spore print is white, cream, or yellow.
Once the mushrooms’ surface becomes green from algae, they are too old for foraging and consumption.
FALSE WOOD EARS
There are several species very similar to the wood ear. They are all edible and have similar characteristics.
WHERE DO THEY GROW
Wood ears grow on wood, with a strong preference for dead deciduous wood, especially elder and close to water. They grow all year but prefer cold weather and can withstand even mild freezing temperatures, simply freezing, unfreezing, and continuing to grow.
NAMES OF THE MUSHROOM
The mushroom has several common names. Most of them refer to its shape, including wood ear, jew’s ear, jelly ear, pig ear, tree ear, or goblin ear. The scientific name is Auricularia auricula-judae. In Asia, an almost identical species is often cultivated, Auricularia polytricha.
THE LEGEND ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME
The scientific name and the common name “jew’s ear” refer to the legend that the wood ear was first found on the tree on which the biblical Judas Iscariot hung himself. The mushroom is called “Judas’s ear” in numerous languages, and “jew’s ear” is actually a 16th-century mistranslation of that name.
I can’t tell whether that Judas story is actually true. But I know that the wood ear’s medical effects have been known in China for at least 1500 years.
Back then, wood ears have been used to treat hemorrhoids, uterine bleeding, dry mucosa, and other conditions. Wood ear cultivation was mentioned in written sources from the time of the Tang dynasty 1000 years ago.
In Europe, the wood ear is first mentioned by 16th-century healer John Gerard who used it to treat sore throat. 17th-century Thomas Thorne considered it “famous medicine in quinsies, sore throats, and strangulations.” Carl Linnaeus mentions the wood ear in his 1753 work, claiming that it is used to treat eye disease, inflammation, and heartaches.
And this leads us to the following question:
ARE WOOD EAR MUSHROOMS GOOD FOR YOU?
Wood ear mushrooms contain compounds that can boost immunity, decrease blood glucose and cholesterol, and support the healing of wounds, spasms, lumbago, leucorrhea, and nausea. They have 65% saccharides, 10.6% proteins, 7% fiber, 5.8% minerals, and just 0.02% fat. They are a superfood.
The wood ear has a long history of medicinal use in both the west and the east. In recent decades, many of its effects have been confirmed by research. You can use wood ear in your meals, drink it as mushroom tea, or purchase food supplements.
EFFECTS OF WOOD EAR PROVEN BY CLINICAL STUDIES
Wood ear boosts immunity. It can decrease blood levels of cholesterol, lipids, sugar, and triglycerides. It accelerates intestinal peristalsis and reduces blot clotting (is an anticoagulant). It is used as a supportive treatment to improve wound healing, lumbago, spasms, leucorrhea, and nausea.
For more information about mushrooms’ medicinal effects, check out this article: Are mushrooms good for you? (The benefits will surprise you!)
EFFECTS PROVED IN LABORATORY EXPERIMENTS (IN VITRO)
During experiments on mice, polysaccharides in the wood ear stimulated immunity, had anti-inflammatory effects, and prevented fertilization. Aqueous extract with wood ear glucans had antiepileptic effects, antitumor effects on sarcoma, and prevented platelet aggregation.
Wood ear supplements are usually marketed as support for the cardiovascular system, reduction of thrombosis risk, anti-inflammatory, harmonizing, and antioxidative effects, as well as for the minerals (mainly potassium, calcium, magnesium) and vitamins (B and D) contained in the wood ear.
WOOD EAR IN PREGNANCY
Due to its anticoagulant effects, the wood ear is not recommended to pregnant or nursing women, women planning a pregnancy, and people on blood-thinning medication.
Wood ears are mostly used in soups, salads, ramen, and risottos. They have a gelatinous gristly texture and lack a strong flavor but take on the flavor of the meal you put them in, especially if you use dried wood ears. You can hydrate them in broth to take maximum advantage of that effect.
CAN YOU EAT WOOD EARS RAW?
Unlike most mushrooms, you could eat wood ear mushrooms raw. Heat preparation is recommended for easier indigestion. 2 minutes of cooking suffice. According to some sources, the mushroom has dangerous bacteria that need to be destroyed by heat preparation. Those claims are myths.
CAN YOU FREEZE WOOD EAR MUSHROOMS?
You can freeze a cooked meal made with wood ears. Freezing raw wood ears isn’t recommended. If you do freeze them, don’t unfreeze them before cooking and only thaw them during heat preparation.
Find out more about freezing mushrooms in this article: How to store mushrooms (a helpful guide)
If you forage more wood ears than you can use, it is better to dry them.
Drying wood ears is the superior method of preserving them. It is used for mass cultivated wood ears, which are then easily transported and can keep for years.
HOW DO DRY WOOD EARS
You don’t have to cut wood ears before drying. Simply spread them on baking paper and put them in a dry ventilated place for about 2 days. They are ready when they lose elasticity. Store them in a cold dark place. Seal them to protect them from moisture.
You will find all the information about the topic in this guide to drying mushrooms.
WOOD EAR CULTIVATION
The simplest way to cultivate wood ears is to take home elder wood with wood ears on it. As long as you moisten the wood with a sprayer, the wood ears will continue to grow.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN SUBSTRATE
You will need a branch, preferably elder, although you could also use poplar, birch, maple, or beech. Its diameter should be 4-6 inches, length 4 feet. Drill holes 1/2 inch wide and insert medium with mushroom spawn. Cover the wood in foil to prevent it from drying and leave it for 2 months. The mycelium will spread through the wood.
Place the wood outside or in a growing room. If you keep it wet, the mushrooms will grow for up to 5 years. Enjoy the harvests!
Wood ears are an exceptional mushroom with countless uses. Every time I find them, I try new meal ideas. And they are all a success! What meals do you make with the wood ear? Let me know in the comments if you forage it and how you use it.