Known as Wood-ears in Chinese (木耳), Auricularia auricula-judae (Judae’s ear) are one of the most common culinary fungi in Chinese cuisine for its beautifully succulent texture and a multitude of health benefits. It is wonderful that nowadays they are sold in almost all Asian supermarkets, but many of us had the less ideal experience of buying a batch of Wood-ears that smell absolutely horrible upon opening the package, or taste like leather no matter how long you soak them. So how do you strike a better chance of buying high quality wood-ears? Here are a few things I’ve learnt and to share with you.
Choose between dried and fresh Wood-ears
This post focuses on identifying quality dried wood ears, however fresh Wood ears are occasionally available at some supermarkets, as well as on the Internet. Just be aware that being sold in dried or fresh forms itself is not an indication of quality when it comes to Wood-ear mushrooms. Fresh Wood ear mushrooms can be around 5 to 10 times more expensive than dried ones (when comparing both in wet weight) because they are prone to spoil (like all fresh mushrooms), and for the same reason, buy fresh Wood ear mushrooms only from a reputable retailer who are willing to tell you where the mushrooms come from, when they are harvested, and how they are packaged and transported. By the way, wild wood ears grow all over the world, if you are interested in foraging, there are many good resources on the Internet to check out.
How to inspect dried Wood-ears before you buy:
Ideally, we want to rule out the poor quality ones before buying. Here are a few things to look out for while they are still in packages.
- Size doesn’t matter (and bigger isn’t necessarily better )
Wood ears come in all different sizes, including high grade ones. Each dry ear is typically between 0.5 inch to 2 inches long when hydrated. Here I am showing a few Wood ear mushrooms from different packages compared to a 20-cent Australian coin. My Kiwi friends please don’t be offended. I just happened to have this coin in my pocket 🙂
One of the common types sold in Asian supermarkets is the “White-back” variety (see the photo below on the left) which is whitish on one side and black on the other. They are significantly larger than wood-ears of most other varieties, and they are generally a little cheaper. I find they tend to have a dry and leathery texture, no matter how long I soak them. I’ve heard people saying they hate wood-ears because they taste like leather or cardboard, and I suspect they’ve bought this (or a very similar) variety. You can make them easier to chew by cutting them into very thin slices, but in general I avoid this type ( if you do know a recipe that actually favors this type of Wood-ears), please let us know).
- Shape does matter. High grade Wood ears should be dried as whole ears of mushrooms not scrapes. Look at the edges of each piece. Despite the rather irregular shapes, you should be able to see smooth and nicely curled edges, which is a good indication of a whole dried ear of mushroom; if instead you see a lot of pieces with either jagged or straight edges, that’s likely to be where the mushrooms broke off or were torn apart. A few of broken ones might be completely avoidable, but if there are a lot of broken pieces, that is an indication of a poor grade. Avoid.
- Wild ones from the mountains are superb. I am not someone who has great confidence in product package claims, but in this particular case, dried Wood ear mushrooms labeled to be wild-harvested from the cold mountains of North-east China have never disappointed me. They are likely to be the most expensive ones to buy per dry gram, but they have a very high yield through rehydration and a superb texture. If you come across this type, give them a try, especially if you can can return it to the shop if you’re not satisfied.
Open The Packet and Put Them To the Test
Now, having made a few observations while the Wood ears are still in packages, the only sure way to tell how good they are is to rehydrate, cook and eat them. Here are what you should expect of good quality Wood ears once they are rehydrated:
- The smell: Well, hopefully you won’t smell anything at all, since wood ear mushrooms do not have any obvious smells of their own except a very subtle plant aroma. But what if you detect a pungent and acidic smell upon opening the package (that is most likely the smell of sulfur dioxide)? Would I toss them out immediately? Read on. If the wood ears you just bought exhibit good quality in all other following aspects, then it might be worth considering “rescuing” them . I’ve written a separate post with my suggestions on what to do to get rid of the smell (therefore most of the sulfur dioxide).
- The Volume and Weight: When wood ears are soaked in water, both volume and weight will increase drastically. Test a few from the pack. For high grade Wood ear mushrooms, you can expect around 10 times increase in weight after just a few minute soaking, and 15 times or more with longer time.
- The Shape: You should see beautiful and succulent whole mushroom ears, sometimes with translucent quality to them. No torn pieces or debris (although a little sand is normal).
- The Texture: A soft and succulent texture is what people love wood ear mushrooms for, and what you can expect of high grade Wood-ears. Needless to say, the more expansion during rehydration (the more water the wood-ears can hold), the tender the texture
- Get rid of the sand: A little sand can be trapped at the end nodes. Just nib them off and that should get rid of the grits.
Hopefully this post will help you buy the wonderful Wood ear mushrooms with more confidence. Please leave a comment if you have a good tip to share with us about selecting Wood ear mushrooms!