The wood ear is an edible species of mushroom with a global range, part of the Auriculariales family. Just like the name suggests, it is easily identified by its shape similar to an ear. Wood ear mushroom usually grows on old wood and has a brown color. The second part of the scientific name (Auricularia auricula-judae) is based on the myth that that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an old tree that had a mushroom on it. This explains the common name "Judas's ear" that later become corrupted as "Jew's ear" or even "jelly ear". It lives on living and dead wood and is found all around the world in temperate climates.
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Wood ear mushrooms have a light or dark brown color and can grow to a maximum size of about 8 inches. They are shaped like an ear; the cap is thick, with a smooth but wavy surface. The stem is very short or doesn't exist at all and it has no gills. It often adapts its color after the one of the tree host. As it ages, the wood ear mushroom becomes darker and can even end up black. In cooking, wood ear mushrooms are known for the crunchy and crisp texture but their flavour is weak. Their taste is easily overpowered by the one of other ingredients.
Wood ear mushrooms closely resemble a floppy brown ear in most cases. However, they might also have the shape of a cup. Stalks, when present, are very short. It usually attaches itself laterally to wood. Fresh fruiting bodies have a very elastic and gelatinous flesh, which later becomes brittle and dry with age. The normal exterior color is bright brown, sometimes with red or purple nuances, while small grey hairs sometimes cover the surface. Young mushrooms have smooth and regular caps, these later become wrinkled, with deep folds, and the color gets darker as well. On the inside, the ear wood mushrooms are smooth and have a lighter shade of brown. The wrinkles on the surface and the presence of structures resembling veins make it very close to a human ear.
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It is possible that wood ear mushroom was the first cultivated species in the world. According to some sources, they have been cultivated as early as 600 AD. They are found today in humid temperate zones all over the globe but they were initially native to China. Wood ear mushrooms are found in the wild on old decaying wood. They are cultivated in almost all of Asia because they are a common ingredient in local cuisine and are widely available in Asian groceries.
Wood ear mushroom was originally a species native to South Asia. Besides being a staple in the local cuisines, the wood ear mushroom has a long history of use in medicine as a treatment for inflammation, cancer and eye diseases.
Wood ear mushroom has excellent nutritional qualities, with a mix of minerals and vitamins including calcium, potassium, magnesium, silicon, sodium, phosphorous and B-complex vitamins. It also includes essential fats and a large amount of proteins. Some of the sugar derivatives in its composition can prevent diseases by improving the activity of the immune system.
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Wood ear mushrooms have been praised by cooks for thousands of years. Due to its texture, it is a saturating food without a high amount of calories. The wood ear mushroom can be included in the diet of people with diabetes because it is low in sugar. It is a good source of fibers, which protect the colon and improve digestion. It is also a good choice for people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, gout and other metabolic conditions.
The species is rich in compounds that promote health at the level of the whole body and act on every single cell. It improves immune reaction against pathogens, reduces inflammation especially in the eye area and around mucous membranes. It provides numerous other benefits; it reduces cholesterol, triglyceride and fat levels in the blood, improves circulation as well as blood flow, protects the pancreas and prevents the formation of malignant cancers.
A very useful substance present in this mushroom is adenosine. Its main role is to control the level of adrenaline and maintain the correct balance between this hormone and the optimal pH level of the blood. In addition, it regulates blood flow and reduces the amount of cholesterol. Wood ear mushrooms also supply terpenoids, which protect from allergies caused by antigens and improve digestive health.
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The wood ear mushroom is a good source for the very rare element germanium. It regulates many body functions, protecting from immuno-suppression, hypertension, joints inflammation, cancer and chronic fatigue while increasing the overall intake of oxygen and making tissues healthier.
Wood ear mushrooms are rich in beta-carotene, which is a precursor that can be used by the body to produce as much vitamin A as it needs. It is primarily required for a healthy vision and can treat several eye disorders. However, it also maintains the hair, teeth, gums and skin in top shape and prevents respiratory infections.
A serving of one cup of mushrooms contains just 80 calories and under one gram of fats in total. However, the same cup supplies 2.6 grams of quality proteins. This ratio makes wood ear mushroom one of the best vegetables from the low-calories and high protein group.
One portion of ear wood mushrooms only contains about 10 milligrams of sodium. They are an excellent choice for people who need a diet low on sodium and fats. You must be careful not to cook them with ingredients that are rich in these compounds.
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Like most vegetal foods, they are a rich source of dietary fibers. No less than 19.6 grams of pure fibers are found in a single cup of mushrooms. Two such servings per day supply more than your entire daily recommended amount of fibers, which allow you to have a proper digestive function.
One cup of wood ear mushrooms has an iron content of 1.7 milligrams, which translates to between 9 and 21 percent of the required daily intake. Iron is needed for many body processes but it is a crucial part of the structure of red blood cells. Without enough iron, issues like weakness, fatigue or dizziness start, caused by anemia.
In one serving of wood ear mushrooms there is a dose of 0.24 milligrams of riboflavin (vitamin B2). This essential vitamin strengthens your immune system and boosts your resilience against stress. It is also a very powerful natural antioxidant, with the ability to neutralize free radicals. These very reactive chemicals can cause widespread damage to cells and tissues, accelerating the process of aging and causing heart diseases or cancer.
Even if it is an Asian species, the wood ear mushroom has also been used in Western medicine. Starting from the 19th century, it was employed as a folk remedy for a number of issues, especially sore throats and eyes or jaundice. It was also known for its astringent properties. While it wasn't a popular food in the Western world, some countries such as Australia produced large amounts for export to China at the start of the 20th century.
It is a key ingredient in Chinese cuisine and many of the most popular dishes like hot and sour soup include it. Traditional Chinese medicine also makes use of the species. In Ghana, the wood ear mushroom is considered a blood tonic. It has been tested by modern scientists as well, who confirmed its properties as an anticoagulant, cholesterol reducer, antitumour and hypoglycemic agent.
Most fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber but the amount found in wood ear mushrooms is particularly high. A single cup supplies over half of the recommended daily amount and more than 12 times the dose found in a cup of celery. Fibers are mainly needed to relieve constipation but this is not their only role. They can reduce the level of cholesterol in the body and prevent diabetes and a number of heart diseases. Consuming wood ear mushroom is an easy method to benefit from an increased intake of fibers.
Wood ear mushrooms have an excellent nutritional composition overall. Due to the fibers, they make you feel full without ingesting any unhealthy compounds. They are some of the protein-richest vegetables, with an amount similar to kale. These quality proteins are needed to keep your body in top shape. Wood ear mushrooms have the ideal mix for a healthy food, with a lot of proteins but low amounts of sugars, fat and sodium.
Due to the protein content, wood ear mushrooms are also good to make your hair stronger. Herbal and traditional medicine employs them for many purposes, against high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, cancer, anemia caused by a lack of iron, haematemesis, uterine bleeding, haemorrhoids and many others. With a regular supply of iron, the blood becomes richer and more effective. The wood ear mushroom is up to seven times richer in iron compared to pig liver, so it is a good choice as an alternative to it.
The texture of wood ear mushrooms fits very well in stir-fried dishes and soups. It doesn't have a great flavour itself but it absorbs it from other ingredients. These are its two main uses in Asian cuisines, it is included in the recipes of Szechwan and Hunan to soak the taste of spices and in the classic hot and sour Chinese soup to improve its texture.
Before cooking, wash the mushrooms well. They should be added in the final cooking phase in stir-fries or soups, in slices. You can also find them in Europe and North America, usually in dried form.
Wood ear mushrooms enjoy growing on the wood of old trees but can be found on younger deciduous species or even shrubs. There is a false belief that it only grows on elder wood, because in the vast majority of cases it is found on them. Some of the most common trees it can grow on are beech, ash, spindle or Acer pseudoplatanus. However, it has been recently identified in India's Western Ghats in various types of forests: partially evergreen, evergreen and wet evergreen shola. It grows in a chaotic way, it is sometimes found isolated or in dense clusters. Wood ear mushroom is usually attached to dead or almost dead branches, decayed logs or even the healthy main trunk. It thrives during the monsoon season of Asia when massive basidiomes can form in very wet conditions, with a very intricate structure. The wood ear mushrooms found in wet evergreen and shola forests can have various shapes, colors and sizes. It is also a wild species in Australia, both in rainforests and eucalyptus forests. Huge colonies are common on dead logs in rainforests of the area. The species lives as a saprophyte or minor parasite that causes white rot, depending on the type of wood it grows on.
Wood ear mushroom is typically found in groups or clusters but single mushrooms are not uncommon either. It is a very prolific species; hundreds of thousands of spores are released every hour from the underside, this massive output continues even when the fruiting bodies have dried up. Spores are produced in a limited number even when the mushroom is basically dead, with 90% of it being dry. It is usually harvested during the autumn but actually grows all year-round. Wood ear mushroom lives on all continents, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Australia, in both temperate and sub-tropical climates.