Matsutake are legendary mushrooms.
There are only a few mushrooms that are so highly regarded in a specific culture as these are, with the exception of morels in the U.S., and the rovellon/niscalo (saffron milk cap+friends) in Spain. For the most part, the matsutake is known as an Asian or a Japanese mushroom in my mind, although they do grow in other places too. Japanes use of matsies is the most well documented though, so I think it’s useful to look at their history as a starting point for learing about them, and from there, recipe inspiration. If you poke around online, there’s plenty of stories about Japanese love for these mushrooms as a symbol of autumn and longevity, along with haiku poems and plenty of ceremony. For over 1000 years, the Japanese have waxed poetic about matsutake.
I’ve talked about the fanaticism of Eastern European families who hunt mushrooms, but in Japan, matsutake are actually boxed up individually and sold as gifts. I’ve never heard of that happening with another mushroom.
The book Mychophilia by Eugenia Bone has some interesting information:
“In 1992, the New York Times reported that Japanese businessmen spent as much as 240$ American for a box of three or four mushrooms”
“In 2007, The North Korean leader Kim Jong II gave President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea 500 such boxes equaling 4 tons of matsutake mushrooms prior to a summit meeting.”
Apparently, Japanese harvest of Matutake has been steadily declining, possibly due to problems with their environment and habitat. To meet the demand for them, other sources of matsutake have been uncovered in China, Korea, Sweden, Mexico, and of course, the American Pacific Northwest.
Before they began to be harvested from China and Korea and the market began to get saturated (they are still very expensive) their price could be as much as 17-53/lb wholesale in Japan, with indigenous Japanese specimens typically fetching around twice as much. (Some say they are the same mushroom, but American Matsutake are differentiated by the name Tricholoma Magnivelare, whereas Japanese are known as Tricholoma Matsutake)
As with many things that cost a lot of money, matsutake have developed a bit of a reputation for being coveted. Commercial pickers scour our national forests in the Pacific Northwest each year in the fall looking for them, and matsutake patches are closely held secrets. There are numerous reports of people hiding out on trails robbing commercial pickers at gunpoint, and other, much scarier tales.
“Stories about matsutake related violence in national forests (one man shot through the heart, his mushrooms missing; five dead in a prime matsutake patch, etc.) Have receded into legend.”
So whats the big deal?
It is all about the aroma and flavor. I have cooked many different species of mushrooms, but as far as strange flavors go, the matsutake takes the cake. In fact, it’s flavor is so strange that it is hard to even describe. It’s truly one of nature’s most incredible flavors/aromas.
It’s been said they’re cinnamon like, piney, woodsy, like rotten earth, or even fishy. David Arora describes it like smelling a combination of red hots and dirty socks. Their flavor is so strange that I have served them to people that love mushrooms, and flat out do not like matsutake. Personally, I think they taste like the essence of pine soil, with a little spice thrown in.
Look A Likes
The most common mastie look a like is Tricholoma caligatum. You can tell T. caligatum from a true matsutake easily as they don’t have a strong pine aroma, they may taste bitter, and, most importantly, they’re hardwood associates, so you’ll never see them growing near red pine, jack pine, or other matsutake hosts.
I haven’t seen that one yet, and it’s said to be quite rare, possibly more rare than Matsutake themselves. It grows with conifers.
Age and Grade
These are often sold by wholesalers under number a classification, 1, 2, 3 etc, 1’s being the youngest, with the veil unbroken. All you need to know is that number 1’s will have the most potent flavor, after the mushroom has broken the veil and started to mature and get large, the flavor leaves, quickly.
Matsutake indeed grow in the Midwest, but those places are few and far between. If you meet someone who knows where Midwest matsutake grow, rest assured locations of these are the sort of things only traded for large sums of money, and, other, um, sorts of transactions. If you want to find them yourself, take a look at my post: Hunting the Midwestern Matsutake: II.
Things get really interesting with these in the kitchen. The flavor of matsutake is pretty connected to Japanese food and flavors, they seem like they were born to be together. Like many other foods though, it won’t do to cook them in a pan with a bunch of other stuff, their flavor will be lost entirely. First off though, you need to clean them, and this is easier said than done.
What happens is that unless you are picking them yourself, they’ve probably been sitting in a box or in a grocery store for a while. As the mushrooms sit, they tend to dry out, which makes the sand and dirt stick to their flesh, making it very difficult to remove. To clean matsutake, I like to peel them with a vegetable peeler, reserving their trim for the making of powerful stocks and broths. Here’s the big takeaways with these. Pay close attention to the first one regarding dairy.
- Hold the dairy—all of it. No butter, cream or cheese should be served with Matsutake.
- The aroma of matsutake is powerful, make darn sure to save your trim from the stems and caps.
- Cooking matsutake on high heat in a saute pan will make their aroma waft into the air, which is a nice thing to keep in mind if you want to say, add some to a soup, instead of boiling them (which is fine) you can kiss them in a hot pan for a bit and spoon them in.
- Matsutake have a natural affinity for fish and seafood.
- Matsutake do not have to be cooked through. Try grilling them “medium rare” as I share in my post here.
- Try eating them raw for a real treat, drizzled with good tasting oil (especially nut or seed oil) and sprinkled with a pinch of salt.
As a rule Matsutake *generally* shouldn’t be used interchangeably with other mushrooms in recipes since their flavor is very different. Here’s some recipes I’ve made for them, or where they could be substituted successfully.
- Miso Soup with Matsutake
- Matsutake Fried Rice
- Raw Matsutake
- Wild Mushroom Duxelles-substitute sake for the sherry in this recipe
- Matsutake Ramen
- Buckwheat Sole With Wild Mushrooms and Carrot Ribbons
- Pickled Wild Mushrooms-use Asian inspired flavors for your pickling seasonings (ginger, star anise) and rice wine vinegar
- Matsutake Baked in Parchment