This suspicious looking little mushroom’s name, originally known as Judas’ ear, is a Christian reference to Judas Iscariot, who supposedly (and unlikely) hanged himself from an elder tree. The name was corrupted to Jew’s ear and eventually became jelly ear in the name of political correctness.
Description and species
Jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) is a species of Auriculariales fungus found worlwide, also known as Jew’s ear, wood ear, kikurage or hei mu-er (in Chinese) among other names.
The fruiting body is distinguished by its wavy ear-like shape and gelatinous rubbery texture when fresh. The outer surface is velvety to the touch and reddish-brown in colour, resembling some kind of seaweed. The colour becomes darker with age and after drying.
The most similar species you can find is Cloud ear (Auricularia Polytricha) -only in Chinese markets-, which are very similar in appearance and texture, but they do not grow naturally in the UK.
While not regarded as edibles in western countries due to their soft slippery yet crunchy texture, which is something of an acquired taste, they are extremely popular in eastern countries, where it is additionally used by its medicinal properties.
There is evidence of Jelly ear being cultivated in China as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907) and it is also currently exported from Australia to cater for demand. It is also popular in Vietnam and some African countries like Nigeria and Ghana.
It is said the species is not edible when raw, needing to be cooked thoroughly.
Foraging in season
Jelly ear fungus is incredibly common widespread in Britain, particularly in the south, during all seasons. They almost exclusively grow upon both dead and living elder branches in large numbers, generally in damp shady locations. Occasionally, you may also find them growing on sycamore, beech, ash or spindle.
The fungus is found all year round, most commonly in autumn, but conveniently available to the forager when nothing else is growing in winter, as it is able to withstand freezing conditions. In summer, they can completely dry to easily reconstitute when soaked in water.
It has to be one of the most reliable of all fungi, as they always appear in the same wood all year long. Only during the coldest and driest times of the year do they fail to appear.
They can be picked gently off the branches, either fresh or in their dried state and are difficult to mistake them for anything poisonous due to their unique appearance.
Storage and processing
When using fresh, wash the mushrooms thoroughly under cold tap water, removing any bark, grit and moss remaining. Think twice when frying these, as they are likely to blow up in your face. The trick of the trade is cutting them into thin strips before frying.
They can be dehydrated easily for storage and should keep for up to a year. When dried, they will reduce up to 90%, to surprisingly reconstitute with full body and texture when soaked in water for 10 minutes. They are immediately available to cook as you would do with fresh fungi.
Another course of preparation is taking your dried jelly ears to ground up into a fine powder in a blender. You can use this to thicken soups and stews, absorbing several times their own weight in water.
Culinary uses and recipes
Jelly ear is one of the most intriguing mushrooms used in the kitchen and one of my favourites. It has no flavour on its own and absorbs pretty well any kind of flavours of the ingredients it is cooked with, making them a perfect vehicle for all your favourite infused tastes, like you would use tofu.
They provide the additional bonus of a crunchy bite, with a gelatinous seaweed-like texture, that not everyone appreciates. It is a great addition to many soups and stews, either powdered or cut into strips and added fresh with pork and assorted vegetables. It is often recommended in ramen, miso or hot & sour soup.
They can also be added to stir fries with meat and veg as a substitute of crunchy bamboo shoots. Szechwan and Hunan cuisines use this fungus to soak them in strong and spicy flavours. My favourite recipe consists in jelly ears marinated in soya sauce, vinegar, chili and garlic. Awesome!
Rehydrating jelly ears with your homemade sloe gin or kirsch provides a moreish jelly sweet, that can even improve further by covering them in chocolate.