Foraging for Chicken of the Woods
Last year when we lived in the middle of the Jefferson National Forrest, I started exploring the woods around our house. I was looking for plants to see if I could find which wild edibles or medicinal herbs I could find. And then I came upon this beauty growing on a log. What an amazing mushroom! I didn’t know what it was, so I left it there and went home to look it up. It’s commonly called Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, or Sulfur Shelf.
Hunting for mushrooms can be a tedious experience with a lot of time spent looking through brown leaves for brown fungus, comparing your findings with the photos in your field guide and hoping you found an edible mushroom. But when you come across this giant glowing beauty, you can see it from a long way off and there is little doubt of what you’ve found. Chicken of the Woods is one of the most recognizable edible mushrooms in our area, so I felt pretty safe picking it the next day. Look how big it is!
There were several on the same log. I hit the mother-load.
There were also some on the ground not too far away. It was at the base of an old oak tree that had been cut down years before. I learned that these are a little different, called Laetiporus Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus is white underneath and white on the edges whereas the Sulphureus is yellow underneath and on the edges. These were also younger and so more tender than the others on the log.
Cooking Chicken of the Woods
While the older Chicken of the Woods is edible, for the best experience, just use the tips that are soft or use the younger mushrooms. To prepare, brush the mushroom off with a soft brush or cloth. A great way to cook Chicken of the Woods is to saute in butter with mushrooms and garlic. Here I used my homemade garlic oil, butter, and onions. Don’t over cook!! They will get kind of tough. I would say to cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat.
When I found these, some of the mushrooms on the logs were a little older. I cooked them anyway and learned my lesson. They are edible, but the younger ones and the Cincinnatus are softer and have a better mouth-feel.
Do they taste like chicken?
Well, they are very mild and lightly flowery tasting. I would say that the texture is more like chicken than the flavor. They don’t have that distinct mushroom-y or earthy flavor typical of store-bought mushrooms, so these might be a good mushroom to introduce to friends or family who say they don’t like mushrooms.
How to preserve Chicken of the Woods
When you find such a big mushroom as this, you will likely have leftovers. With all I found, I sure did. I read from experienced mushroom hunters that these are not good mushrooms to dry as they get very leather and don’t constitute well. They also said that they freeze well as long as you cook them in butter/oil. I did freeze a few quart-sized bags of them. I thawed them at room temperature and just warmed them a little in a pan and served them in fettuccini alfredo. While edible, they were a little tough. I may have cooked them too long to begin with, so this is something I will experiment with in the future. You may want to experiment yourself with freezing them or only harvest as much as you will eat without freezing and leave the rest for the wildlife.
When trying a new mushroom, only eat a little the first day–even if you are very sure of its safety. Even with a mild mushroom like Chicken of the Woods, some people have mild nausea. My husband actually did the first time he ate them, but seemed to do just fine the other times. Apparently, some people tolerate some mushrooms better than others.
While there aren’t really poisonous look-alikes for Chicken of the Woods, there is an orange mushroom that grows on logs that can fool you if you don’t know what you’re looking for. One is commonly called Jack-o-lanterns. I have found them on logs and on the ground. Here are three photos. You can see clear differences between them and the chicken of the woods mushrooms.
I recommend that you get a good book for identifying mushrooms. I really like my book, Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians. You can get it on Amazon here. It has great color photos and good written descriptions.
Another great book for identifying mushrooms from all regions in North America is Mushroom Demystified.
I have gotten a lot of help from the Facebook group of almost 100,000 members, The Mushroom Identification Forum. You can learn a lot just from reading through the posts. To get help with identifying your own mushrooms, be sure to take pictures of the tops and bottoms of the mushrooms and note where you find them. Sometimes you will need to get a spore print at home, too. Mushroom Identification Page is another good group on Facebook with over 50,000 members to help with identifying your ‘shrooms.
***Please be sure to positively identify any mushroom you find before you eat it. The best way is to go with an experienced mushroom hunter and to confirm the ID with multiple sources.