Just the other day I was driving down a forest road in central Minnesota. As I glanced into the woods on my left, a flash of orange caught my attention.
I slammed on the brakes and backed up so I could take it home with me.
Chicken of the woods is a shelf mushroom that grows on hardwoods. Its role is that of decomposer, so that usually means dead hardwoods. It generally fruits in late summer to fall, but can also be encountered during a lesser fruiting period in late spring. It can be hard to predict when any one specimen will fruit, even if its location and habits are known. This is why I consider it an “incidental-take” mushroom; I’m happy to harvest some but don’t go looking for it.
L. sulphureus can vary in coloration, but is unmistakeable nonetheless. The top side of the shelf can range from light salmon to bright orange to darker rosy orange. The bottom— the porous side— is yellow. One of the great things about chicken of the woods is that there aren’t other mushrooms that appear similar. That’s why I happily endorse this as a Beginner’s Mushroom.
You’ll see pictures on the internet of chickens with incredible mass. Sometimes 20 pounds’ worth or more. But let’s be honest: those finds are few and far between. Most I harvest give me far less than five pounds. Besides, those incredible-looking specimens are well-developed (old) and probably bug-filled.
I much prefer to find Laetiporus in an earlier stage of growth. That is, when colors are vibrant, the mushroom is juicy, and bugs usually haven’t begun to take hold. Maybe I’m too selective, but I believe you just don’t need to eat bad mushrooms. That might mean leaving most in the woods, but I figure that’s part of foraging. To me, taking home less-than-good mushrooms seems desperate. Here’s what I look for in a good chicken of the woods:
-Bright colors, above and below. Faded generally equals old.
-New-looking, with rounded edges. The older they get, the more they grow outward and thin out (I call them “pancaked out”).
-Easy to cut. They get woody, stringy, and tough with age. In the event that a pancaked specimen seems tender and isn’t full of worm holes, I might take the outermost inch or two.
In the Kitchen
Do they really taste like chicken? If you’re not too critical, yes. The texture can be like cooked chicken as well. If you’re looking for something identical to actual chicken, you’ll be disappointed. Believe it or not, some people get downright bent out of shape over this.
So, why would anyone claim it “tastes like chicken”? Think of it this way: wine tastes like wine, but can be described as “earthy” or “fruity” or any number of things. Nobody throws a fit and stomps out of the room if a wine with “citrus overtones” doesn’t taste like orange juice. I can’t help but think that some people have not one scrap of imagination, and that’s not likely to change. So let’s just agree to appreciate it in our own ways, okay?
Another thing to like about chicken of the woods is that it isn’t a super shrinker like morels or other mushrooms of delicate construction. I’ve found that with a moderate sautéing, they’ll still maintain most of their original mass.
With a basic preparation, they’ll be good to go into lots of things. First, cut it into longitudinal strips (from stem to outer edge). Next, put them into a heated pan and toss them around for a few minutes to rid them of excess water. Then add some butter to finish them off. I like to see them develop a slight color change (darker), then I remove them from the heat.
One popular item at our house is a kind of breakfast burrito with chicken mushrooms. It’s a great way to use a small amount, such as when one’s foraging mission yields only a little.
To make the burrito, start by cooking your mushrooms as described above. Then pour some beaten egg over them. Flip it once like any over hard egg. When done cooking, place it on a tortilla that has shredded cheese spread over it. Move entire tortilla to medium hot pan, until cheese melts and tortilla browns. Roll it up and eat with sour cream and/or hot sauce of choice.