Chicken of the Woods Mushroom (and What to Do with Old “Chickens”)
Finding a colorful, tender chicken of the woods mushroom in its prime (like the one in this photo) never ceases to give me a thrill. One of the easiest wild edible mushrooms to identify, it is also one of the most delicious.
But what if your mushroom hunting timing is off and you find your “chicken” past its prime? Old “chicken” is infamously tough with a texture that has been described as chalky. The flavor is still excellent, however, and there is a workaround for that chalky texture.
First, you need to find and identify Laetiporous sulphureus and other Laetiporous species. (If you’re already experienced at identifying “chicken,” scroll down to the How to Prepare section, which includes a suggestion on what to do with old Laetiporous).
Find and Identify
“Chicken” is a shelf mushroom with pores, not gills, on the underside. Its upper surface is bright orange or yellow, or occasionally mostly white. The easiest to spot “chicken” is the sunny-colored Laetiporous sulphureus, which grows on oak and other hardwoods in the eastern half of North America. On the West Coast, L. gilbertsonii grows on both oak and eucalyptus. All “chickens” grow on wood. I have sometimes spotted one that looked like it was growing in a lawn, but closer inspection revealed that it was growing on a stump or buried log.
Chicken of the woods has many individual caps arranged in shelf-like layers, or in a rosette. These caps are up to 3 cm thick with yellow pores rather than gills on their undersides. The orange, yellow, or white with yellow or orange upper surfaces are velvety. The flesh when you break a piece open is white to pale yellow.
How to Harvest
Chicken of the woods is a parasite mushroom that can eventually kill its host tree. You are not endangering the mushroom nor the tree by harvesting this choice species.
Harvest by slicing off the “chicken” just slightly away from the wood it is attached to. Yanking rather than slicing the mushroom off the tree would only result in extra work for you because a lot of bark and debris would end up in your collection container.
The best time to harvest this mushroom is when it is still young and moist rather that tough, dry, and chalky texture it gets when it is older. But there are good culinary uses for past-prime “chickens” as well.
How to Prepare
Young chicken of the woods mushroom is delectable simply sautéed in butter or oil with a little garlic and herbs of your choosing. You can also bake this mushroom, and it is fantastic in soup and creamy pasta sauces. You can preserve tender, young “chicken” by pressure canning, freezing, or dehydrating.
Older chicken of the woods never becomes tender when cooked, but it is still full of flavor. To get around the unfortunate texture of older chicken mushrooms, first dry them either in a dehydrator or an oven on its lowest setting. Grind the dried mushrooms to a powder in an electric coffee grinder (or with a mortar and pestle if you want to keep it old school). The powder is a fantastic flavor booster for risotto, gravy, soups, and pasta sauces.
An earlier version of this post is part of The Skillful Forager: Essential Techniques for Responsible Foraging and Making the Most of Your Wild Edibles