Chickens of the Woods
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Bright orange and forming large shelf colonies along dead logs, these attractive and abundant mushrooms are some of the most rewarding foragibles. As the name implies, they have a texture, flavor and even appearance of chicken. Like chicken, this mushroom is extremely versatile and accommodating; it can be sliced and sautéed, marinated and grilled, deep fried, or served in a salad.
How to Identify Chicken of the Woods?
The mushroom "Chicken of the Woods (COW)", which is also called "Sulphur Shelf" or "Sulphur Polypore", is actually one of two species: laetiporus cincinnattus (or semialbinus) or laetiporus sulphereus. Both species are characterized by having a, typically, orange-hued cap of the mushroom with a pore-bearing underside and growing in fans or shelves on dead wood. Another commonality these two species share is having a white to cream spore print. In contrast though, laetiporus cincinnattus tends to be paler or sometimes pink on the cap and its pores are white on the underside of the shelf fungi. Laetiporus sulphereus has a much more deep full orange (sometimes even rusty red) coloration, typically, and its porous underside is dull to bright yellow. Another difference is that the latter grows typically on standing dead trees or on logs strewn over forest floor, whereas laetiporus cincinnattus only grows at the base of a tree trunk or on dead buried roots (sometimes giving the impression that they are growing out of the earth rather than dead wood).
Both species grow on many varieties of dead wood, though are most notably found on oak or willow, particularly in the midwest. This fungi typically has two peak growths, one during the early summer and the other late summer/fall. It often occurs after thunderstorms and typically responds better to warmer temperatures of highs of 70+ Fahrenheit. With that said, these species can be quite drought resistant and fresh specimens can be found throughout the summer season.
How to use them in the kitchen?
When cooking, and you must always cook them, (this should be assumed to be the case for all other wild harvested mushrooms as well!) be careful because it can be tricky. These mushrooms are like sponges. When you find a young specimen they are very moist and tender like an overripe strawberry and as they age they continue to possess an aptitude for holding large amounts of moisture. So often it's important to get rid of that moisture right away in the cooking process. If very wet, dab with paper towels or even air dry for a bit before cooking. Also consider using a rub on the mushroom to allow some of the moisture to get pulled out and of course if all else fails just dry sauté them for a few minutes to pull out some liquid then strain that off. Then you may sauté with butter or oil (be careful because they can quickly absorb a lot of oil so don't keep adding it if you'd worried about it disappearing quickly!). Not feeling a sauté? Instead, you can toss them in the slow cooker for a couple to 4 hours at a low setting with a little barbecue or vinegar and make excellent "pulled COW". I've diced this mushroom and cooked it in some adobo and served it as a vegetarian taco meat. It can be grilled like chicken breast or fried like KFC. Thinking about it right now makes me think how insanely good it would be to make it a fancy mushroom by preparing a COW confit cooked in duck fat (or butter). For longevity, I've heard of folks using COW to make vegetarian stocks or dehydrating it for use in dishes later. It also keeps well for months if lightly sauteed, immersed in marinade or brine, and then frozen.