Even if you’re new to mushroom hunting, you’ve probably seen these, they’re chicken of the woods and they’re one of the safest, widely available mushrooms out there, and if you catch them at the right time they’re some of the best mushrooms I’ve eaten.
In order to find these it’s helpful to know how they grow. Chicken of the woods are parasites, decomposing or infecting living trees, eating them from the inside out. They begin fruiting in the beginning of the summer, and will continue into the fall. From my experience, each tree hosting a chicken mushroom will tend to have it’s own “clock”, meaning that you could go somewhere and cut one, then come back two months later and find another on a different tree a mile away. Typically I find them growing on various species of oak in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they also grow on conifers too, especially on the west coast and up into Canada.
Chicken mushrooms get a bad rap from many mushroom hunters. They say they’re tough, or bland, or that they “don’t pick chickens” as some type of personal prejudice, which is a shame. Here’s my angle: finding chicken mushrooms is very easy as far as mushrooms go, but finding chicken mushrooms in prime eating condition is not. You wouldn’t eat an old dried up potato, so don’t eat an old, dry, or wormy chicken.
Age and texture is an issue, but personally, I inspect them more for bugs than anything else. More often than not, most of the chickens you find will be infested. It’s difficult too, since I’ve found chickens in prime eating condition, but, due to nature’s whim, are riddled with larvae. To compound the issue, even if the mushroom has only a hole or two that you can see, if it sits in your fridge for a day or two, or worse, at room temperature (think a coop market).
To inspect them for bugs, to cut into the mushroom where it connects to the tree and see if you can see any sort of tunneling like an ant hill, if you can, keep cutting into the mushroom, moving farther and farther up to the tip until you can’t see any tunnels. This should prevent any little worms from continuing their work and feeding themselves in your refrigerator, they will actually crawl out into your fridge if you’re not careful.
I’ve eaten two species of chickens: yellow pored Laetiporus sulphureus, and white pored Laetiporus cincinnatus. They’re both great to eat, but there is just something about the white pored variety that I like more, they seem even more tender, even as they age then the yellow variety. Often I can eat more of the mushroom too, including the tender stem in some mushrooms. Other than those two, in the United States, according to Tom Volk, there should also be:
L. gilbertsonii, L. gilbertsonii: growing on eucalyptus or oak
L. conifericola: growing on conifers
East Coast and Great lakes
L. huroniensis: yellow pores, growing on conifers
L. sulphureus: yellow pores, growing on oak
L. cincinnatus: white pores, growing on oak
Laeitporus cincinnatus (my favorite species)
Like I mentioned, white-pored chickens are my favorite, and they seem to prefer growing from the roots of trees as opposed to directly from the sides of trees, but I’ve found them growing in both situations, as you can see in pictures above and below. They’re also more rare than yellow chickens, which seem to be just about everywhere in the summer. If you find a cincinnatus, consider yourself lucky.
While it isn’t exactly common, some people get a numbing sensation in their lips after eating chicken of the woods. If it happens to you, it’s nothing to be scared of, but the rest of your mushroom harvesting career is probably not going to include gigantic amounts of chicken of the woods. I know at least two people that still eat the mushroom even though they get the reaction, and I’ve heard of people developing the reaction overtime. It may be strange feeling, but it’s not going to kill you.
Should I avoid chickens growing on conifers? Maybe.
With Laetiporus/chickens, there really aren’t any look a-likes worth mentioning in my opinion, but it’s widely recommended not to eat chicken of the woods that are growing on coniferous trees. Now, I’m not trying to go against science, but it just isn’t that simple. While it’s fairly well documented that chickens from, say, the Northwest United States growing on conifers can give some people an upset stomach, it doesn’t happen to everyone.
My commercial harvesting friends in Oregon say they avoid harvesting Laetiporus gilbertsonii growing on Eucalyptus, but, I have a friend who recently traveled to Alaska to hunt, and spoke with multiple people that harvest and eat chickens up there growing on spruce with no problem. Basically, chickens growing on conifers may be more likely to cause G.I. upset in some people, but it’s not a guarantee, so if you’re harvesting a new species growing on a tree you haven’t eaten before, try a small amount to make sure it agrees with you, just like with any new food.
As far as preserving your chicken mushrooms, In my opinion you have two options: Pickling and freezing. I prefer pickling to freezing, since even if the mushrooms are cooked before freezing they seem to develop a kind of off texture. Pickling preserves the texture of mushrooms better than any method I’ve found. The acid you add to a pickling liquid too makes them a natural addition to a vinaigrette, or as a way to cut the fat of a rich sauce.
A lot of hunters around Minnesota and Wisconsin where I hunt like to freeze these, and that works, with one caveats: never freeze chickens raw. Water expands when it freezes and destroys the texture, plus, it’s simply a horrible waste of your freezer space.
To freeze these, saute them in plenty of butter with some herbs like thyme, and salt to taste, but don’t brown the mushrooms, you just want to remove water, and browning them would narrow the possibilities you have when you thaw them. When putting them in the freezer, make sure to add plenty of butter or fat to the plastic bag, tupper-ware, or whatever container you’re going to keep them in, since it will help ward off freezer burn. Lastly, choose a container that will expose them to as little air as possible.