Hen of the woods, maitake, sheepshead, hen of the forest, these delicious, bountiful mushrooms have lots of names and are the king of Fall mushrooms in the Midwest.
I say Fall mushroom because they come out in earnest post Summer, but you might see an occasional one in midsummer, although they're rare that early. These can grow to be massive, and I've personally picked clusters that have weighed thirty pounds or more.
Even with their large size, these can be a frustrating, elusive mushroom to hunt. For around 3 years or so, I would only find one here and there, some years I went without finding any. I've learned a little about hunting them though, and I'll share a couple things with you
Hens are technically a parasitic mushroom that lives off of a host tree. Where I hunt in Minnesota, the easiest way to look for these is to go to areas with old white and red oaks, with red oaks seeming to be their preferred host where I hunt.
It might seem counter intuitive, but you don't need to be in the deep woods for these, although some of my best patches are very secluded. Here's the best tips I can think of:
- Look to your nearest park that has big old oak trees, it doesn't have to be "woodsy" open and grassy with a playground is fine, just try to not look like a stalker, and make sure the grass isn't being sprayed if it's a golf course or something similar. If it's at the right part of the season, they won't be that difficult to find at all. Be warned though, you won't be the only person looking at local parks.
- You don't have to hike! I have a couple of friends who hunt on bike, biking helps you cover a lot of area quickly, and snatch low-hanging (read as obvious) hens along paved trails. As a bonus, you can have less competition going to areas less hunters think to go, since most will hunt on foot.
- If you find one, there's more! If one tree has a hen, then the whole grove has likely been infected. Keep looking around at the base of trees, and keep coming back after you get some rain, rest assured, if you find one hen, you've probably found a spot to go for years to come.
- Look for death and decay. Hens are a parasite, and aren't good for the trees they feed off of. It's not a rule, but a good way to start out hunting is to find woods that have lots of fallen oaks, stumps, and dead matter.
My favorite way to hunt hen of the woods is the old fashioned way- on a secluded trail away from prying eyes, and competing hunters. After you find a couple spots, all you have to do is waltz in and check to see if they're up yet.
If you know trees that are hosting hens, they'll come back year after year in the same location. It's interesting because they grow specifically on one tree, but if you find one in an area, look around, because there are probably more nearby.
Once you know an area has them, you can bet other trees will become infected, remember, hens are a parasite. I'll add too, that if you have an area that's rich in hens, you should go there regularly once they start to fruit.
Different trees will give hens at different times throughout the season. I find them at the base of white oak trees, red oak trees, and very occasionally on maple.
When to harvest
One of the best When you find a young hen, it might be tiny, the size of a golf ball or your fist, or it could be larger.
There's a natural urge to wait for it to get huge, thinking you'll get more bang for your buck, but that is faulty logic: young and tender, as opposed to old and tough should be your motto.
How big is too big?
The biggest thing to know with these mushrooms is that while you can come across huge clusters (I once brought a single 30lb'r on tv with me) bigger is absolutely not better.
Most of the time when I find a hen, I take it, unless I can clearly see that it's just starting to poke it's head out of the turf, and then I might wait 3-4 days or so.
Other mushroom hunters might not find your hen if you greedily wait a week for your hen to balloon to behemoth size, but beetles, slugs, and fly larvae will.
Another thing not often discussed with these is that waiting and watching them can compromise their cleanliness. Hens can be tricky enough to clean as it is, but the kicker is that if you get a nice rain, and dirt splashes up on the hen and dries, the mushroom will physically absorb the dirt into it's flesh as it grows.
I once had a diner break a crown from biting into a piece of hen that physically had a pebble inside the flesh, guess who picked up the tab? Pickem young, and pickem clean.
Hen of the woods is supposed to be only one mushroom: Grifola frondosa, but over the past few years I have run into different color variations of hens.
I'm not a professional mycologist, but I do know that there are at a number of distinct species of chicken of the woods, so I assume the same could be possible with hens. Whether it's an weird color variation, or something else I don't know, but here is a picture of a white version that I get from the same maple tree every year.
I can find no difference in taste between the white/grey/and brown versions of hen of the woods I've found. Whatever causes the color variation, it's interesting.
Look a Likes
As far as look a likes, there's a few I know of. One is Grifola umbellata, also called the umbrella polypore. I've collected and eaten them, and they're good, but very rare.
Umbrella Polypore / Polyporus umbellatus (Edible and Excellent)
The other look a likes are pretty elusive. From what I know they belong to a family of related mushrooms called Bonderzewia. When I've found these they look very similar to hen of the woods, but are much more solid and hard. I've eaten them, but they're pretty tough, although If you find them young enough they would probably be ok, thinly sliced, or pickled.
Black Staining Polypore / Meripilus sumstinei (and others)
Black staining polypores are probably the most common thing peoples will confuse with a hen of the woods.
Thankfully, these mushrooms are edible too, and delicious, but they're more difficult to cook as they're tougher, and need special treatment like drying and powdering, cutting the ½ inch margin into duxelles, or making into stock and broth.
If you find a good meripilus, take it! There's other mushrooms related to these, such as Berkley's polypore, which look similar to the BSP, without the black staining.
Bonderzewia (and similar)
I rarely see these, but they do look a bit like hen of the woods. They seem far too tough to be useful, but many people still say that about black staining polypores. They're not harmful to my knowledge, but they would be very hard to chew.
Cultivated vs Wild
You may have seen little plastic bags of maitake at specialty grocery stores. The skinny is, just like an animal, the flavor of a mushroom resides in what it consumes, so to speak.
A wild hen is like a naturally raised and fed animal, and has a rich, particular flavor. Hens can be cultivated though, and, like you might suspect, the growers are not creating the same substrate (read as mushroom diet) as their wild cousins.
Over the years, I would source cultivated hens from suppliers here and there, but they taste like a button mushroom with the shape of a hen.
But, I do know at least one company that's created a more natural substrate for theirs to grow on, and, it follows that the more natural the substrate, the better the flavor will be, but it will still never taste as good as a wild hen, period.
There are a few tricks to hen of the woods. Usually I separate the mushrooms into bite size clusters, inspect them for debris and the occasional insect, and then cook. If you find some nice young ones though, they're great cleaned and roasted whole, like a piece of meat.
Separating them into large sections can give you some fun possibilities too-their size gives them a lot of possibilities in the kitchen.
Hen of the woods steaks
Hens are giant, meaty mushrooms, so it only makes sense to treat them like a piece of meat. You'll need young, meticulously clean mushrooms to cut steaks out of, but when you find a good one, it can be an easy way to make a great meal out of them.
If you get a really nice hen, you might find yourself cutting the fronds off like a large broccoli, when that happens, you can be left with pounds of tender, solid mushroom core, and it is good stuff.
Trim the dirt from the bottom and enjoy it as you would any other part of the mushroom. It's great diced and added to soup, or cooked in large chunks as you would hen steaks, just make sure to clean and trim any dirt from the bottom of the mushroom accordingly.
These are relatively easy to clean, I typically just separate them into leaves or clusters. Something worth mentioning is that hen of the woods and chicken of the woods as well grow kind of like blobs absorbing things that are close to them.
This might only be an acorn or a twig you can pull out, but I've found debris lodged inside the mushroom flesh itself. One time this ended up being a pebble that a diner at a restaurant broke his tooth on. As you can imagine, that was no fun, so make sure to inspect them thoroughly.
A Bug hotel
With chicken of the woods and other mushrooms, you have to check for worms. Hen of the woods are generally going to be worm free, which is a really nice bonus.
But, you will see all manner of small critters running out of them: pill bugs, centipedes, ants, spiders, snakes (yes, I've found a baby snake in a large one) It's all part of natures design, as maitake function as shelter for small creatures. Hens are literally a bug hotel.
Since these can be found in huge quantities, much bigger than you could ever fit in your fridge, it's good to have some methods to preserve them.
Structurally they're very similar to chicken of the woods so I treat them both the same-I either pickle, or saute and freeze them for later use.
I know that some people dry and powder them, and use it in a seasoning blend, add to soups and sauces, etc. Hen of the woods jerky has always been a crowd favorite too.
Before you shrug pickled mushrooms off as a cold snack that will take up cupboard space, I'll tell you why I love pickled hens so much.
You see, pickling hens, and chanterelles and a many other mushrooms as well is the closest thing to eating them fresh as you will get in the off season. It preserves their texture like nothing else.
Granted, they have a little sharpness from vinegar, but my recipes contain much less vinegar than you'll find in traditional recipes, since most pickled mushroom recipes assassinate mushrooms with too much vinegar in my opinion.
Freezing is a good option to preserve your hens, and there's a number of ways people go about it. Personally, I like to cook my mushrooms before I freeze them, so I make duxelles, or cook and vacuum seal them as I outline in my post on freezing wild mushrooms.
Some people do like the IQF freezing technique, so I'll explain it quick. To IQF (individually quick-frozen) freeze your mushrooms, take cleaned pieces of mushroom and put them on a cookie sheet and freeze them.
When the mushroom pieces are thoroughly frozen, remove them, put into a bag and vacuum seal. Cook the mushrooms straight from frozen.
Recipes I've made specifically for hens or where they would be good substitutes.
- Simple Roasted Hen of the Woods
- Pickled Hen of The Woods
- Mushroom Conserve
- Hen Of The Woods-Leek Gratin
- Wild Mushroom Duxelles
- Wild Mushrooms With Garlic And Parsley
- Hen of the Woods Steaks with Anchovy Sauce
"Their are no poisonous look"
should be "There are..."
I'll be trying your recipes with the 10-pounder I found 10-28-16 in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Cheers. Joe Wiercinski
Good for you! Happy hunting.
What are your thoughts on boiling these for 20-30 min in pieces and freezing in the remaining water/juice?
Sure you can do that, typically I make duxelles to save space.
I have been picking hen of the woods for 50 years. I live on long island, N.Y. These mushrooms come out every year on the same trees. If you dont find them on the first full moon in September, then you will find them on the October full moon.
How can I do this picking a hen
The best producing hen of the woods tree in maine is located at the Spirit Pond Preserve Phippsburg land trust trails in Phippsburg maine.
the coordinates are approximately: 43.751511, -69.807439
Spirit Pond Hen Of The Woods Red Oak Tree Map Link:
every single year this ancient red oak produces at least 50 pounds of prime grade A hen of the woods, maitake, grifola frondosa, g. frondosa mushrooms! Hen of the woods seems to be independent of drought conditions. Though after years of hen hunting, I have only found hen-of-the-woods mushrooms within 200 feet of water, whether that be salt water or fresh water, or brackish water. Often times the old oaks where they are found are immediately on the edge (even overhanging) of a body of water, and frequently near tidal areas along the coast of maine.
The Spirit Pond oak tree produces from the middle of September to the middle of October every single year, and has done so for at least the last 15 years and probably longer. The tree is located toward the beginning of the spirit pond trail and about 200 feet from spirit pond at the site of an old homestead and near the spirit pond burial ground. the tree fell directly over a portion of the trail in 2015 but still grows hen of the woods mushroom from the remaining stump, around the stump and from the base of the fallen tree itself in huge numbers and size. Check this tree frequently during the season as it is well known locally to grow hens.
Where to find the second most productive hen of the woods oak tree in maine is at the Center Pond Phippsburg land trust trail in Phippsburg maine. It is located at the edge of center pond just opposite the beaver pond along the main trail.
Center Pond Phippsburg Maine Hen of the Woods Map Link
The preceding geo-location in this instance is exact. The fallen trunk of this tree can be seen on google maps satellite view. This grifola frondosa supporting red oak tree has grown mushrooms as late as mid November and particularly on, and inside the hollow portion of the fallen tip-over dead section which actually rests in Center Pond itself.
The hen of the woods that this tree produces range from 10 - 20 pounds. this tree is easily accessed and well known, so the maitake go quickly. if you're the lucky one to get a 15 pound hen of the woods from this tree, you'll understand why it's called the dancing mushroom.
We have one of these growing right in our front yard, where our old swamp oak used to be. It's not a terribly large one, but still...free mushrooms for a couple months at least.
I got two medium clumps of freshly picked hen of the woods two weeks ago. i have them on the bottom shelf of my fridge in an open box. I totally forgot about them. i never cleaned them. they are now dry. are they still good?
I just "scored" several kgs of Meripilus giganteus, the European Black Staining Polypore. When I say "scored" I found it and took a piece home to ID. When I got home I noticed the black staining, which made the IDing so much faster. Then I cooked up a bit and ate some and am waiting to see that I suffer no immediate problems myself before I feed it to my family. The flavour is mild mushroomy - no acidity of a beefsteak mushroom or lemony undertones of a chicken of the woods - and the texture is very good. It's firm and not very fibrous, making me wonder about the negative comments I have read about these mushrooms from multiple sources.
Alan, have you ever eaten this mushroom? Do you know anything about it? I am particularly interested in it because my son, who is becoming a vegetarian with the exception of scavenged meat (and possibly the mice that I trapped in the cellar - I think he counts that as scavenged) wants to make Thai curry with my frozen chicken of the woods, and I think these are too precious to be smothered in spicy curry and coconut milk... but the Meripilus giganteus has the right texture to be a chicken substitute in a curry and is pretty neutral, so it would be no loss. Also, I just found kgs and kgs of it...
Any thoughts on this or has it not yet crossed your path?
Oooooh. Jacqui this is one I haven't had the chance to try yet. Bonderzewia Meripilus type polypores are pretty rare where I live. Hens however, are very abundant. given the choice between all of them, I'll gladly take the hens (no complaining here) but I've always wanted to try the black stainer. Curry with either chickens or meripilus sound great, and I regulalry make chicken curry when we get large flushes. I started passing the chickens up this year as there have been so, so many of them. Good luck, and let me know how you like them, I'm a little jealous 😉
I wonder if I could mail you some... It's fairly dry ... could work.
I'm very fortunate to live in eastern Illinois. We have a vast variety of fall mushrooms. Hens, oyster, honeyring, lacaria, meadow, both types of chicken of the woods, lions mane and a number of bolette types. I have harvested all but the lions mane this year. My personal best hen is 57lbs. I love love love finding them.
Yes, hens can get absolutely massive.
I picked a nice size Hen of Woods in NY (5-6 lbs). When I got home hundreds/thousand of tiny white bugs or eggs started falling/jumping out. I took the whole thing and put in out on my deck table. Is there a way to get rid of the bugs/larva and are they poisonous or edible. I am ready to trash the whole thing.
Interesting because we found a few others on surrounding trees and they are totally clean.
Please let me know.
Hi. I'm assuming that the little bugs you're talking about looked like maggots? Small, white, wiggling around, etc? Mushrooms in our region (I'm in MN and we share some similar habitat) will often have bugs like that. As you discovered, some may have a large amount, and some may have none. Over time, you'll learn how to inspect mushrooms, especially large polypores like chicken of the woods for these before bringing them home, since when their house (the mushroom) is agitated, they will ahem "migrate" out, onto and into whatever they can. It can be a little unnerving, but like everything else in nature, they have a purpose, although yes, they are disgusting. Even so, finding maggots in hen of the woods is very, very rare for me, more often I just have to give it a good shake and inspect for centipedes, spiders and the like, which are no big deal. With chicken of the woods it's much more common. If I were you I would trash the big one since you have smaller, untouched mushrooms to cook. Know too, that if you leave uninfested mushrooms near one with a bug population, all will become infected.
Awesome article on the Hen of the Woods mushroom!
Next time I go out to the woods near my house I will check for some fallen oaks, stumps, and dead matter and see if I find any hens.
For cooking them though do you recommend to grill or saute them to make them more meaty tasting?
Grilling or pan roasting are my favorite. See my post on hen of the woods steaks.
First, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your website as a great resource for mushroom foraging! Thanks for providing it!
Second, I located a beautiful maitake specimen growing from the base of a tree in my neighbor’s yard, right at the intersection of where their driveway and sidewalk connect. My neighborhood’s street sees low to moderate numbers of vehicles moving along the street each day...my neighbor granted me permission to harvest the cluster, but I’m wondering if I should leave it be knowing that many mushroom species are able to absorb heavy metals, etc from vehicle exhaust emissions, among other pollutants in the environment? What do you think? Thanks.
It should be fine.
Patrick J Gambino
I have been picking Hen of the Woods for 20 year, and some year are better than others. Does it have anthing to do with the amont of rain we get that year? I live in Western New York, and I have a spot with very old oaks. They call them witness trees because they witnesed the war of 1812. Last year the one woods I hunt I found at lest 10 this year not one yet. It seems like they all come up around the last week in September or first week in October.
I have Maitake growing in my yard. I have had three harvests! The first a mushroom thief helped themselves to( people have helped themselves to our mushrooms for 20 years) I finally put up a little garden fence with a Don't pick the mushroom sign to keep them away. I have picked 40 plus pounds., I sold 20 pounds to a forager and kept the rest. I want to make soup.with a lot of it,. So would it be good to use a lot of the stalk in the soup? Does the stalk have the same flavor as the ends??
Found an orange hen today on the Finger Lakes Trail.
Hens aren't orange. Poisonous Omphalotus is though.
Thank you for your post. I recently found a large hen of the woods (I think) mushroom in my yard. I am new to foraging, so I still have not harvested it. How do you know when a mushroom is "old"?
Hens are too old when they are buggy past your comfort level, woody and tough, and likely spored out. That being said, the spored out part is more flexible for me, and I regularly find some that are fine to eat that have started to spore. If I look in them and they seem very dirty, full of worm holes and excrement, I will pass. Over time once you handle some of differing ages this will make sense.
So that can come down to personal preference a bit. If it is very bug eaten, wormy, or just dried out and not tender, I will pass. With other mushrooms, going to spore can mean they're past prime, but hens can stay tender for a decent amount of time, and I have some friends who will eat hens on deaths door. The age will make more sense once you've harvested a few of them of slightly different ages.
I’m interested in mushrooms and how beneficial they are to health wise ,and can a person grow these or I’m just very curious of how pickle and grill plz help
Sorry Mary, I don't discuss medicinal aspects on this site as I'm not an expert at that.
Thank you for this fabulous post, Alan! You mentioned that you know of a grower who uses a more natural substrate; do you feel comfortable mentioning the name (or giving a few names of companies that we can order from when we can't get wild hens)?
It was D'Artagnon, I don't know if they're still selling them. I sometimes buy cultivated hens from Asian markets-they're not the same as wild, but they're also easier to clean.
Thanks so much for the info, Alan!