Fall is a great time to forage Chicken of the Woods mushrooms. The bright orange fan shaped mushroom grow like frilly shelves from the side of trees and stand out like a flag. Last year we found a huge clutch of them exploding from a downed tree at Lake Maria State Park in Minnesota. They live primarily on deciduous-type trees in Minnesota, either live, downed or decaying. I’ve also been known to stop the car and knock on stranger’s doors if I see a Chicken of the Woods on a tree in someone’s yard. (My partner hates it when I do that!)
According to the excellent new book, Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms, written by my friend Kathy Yerich and her co-author Terresa Marrone, there are three species of this fungi, Laetiporus sulphureus (also called Sulfur Shelf, pictured here with yellow pores), a white pored variety called Laetiporus cincinnatus, and Laetiporus huroniensis, that grows on hemlocks and conifers. All are edible. The two toxic orange look-a-like mushrooms are the Jack O’Lantern and the Orange Mock Oyster, but both are quite easy to distinguish from Chickens because they have distinct stems and gills, while Chickens of the Woods have no stem and pores.
If this is your first time hunting these mushrooms, please consult with an expert forager as well as a good guide book, or better yet join a mushroom group, like Minnesota Mycological Society. It’s vital that you know what mushroom you have before you eat it, as many toxic mushrooms can kill or seriously poison you, even if they taste fine. The good news is that this mushroom can frequently be found in commercial settings where expert foragers have done the work for you! If you’re in Minneapolis, you can find them dried in many stores, or fresh at Mill City Farmer’s Market.
I love to cook with Chicken of the Woods because, predictably, they taste like chicken! They also have a texture that is remarkably similar to cooked chicken breast meat. Small fans are best, or the frilly edges of large fans. The tree-side edge of the mushroom can get thick and woody, but it still works great for making mushroom stock. I particularly like to cook the Chickens with rice, as rice soaks up the flavor and adds a nice textural pairing with the mushrooms. The bright orange color remains when cooked. Below find my recipe for Chicken of the Woods Mushroom Rice Pilaf with Kale.