Chicken of the woods is an easily identifiable and safe mushroom to start your mushroom seeking adventures.
This mushroom is in the Laetiporus genus, of which there are 2 or 3 species in North America; namely Laetiporus sulphureus having yellow pores, and L. cincinnatus having white pores. The pore surface, opposed to gills, is a very important characteristic of the underside of mushrooms.
This beautiful and relatively easy mushroom to identify is amazing in a stir fry, baked, breaded and fried, and can be sautéed just as one would prepare chicken. The texture is similar, and it can be a good replacement in any recipes that call for chicken.
One of the main factors in safely identifying this mushroom against several other bright orange mushrooms is that it grows directly on wood. This means that when you find it, you should look to see that it is orange and fan shaped, has a porus underside, and is growing out of wood directly. Otherwise, it can be one of many other mushrooms, some of which can be poisonous.
Ethical and sustainable harvesting of all mushrooms is important, and although there is some debate among mycologists, it is generally recommended to remove the tender part of the mushrooms with either a knife, or by hand, and in the case of chicken of the woods, by breaking off the fans, but not necessarily removing the entire base. Often on chicken of the woods everything but the fans are very woody and inedible, while this can be used for stock, the real gem is in the soft succulent tips, which break off like the texture of chicken.
One main issue in their edibility is people harvesting it once the mushroom is dried out. In most climates without high humidity, you really only get 3-4 days after the rains to get fresh mushrooms. After that, mushrooms quickly become bug hotels. This may be one of the factors of why a select few people can get digestive upset eating this mushroom. This is easily avoided by only eating a small amount to see first how you’ll react to it, and this is especially important for children. I’ve also heard that chicken of the woods growing on evergreens can be an issue for some peoples digestive systems; although this may be a rumor from mistaking poison hemlock (Conium) for the edible and medicinal hemlock tree (Tsuga sp.) of which there is no relation, other than their common name. I have never even seen this mushroom grow on any evergreens. Look for them on downed oak and maple as the bark peels off.
Also, medicinal mushroom research has also shown that chicken of the woods is also medicinal and is active against staph, ” All strains demonstrated antimicrobial activity against a wide spectrum of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria during agar and submerged cultivation including methicillin-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and glycopeptide-resistant strain of Leuconostoc mesenteroides.” – Check out more about their medicinal aspects at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12741318
Here’s a video on ethical and sustainable harvest in a tongue-in-cheek “zen” way:
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