Chickens of the Woods Are Not Really Chickens

This happens a lot:  You're about to try some unusual food for the first time and the self-anointed expert slides up and knowingly announces "Oh - it tastes just like chicken."  Well this post is about one of those foods that tastes just like chicken. Hopefully, the Hipster Hens won’t find out. The food up for discussion in this case is the incredibly delicious sulphur shelf mushroom.  We’ve had a little rain and they’re popping up out in the woods like, well…like mushrooms—much to my gustatory delight. 

If you’ve never foraged for mushrooms before, this would be a good one for you to start with.  Unlike other mushrooms that hide under the leaf litter on the floor of the woods, these guys grow on stumps and trees.  And unlike other mushrooms that are camouflaged by their color, these little fungus dudes, with their orange and yellow coloring, can’t be missed.  It’s almost like they’re jumping up and down, waving their little mushroom arms, and yelling, “Here I am!  Here I am!  I want to be sautéed right now!”  Also, because it is so hard confuse this mushroom with another mushroom that might be less edible or even poisonous, mycologists include it in the list of the “foolproof four” that beginners can safely forage.  Exactly which four mushrooms are included in that list of four seems to differ depending on which mycologist you’re talking to, but everybody includes sulphur shelf mushrooms among the four on their list.  (The term “foolproof four” which so many mycologists bandy about was coined, as far as I can tell, by Clyde Christensen in his 1943 book Common Edible Mushrooms.  His list: morels, puffballs, sulphur shelf mushrooms, and shaggy manes.)  

If you’re out in the woods from any time from late spring through late summer and these mushrooms are growing, you won’t miss them.  As a matter of fact, you’ll see them from a distance!  Their bright orange tops and yellow undersides stand out like neon signs.  They grow in clusters on stumps, logs, and dead or living trees, generally oaks.  Each mushroom or “shelf” can range from a couple inches to a couple feet in size.  When the weather conditions are right, they’ll reliably show up on the same tree or stump year after year.  Their growth on living trees is problematic since they digest the wood thus weakening the structural integrity of the tree.  By the time an infected tree has visible mushroom growth on the outside, it is doomed and will probably come crashing down during the next big windstorm.  That’s bad news for the tree, but good news for all the little trees in the understory looking for an open spot in the tree canopy so they can flourish.  Also, it’s really good news for all of us who love to eat wild mushrooms!

The scientific name for sulphur shelf mushrooms is Laetiporus sulphureus, and it is a bracket fungus – the term given to mushrooms that grow on trees.  With the advent of DNA sequencing, mycologists have been able to take a closer look at this mushroom and have realized it actually is made up of five different species that look exactly the same.  While these species can’t be differentiated based on appearance, they can be fairly reliably separated based on the tree they grow on and the part of the country where they occur.  Knowing that there are different species that look identical can be important for mushroom foragers, since each species has its own taste and texture.  The mushrooms still contained in the species L. sulphureus grow only east of the Great Plains and almost always on oaks.  They are also, in my estimation, delicious.

The other name for the sulphur shelf mushroom is “chicken of the woods” because its texture and its savory umami taste are so amazingly similar to chicken (once again, we won’t bring this up with the Hipster Hens!).  The best part of the mushroom is the outer growing edge of young mushrooms.  If you break off a chunk and juice runs freely out of the broken part, you’ve got some really good mushrooms.  If, on the other hand, the mushrooms are tough, woody, and old, don’t even bother – they won’t taste good and won’t be worth your bother in collecting them.  These ‘shrooms are good sautéed in a little butter or olive oil, deep fried, boiled in a soup, or pretty much any other way you can imagine.  Since I live in mature oak woods, I enjoy this treat in the summer months on a regular basis.

Here comes the cautionary statement:  Some people, after eating these mushrooms have had “mild reactions” such as swollen lips or in rare cases, “nausea, vomiting, dizziness and disorientation”.  Does this mean this mushroom is toxic?  No, not really.  Bear in mind that allergic individuals can react terribly to peanuts, but that doesn’t cause peanuts to be defined as toxic.  Nobody is sure why there has been these rare occasional reports of reactions.  Perhaps it is allergies, or maybe inexperienced foragers collected mushrooms that were past their prime.  It’s also worth reporting that many of the toxic reactions came after eating mushrooms picked from eucalyptus or conifer trees, or from mushrooms collected in the western US.  While these mushrooms look just like L. sulphureus, they’re almost certainly one of those newly defined different species.  Rest assured that no fatalities have ever been reported from eating this mushroom.  And, as always, you should be cautious when you’re foraging.  Try a little bit at first, and then, when you feel fine a few hours later, feel free to chow down!

You can do anything with these mushrooms that you do with any mushrooms.  Pictured below is some ‘shrooms that I sautéed in olive oil with some green onions and used as a pork chop topping.

This is the sulphur shelf mushroom version of a steak and eggs breakfast.  It’s worth noting that everything in this recipe came from my acreage – except the beef, which came from a neighbor, the cheese, which came from a nearby dairy, and the olive oil which….well, whenever they come up with an olive tree that grows in Minnesota, I’ll be good for that, too! The recipe follows:

Chicken, Steak, and Eggs of the Woods

1 cup chicken of the woods mushrooms, chopped
1 cup green onions (separate green from white and chop)
½ red pepper, chopped
1 cup sirloin, cooked, cooled and cubed
½ cup mild cheese, grated (I used a brick cheese from Star Dairy in Weyauwega, WI)
2 eggs (I used 3 small Silkie eggs)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon hot sauce
½ tsp salt

Whisk the salt and hot sauce into the eggs, set aside. Sauté the white part of the onion and the red pepper in a medium sized frying pan for a minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté another minute. Add the beef and green onion and sauté for another minute. Remove the contents of the frying pan to a plate, add the eggs to pan and scramble. Mix the scrambled eggs with the other ingredients and plate. Top with cheese.

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