For the new mushroom hunter, Chicken of the Woods is one the easiest and most beginner friendly mushrooms to find.
This choice edible mushroom will quickly become a favorite that you’ll look for every time you head into the woods!
What is Chicken of the Woods?
Chicken of the Woods is a polypore mushroom – which means it has small pores on the underside, instead of gills.
It feeds off of and helps to decompose the wood of dead trees, so you’ll find it growing on dead trees, fallen logs, and stumps. You may sometimes find it on a live tree, where it acts as a parasite and causes their wood to rot.
There are many species of Chicken of the Woods in the Laetiporus genus, but today we’re going to discuss two species common to Eastern North America, Laetiporus sulphureus (sulfur shelf) and Laetiporus cincinnatus (white-pored sulfur shelf).
How to Identify Chicken of the Woods
When identifying Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus the first thing to note is what kind of tree it’s growing on, as these are most commonly associated with oaks, but can sometimes be found on other hardwood trees.
If you find Chicken of the Woods on conifer trees (fir, spruce, and hemlock trees) it’s a species known as Laetiporus conifericola. While still edible, some (but not all) foragers think that it’s more likely to cause digestive issues. We haven’t found or tried chicken mushroom growing on pines, so can’t personally comment on that!
Sulfur Shelf (orange & yellow)
Laetiporus sulphureus (sulfur shelf) has a bright orange to orange-red or orange-yellow upper surface that’s smooth or slightly wrinkled. The edges are usually bright yellow and wavy. The caps are about 2 to 12 inches (5 to 30 cm) across, semi-circular to fan shaped, and occur in overlapping clusters, which can lead to extremely large fruiting bodies.
When it comes to a stem, there isn’t one, or there’s a pseudo (“false”) stem , which is actually a part of the caps. This part can be tough, so you don’t usually cook it.
Flip a piece over and you’ll see the bottom, or pore-bearing surface, is a bright, sulfurous yellow, with very small pores. The spore color is white, but it can be difficult to get a spore print since it sometimes ejects the spores right after cutting.
White Pored Sulfur Shelf (peach & white)
Laetiporus cincinnatus (white-pored sulfur shelf) is somewhat similar in appearance but has a pale pinkish to pale peachy or salmon colored upper surface, a white pore-bearing surface underneath, and only occurs at the base of a tree (primarily oaks).
It too has overlapping, individual fan-shaped caps that are about 2 to 10 inches (5 to 25 cm) wide that form a rosette of sorts.
White pored sulfur shelf is somewhat harder to find than the yellow sulfur variety, and is considered a choice edible.
Potential Mix-ups & Lookalikes for Chicken of the Woods
TOXIC LOOK ALIKE
While there are no direct look-alikes for the chicken of the woods mushroom, one that might be confused by beginning mushroom hunters is the jack-o’-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius).
While this mushroom is orange and grows on decaying wood, it has very distinct gills on the underside. It will not have a smooth finely pored surface underneath. It is also bio-luminescent and subtly glows in the dark.
Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms will give you extreme digestive upset if you eat them, but it’s okay to pick one up and examine it closer, or bring it home to see if it softly glows in a dark room.
Hen of the Woods versus Chicken of the Woods
A mushroom that’s occasionally mixed up with chicken of the woods is Grifola frondosa, also called Hen of the Woods, or maitake mushroom.
It’s not because the two mushrooms look a lot alike though!
Hen of the woods is brown to gray, not orange, peach, or yellow, and has a different overall look, as you can see from the photo above. However, because of their poultry related names, they can sometimes be confusing to beginner foragers.
Black Staining Polypore (“Rooster of the Woods”)
Then there’s the black staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) which has the occasional nickname of “Rooster of the Woods”.
This mushroom isn’t yellow, peach, or orange either, but it’s a polypore (has small dots underneath instead of gills) with a similar fan shaped caps, so is sometimes confused for a pale, old, or over-grown chicken of the woods.
Black Staining Polypore is found at the base of oaks and other hardwood trees, often in clusters. It can grow to a HUGE size, but mostly only the tender young tips are used for cooking, and the rest used to make a yummy mushroom broth.
A most interesting feature of Meripilus sumstinei is that is will bruise and turn black where it’s been torn or damaged – which is how it got the label of black staining polypore!
Finding and Harvesting Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods is most likely to be found from August through October, but it can be found as early as May and up to December depending on where you live.
A nice thing about this mushroom is that it’s not particularly rain dependent. Even if we have a very dry summer, we’re still sure to find some nice specimens to harvest.
The large size and bright color make the Laetiporus sulphureus (sulfur shelf) easy to spot in the woods. It often produces in quantities enough so you can eat some fresh, and also preserve for later, by freezing or drying.
Once located, this mushroom will tend to return year after year, until it has used up its food source.
When collecting, make sure the mushrooms appear fresh and firm. As they age, they dry and lighten in color, becoming tough and riddled with bugs and worms. At this stage, usually the only area worth eating will be on the outer 1 to 2 inches.
Preparation & Preserving Chicken of the Woods
It’s best (and more easy to digest) to eat chicken of the woods when they’re young and juicy. Older specimens are usually bug riddled and less appealing.
Just like you’d do with any other new-to-you wild food, if you’ve never eaten this mushroom before, eat a small portion and wait 24 to 48 hours to see if you have a reaction.
Because it’s so delicious, it’s easy to eat too much in one sitting, and that might cause some upset stomach. Enjoy in moderation!
Store your fresh mushrooms in a brown paper bag in your fridge for about 2 to 4 days. Before cooking; give the mushroom a smell – it should smell faintly earthy, or may have no discernable smell. If it has a strong or unpleasant odor, discard instead of eating.
Video: Slideshow Summary of Chicken of the Woods ID Tips & Photos
Here’s a slideshow summarizing this article with photos and ID tips, for those who learn best with video. (Sometimes an ad plays first, but the video will start right after. The video player won’t show up if you have an adblocker.)
How to Clean Chicken of the Woods
Now that you’ve found some chicken of the woods, here’s how to clean it!
- Take your time and trim away any tough or bug eaten pieces.
- Brush off as much dirt as possible with a mushroom brush or slightly damp cloth.
- Give a quick rinse to remove any left over dirt or foreign material.
- Immediately blot dry with a paper towel.
If you’re going to eat them within 2 to 4 days, place the mushroom pieces into a brown paper bag and place in your refrigerator vegetable drawer.
Chicken mushroom has a meaty taste and is often used to replace chicken, lobster, or crab in recipes. Try using chicken of the woods in your favorite crab cake recipe, or chicken nugget recipe!
Looking for another recipe idea for cooking chicken of the woods?
Try out our family favorite – Garlic Butter Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms recipe!
Freezing Chicken of the Woods
Cut the mushroom into small 1/2 inch slices. Arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment or freezer paper and freeze the individual slice before putting into a freezer bag.
Alternatively, chop up the mushroom, and sauté the pieces in a little butter or oil. Let cool and place in freezer bags in usable portions.
When using either of these methods, there’s no need to thaw before use. Just place directly in a skillet or pot and they’ll quickly thaw while cooking.
Dehydrating Chicken of the Woods
It’s not as ideal to dry chicken of the woods, compared to other methods of preservation, but the pieces can work when added to soups and stews.
To dehydrate, cut thin 1/4 to 1/2 inch strips of mushroom, arrange in the dehydrator with space around each piece. Dehydrate at 110 degrees F for 10 hours. Check every so often as they dry. If they’re not quite dry after 10 hours, then reduce the heat to 100 degrees F and continue drying and checking until they’re completely dry.
While not ideal for sautéing, dehydrated mushrooms can be used in long cooking dishes such as soups, stews, and broths. Just add the mushroom pieces directly to the dish and the juices will reconstitute the mushrooms and add flavor at the same time.
Dried chicken of the woods can also be powdered using a mortar and pestle, or small coffee grinder. It can then be used as a seasoning for various dishes that will be heated and cooked. (Don’t eat mushroom powder raw though – it’s not very digestible!)
More Mushroom & Foraging Articles
Enjoy foraging mushrooms and other plants? We do too!
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(Plus check our “Forage” tab to explore even more plants and mushrooms!)
Our articles are for information and idea-sharing only. While we aim for 100% accuracy, it is solely up to the reader to provide proper identification. Be sure to seek out local foraging classes and plant walks, and invest in mushroom and foraging guides suitable for the area you live in, since some wild foods are poisonous, or may have adverse effect.
Sources & Further Reading
Elliot, Todd F. & Stephenson, Steven L. Mushrooms of the Southeast. Timber Press, 2018. Print.
Lincoff, Gary. The Complete Mushroom Hunter. Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2017. Print.