Identifying Chicken of the Woods Mushroom

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!

chicken of the woods on logs

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 trees.

If you find Chicken of the Woods on a conifer (fir, spruce, and hemlock trees) it’s a species known as Laetiporus conifericola. While still edible, many (but not all) foragers think that it’s more likely to cause digestive issues.

sulfur shelf on oak log
Laetiporus sulphureus (sulfur shelf) fruiting on an oak stump.

Sulfur Shelf

Laetiporus sulphureus (sulfur shelf) has an orange-red to 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.

Comparison photo of chicken of the woods
Identification Tips

White Pored Sulfur Shelf

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.

sulfur shelf rosette
Laetiporus cincinnatus fruiting body
Jack-O-Lantern mushroom against a tree

Jack-O’-Lantern Mushroom

While there are no direct look-alikes for the chicken of the woods mushroom, the one most likely to be confused by beginning mushroom hunters is the poisonous 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 is also bio-luminescent and glows in the dark.

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. We’ve had a very dry summer, but still found some nice specimens to harvest.

The large size and bright color make the Laetiporus sulphureus easy to spot in the woods. It often produces in quantities to 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.

chicken of the woods in a basket
On the left – Harvesting Laetiporus sulphureus off of a large oak stump.
On the right – A basket of freshly harvested Laetiporus cincinnatus.

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. 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 digestive upset. Enjoy in moderation!

Store your fresh mushrooms in a brown paper bag 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.

How to Clean Chicken of the Woods

  1. Take your time and trim away any tough or bug eaten pieces.

  2. Brush off as much dirt as possible with a mushroom brush or slightly damp cloth.

  3. Give a quick rinse to remove any left over dirt or foreign material.

  4. 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.

garlic butter chicken of the woods mushroom dish
Garlic Butter Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms Dish

Looking for a recipe idea?

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 them 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.

chicken of the woods on a drying rack

Dehydrating Chicken of the Woods

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. If they’re not quite dry, then reduce the heat to 100F 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 cooked dishes. (Don’t eat mushroom powder raw though!)

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

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.

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