The Complete Mushroom Hunter: Chicken-of-the-Woods

Do you know your mushrooms? Are you new to the allure of mushroom hunting? For novices and gurus and everyone in between, Gary Lincoff’s The Complete Mushroom Hunter, Revised safely and expertly introduces readers to the fascinating world of hunting and gathering mushrooms.

Polypores are the bracket or shelf fungi that are so familiar on trees, fallen logs, and stumps. There are hundreds of different kinds, almost all of which are woody or too tough to consider eating. Many polypores are known in Asia as important medicinal mushrooms, and some of these are common around the world but go unused. Polypores are named for their pore surface, the layer underneath the cap or shelf, which is composed of a great number of tiny pores, or openings, through which the spores fall to be dispersed by the wind.

Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushroom
Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushroom

Chicken Mushrooms

There are only a few polypores that are considered edible, and among these, the chicken mushroom is one of the best. It has a texture somewhat reminiscent of chicken and a pleasant flavor. Perhaps best of all, it is easily spotted by its colors, is often in quantities too great to even consider collecting it all, and is hard to misidentify.

As early as February in Argentina and as late as November in Malaysian Borneo, the chicken mushroom has one of the longest fruiting seasons of all edible wild mushrooms. Not only does it occur nearly throughout the planet, but it fruits almost year-round, and in some places it can fruit again and again for nearly a six-month period. It can also fruit in quantities that cover the trunk of a standing tree, or spreading out across fallen logs, providing 50 pounds (22.7 kg) or more of often choice edible wild mushroom.

The chicken mushroom grows on standing hardwood trees, often in shelves ascending 10 feet (3 m) or more, or on logs or stumps, looking much like a bouquet. A very similar species, Laetiporus cincinnatis, white chicken mushroom, grows at the base of hardwood trees and, like L. sulphureus, causes root rot. Aside from the position of the mushroom on the tree, the only other easily discerned difference is that the white chicken mushroom has a white pore surface rather than a bright yellow one.

When collecting either of these mushrooms, make sure the mushrooms appear fresh and firm. As they age they dry considerably and whiten, and lose their culinary appeal.

Other species occur on conifers and one favors introduced eucalyptus. These are sometimes reported to cause digestive upset. Even where this mushroom is a favorite edible, there are people who complain that the mushroom causes symptoms that make them feel uncomfortable. One person said it made her lips swell. Still, it’s on most people’s Ten Best list.

White chicken (Laetiporus cincinnatus)
White chicken (Laetiporus cincinnatus)

Common Names: Chicken mushroom, chicken-of-the-woods, sulfur shelf

Scientific Names: Laetiporus sulphureus, L. cincinnatis

Field Description: Grows in clusters, often very abundantly, on both standing and downed hardwood trees. The chicken mushroom is a large (often 12 inches [30.5 cm] across), shelving fleshy polypore with an orange cap and yellow pore surface. The white chicken mushroom (Laetiporus cincinnatis) is similar but is pinkish to orange above and with a white pore surface; it typically grows at the base of hardwood trees.

Look-Alikes: Other polypores that might resemble the chicken mushroom in size do not resemble it in color; any that resemble the chicken mushroom in color will be found to be tough in texture.

Caution: People taking MAO-inhibitor medications should avoid polypores because they contain tyramine. Also, some people cannot digest this mushroom and complain of cramps. A few people complain that it makes their lips tingle.

Eating Chicken Mushrooms

It’s best (and most easily digestible) to eat chicken mushrooms when they are very young and juicy. The best way to prepare it is to cut it into small pieces and cook it covered in some butter and water or broth. Let it stew for about half an hour, then season it and serve. Or add to soup. Some people like to cook it uncovered until it is almost dry, but this sometimes requires using too much butter, which disappears quickly, and ¼ pound (115 g) can be used up in no time.

The temptation is to eat the chicken mushroom as an entree rather than as one dish in a meal. If there is any problem with this, it might be that it’s very easy to overeat this mushroom, especially when there is so much of it, and it tastes so good. Large amounts can be somewhat difficult to digest, leaving you feeling “heavy” or slightly queasy. It’s best to enjoy this mushroom in moderation.

If a large number of shelves are found, it might be best to call some friends and share the harvest, knowing that you might benefit later from a harvest of some other mushrooms they find. Besides, it takes a lot of work and time and space in the freezer to preserve quantities of chicken mushroom. The chicken mushroom is best preserved by cooking and freezing. It doesn’t rehydrate well after drying.

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Do you know your mushrooms?

This is the only mushrooming book that will introduce you safely and with confidence to the not-so underground hobby of mushroom hunting and gathering. Gathering edible wild food is a lovely way to forge a connection to the earth. Mushrooms are the ultimate local food source; they grow literally everywhere, from mountains and woodlands to urban and suburban parks to your own backyard.

The Complete Mushroom Hunter, Revised is a new edition of Quarry’s successful Complete Mushroom Hunter. It will enrich your understanding of the natural world and build an appreciation for an ancient, critically relevant, and useful body of knowledge. Amateur mycologists and mushroom enthusiasts will find this is a guidebook for their passion. Mushroom guru Gary Lincoff escorts you from the mushroom’s earliest culinary awakening, through getting equipped for mushroom forays, to preparing and serving the fruits of the foray, wherever you live. Inside you’ll find: A brief, but colorful history of mushroom hunting worldwide; how to get equipped for a mushroom foray; a completely illustrated guide to the common wild edible mushrooms and their poisonous look-alikes — where to find them, how to identify them, and more; how to prepare and serve the fruits of your foray, plus more than 30 delicious recipes; plus, dozens of colorful, priceless anecdotes from living the mushroom lifestyle.

Gary Lincoff is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and articles on mushrooms. He teaches courses on mushroom and plant identification and use at the New York Botanical Garden and has led wild mushroom and edible wild plant study trips and forays to 30 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and South, Central, and North America. Lincoff chaired the Telluride Mushroom Festival for 25 years (1980–2004), and still participates as its principal speaker. He is also a featured “myco visionary” in the award-winning documentary, Know Your Mushrooms, by Ron Mann. Lincoff also founded and led the New York City Edible Wild Plant Workshop, which featured a once-a-week wild edibles dinner plus a weekend hunt for edible wild plants and mushrooms in city parks. Patricia Wells published his edible wild plant recipes in an article in the New York Times, and he has been profiled in the Village Voice and New York magazine. He lives in New York City.