Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tree Poultry - Chicken of the Woods
By Nik

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), also known as Sulphur Shelf, is an easily recognized polypore (it's actually one of the "foolproof four," along with the Morel, Giant Puffball, and Shaggy Mane) that has many special qualities that are often overlooked. In this blog, we will explore how and what to look for, how it can be grown, a bit of its biology and the aforementioned special qualities, and how to prepare it for a delicious treat. Join us, after the jump.

The author staring longingly at his quarry.

As alluded to in the opener and in the above picture, Chicken of the Woods is rather easy to spot. Its bright yellow and orange hues (which can add nice contrast against darker Shiitake and pastel Oysters in a Farmers' Market mix, by the way) jump out at you from the dark backdrop of the tree it's inhabiting. These large clusters and obvious color patterns are telltale signs that you have stumbled into the metaphorical coop (thankfully, these "chickens" don't run around erratically after they're removed from the tree). Another trait that denotes this fungus is its perennial nature. Year after year, and often several times in a season, the Chicken returns to the same spot (here on the farm, that's usually in late June and again in August).

Chicken of the Woods emerging from old branch stub wound

At the base of the tree, indicating root rot

Now let us slip on our lap coats and discuss our attempts at growing the Chicken commercially and the biology behind it. Here at F&FP, we have only attempted to grow the Chicken indoors on sterilized sawdust, as a curiosity. These attempts have all failed, but like with many of our other curiosity-driven experiments, we will continue until we find another way around the wall.

Other spawn producers do sell Chicken of the Woods, most often in plug form similar to our Shiitake plugs. There are two reasons we have steered clear of working on log cultivation of this fungus. The primary reason is that the Chicken is both parasitic and saprobic, meaning that it establishes itself (usually first through wounds when the tree is living) and then continues to fruit long after the tree has snapped off or uprooted. This is one of the reasons we cross our fingers when high winds cruise through the farmstead. The trees snap both midway up from a past infection or uproot from Chicken-caused root rot. The second reason is that there is already plenty of it around, so we tend to not want to encourage more.

Chicken of the Woods is quite abundant in NE Wisconsin, corresponding with the abundance of 130+ year old Northern Pin Oak. If we were diligent in walking the property throughout the summer to harvest them on time, we would have gluttonous amounts for both ourselves and our farmers' market customers. The Chicken also thrives in eastern North American forest types (think mixed deciduous).

There are several other Laetiporus species, two of which are found east of the Missouri River (like L. cincinnatus). You can tell the differences based on which tree they're growing on (and where it is growing), as well as what color the pores underneath the top surface of the mushroom are. The White Chicken has white (duh) pores and is found growing soil from associated tree roots and at the base of the tree (unlike the Yellow Chicken which grows at the base and on areas of the trunk). L. huroniensis grows mostly in the Great Lakes area on Hemlock. L. gilbertsonii also grows on Eucalyptus and Live Oak in the Gulf area and in the coastal western US, L. conifericola is found on conifers.

Let's briefly investigate a Chicken of the Woods lookalike: Dryad's Saddle (Polyporus squamosus). Some who are not familiar with the Chicken will assume this is the real deal. Though it is edible, you will need to be armed with an industrial-strength mandible and routinely do jaw exercises for endurance and strength. Plus, it really isn't all that tasty. You can see the difference in the photos below:

Dryad's Saddle on an ancient Box Elder stump

For the final course, I will leave you with some culinary ideas that utilize the Chicken. It is best harvested when young while its edges are still thick-rimmed with plenty of yellow coloration. Once the edges thin, you will want to only use the outer 3-4 inches of the specimen where it is still tender, so it pays to stroll frequently through the woods equipped with a bag and a knife. If harvesting for a farmers' market, pick freshest specimens only and take the entire cluster, trimming right before market if necessary. Keep refrigerated until market day! On to the recipes...

Grilled/Parchment Roasted Chicken of the Woods
Parchment-roasted Chicken of the Woods in a white cream sauce over toast,
with garden-fresh basil, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes 
This method is totally open to experimentation, and in the end the mushrooms and the resulting broth can be used either as a main course or a nice supplement. You will need:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar (if you don't care for the acidity of vinegar, you can substitute chicken or vegetable stock with a dash of lime)
2 tablespoons honey  (mix with the vinegar/stock)
4 cups sliced Chicken of the Woods
3/4 cup olive oil
sea salt and black pepper to taste and a few branches of fresh thyme (optional)

Cut Chicken of the Woods into 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices and place on tin foil (if grilling) or parchment (roasting). Mix together oil, vinegar, and honey and pour over the slices. It will seem like a lot of liquid but use it all, as it will steam the mushrooms to tender perfection. Season and lay the thyme (if using it) on top. Seal foil or parchment into a leak-proof package by folding the edges in and crimping the corners. Bake (375-400) for 30 minutes, flipping the package at least once.

Drizzling the vinegar/honey/oil mix onto sliced Chicken of the Woods
Parchment packet, just before the flip
If you want chewy, glazed Chicken fingers, bake until parchment is browned and the contents are glazed with a thin, rich syrup. For lighter steamed mushrooms with plenty of broth to enrich with a cream sauce to pour over toast or soup, roast for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

To snack-a-tize your Chicken of the Woods, cut the vinegar from the recipe and have Ranch dressing available for a dipping sauce! Enjoy!

To continue your deep dive into the realm of the Chicken of the Woods, visit

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