Monday, October 1, 2018

Home-Grown Hen of the Woods (aka Maitake mushroom)

by Mary Ellen Kozak

Hen of the Woods, prime for the picking.

Hen of the Woods mushrooms are members of the "superior" class of wild edible mushrooms. Crunchy even when cooked, rich in flavor, autumnal in color, they are a beloved mushroom to people who know them. Cultivated hens are referred to as "Maitake" (pronounced my-tahk-ee), but they are very tricky to grow indoors consistently. If you are lucky to find them in the wild, you will find them growing in late summer and early fall, often at the base of isolated oak stumps or growing out of radiating buried roots. You can revisit that stump, often for years, and find a hens roosting there every fall. It will likely take many acres of searching to find a hen, but when you do, it can be a prime photographic moment before harvest and hitting the pan!

Hen of the Woods really can look like a hen taking a sand bath and often blends into the landscape. No plucking is a perk!

Fortunately, if you have access to oak logs, you can grow them outdoors yourself. Inoculated logs will fruit for years every fall, but usually need 16-18 months after inoculation for fruiting to commence.

Maitake is a weak competitor. Like growing Shiitake or Oyster mushrooms on wood logs, you will inoculate the logs with spawn, but we highly recommended that you pre-treat the log first, then bury the log outdoors and let the fall weather bring on the fruiting. A prep/planting schedule looks like this:

Late fall through early spring → cut oak logs  
March through April → pre-treat logs and inoculate 
Through June → incubate logs indoors
By end of June → bury logs outdoors 
Fall, up to 18 months after burial → fruiting
Harvest a cluster every fall for approx a year per diameter inch of the log.

What is "pre-treatment"?
Wood logs come with their own protective bark sleeve which is sufficient to hold in moisture and prevent invasion of other fungi, allowing for fast colonization of whichever spawn you plant into the log. With Maitake, however, spawn run is unreliable but we can help it along by pre-treating the log in one of three ways: sterilizing it in a pressure cooker, boiling it for 1 hour or steaming it for 6 hours.

Which method is best?
Pressure cooking gives us the highest rate of colonization, but it requires a big enough cooker to hold a 2 lb. log, which we believe is the minimum size for good sized clusters and long term fruiting. Your pressure canner should be a minimum size of 12 qts, and you can process a bigger log if you have a 23 qt size canner.

This 12 qt canner comfortably fits a 2 lb. plus log.

Not comfortable with (or don't have) a pressure canner? The next best choice would be to steam or boil the log prior to inoculation. These each can result in a higher contamination rate in the finished log, but if carefully done and inoculated in a quiet, clean area of your house, can be very successful. You will need a large stock pot for either method. Boiling is a little more uncomfortable to work with, as the log must be boiled for one hour and taken out of hot water when time is up. Steaming (just as you would vegetables, rack on the bottom, a few inches of water and lid on) takes 6 hours, but the log can cool in the clean pot awaiting inoculation. We recommend using large autoclavable bags that will hold up to the heat with all three methods, but these are essential for the pressure cook method. If you have a large cooker you can pre-treat lots of logs, just like we did in the new FFP sterilizer (see below)!

Full instructions come with our Maitake spawn, or call us for a PDF of the instruction sheet.

After a few months incubation, locate a burial spot for your log in a well drained area with partial to full shade. Dig a hole the size of the log and place the log in the hole (you can bury the log vertically or horizontally). Cover the top of the log with a dusting to 1/2 inch of soil. It's also a good idea to mulch the area with a thin layer of wood chips or straw to keep developing mushrooms free from splashing soil as they develop in the fall.

This incubated log is ready for burial!

Make sure to stake or flag where your log is buried. Ours have been lost under the hostas! 

Try to install the logs where you have not seen a known competitor, such as Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria sp.) Because it is uncertain how much this fungus will rob nutrients from the Maitake log, it's best to try to encourage complete spawn run of the Maitake prior to planting it in soil. Maitake is definitely the better tasting mushroom!

This log was buried during the 2017 growing season and fruited September 2018. This log will continue to fruit  every fall for at least 5 more years.

If you don't have a shady spot in your yard, you can install your logs in a plastic milk crate filled with soil. Keep the crate tended through the summer by not letting it dry out. Crated logs tend to fruit a little earlier, but may have a shorter life, probably due to the tendency to keep the logs small enough to fit into a crate. 

You can bury the logs in a plastic tub filled with soil (line it with several layers of newsprint first) if you don't have a yard.

We dug this log up when it started to fruit just to look the point of attachment. Yep! looks like roosting tree poultry!

This log finally bore a tiny Maitake when inoculated with the standard totem method without any pre-treatment at all. This log is at least 8 years in the ground and is the only one of a dozen inoculated (without pre-treatment) that actually fruited. 

Growing Maitake this way may seem putzy, but it is the most sure fire and economical way to get Maitake, unless you are lucky enough to know where your wild Maitake trees/stumps are hiding. If you are "stumped" for good Maitake recipes, use them where you can showcase their crunch and distinctive flavor. Roasting on a sheet pan, they can be used in every way possible. This Roasted Potato and Maitake Salad is a recipe that makes the most of this special mushroom.

Roasted Potato and Maitake Salad

6 T olive oil
2 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes (6 medium) cut into 3/4-inch wedges
Salt and pepper
3/4 lb Maitake, rinsed and blotted dry just before using, ripped into 1/2 inch fronds
1/2 c marscapone cheese (or blend 8 oz softened cream cheese with 1/4 c heavy cream)
1/4 c orange juice
1` 1/2 tsp red wine or balsamic vinegar
1/3 c thinly sliced scallions

Preheat oven to 450° F

Coat a rimmed baking sheet with 1 T of the oil. In a large bowl, toss potatoes, 2 T of the oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp of pepper. Spread coated potatoes onto the baking sheet and roast about 20 minutes until just tender, flipping potatoes halfway through the cooking time.

Toss mushrooms, 1 T oil, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper in a bowl. Scatter mushrooms over top of cooked potatoes and roast 10-15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, whisk marscapone, orange juice, vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper in a bowl and drizzle in 2 T oil while whisking.

Flip the potatoes and mushrooms into a serving dish and spoon dressing over all. Toss to coat and garnish with scallions.

Serves 6-8

Recipe modified with compliments from Janice Thomas at the fabulous Savory Spoon Cooking School in Ellison Bay, WI


  1. We have Maitake growing in our front woods, too near the road and noticeable to road mushroom hunters. We'd like to start them in our back woods, on live trees or stumps. Any suggestions would be helpful. I was thinking of putting the spawn on and around the root and covering it with soil. Fairly natural, but chancy, I guess.

  2. In all of our experience, Maitake is difficult to cultivate using living trees or stumps. That is why we have moved toward this new method of treating the log sections first. You could certainly give it a try, but be realistic with your expectations. Some people have had success so there is certainly hope.

    1. Thank you. It's worth a try. Since they are growing in the vicinity, it might work.

  3. Robin, can you please tell me if it worked? A very large oak fell in my back yard, leaving behind a 6 ft tall stump, 2 feet in diameter, and a jagged top. It's in a decidious forest with 3/4 shade. I'd like to innoculate the stump with something best suited for the environment.
    Team F&FP can you recommend something easier to grow on wild Oak stumps? Stumps in particular? I also have dozens of logs that I can use to log-type mushrooms such as Shitakii. So I want something special on the stump, that only grows on stumps and roots. -Peg

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