Foraging & Cooking: Lets Talk About Chicken of the Woods (September 2021)

DL;DR: Chicken of the woods are a delicious foraged mushroom to cook with, but always be an informed/ cautious forager. Only forage mushrooms from trees you can identify. Always be aware of poisonous lookalikes and lookalikes. Always cook chicken of the woods thoroughly before eating. Never consume raw. Always know the dangers/uncertainties that exist when foraging and eating wild foods.

Chicken of the Woods first crossed my radar as a kid spending the summer with my family on Cape Cod. My grandmother saw the giant orange shelf mushroom growing on a decaying tree stump at the street corner, and sent my father surreptitiously down the road, kitchen knife in hand, to FETCH THE PRETTY MUSHROOM. Was it technically growing on the corner of somebody’s private property? we could debate the subject. When the matriarch of the family sends you out on a mission, you don’t ask such foolish questions.

Back then, my flawed/incomplete understanding of chicken of the woods looked like this: It’s an orange shelf mushroom that is generally considered pretty safe to forage because there are no poisonous lookalikes, unless you count jack-o-lanterns, which I don’t, because those have GILLS. I knew chickens have a particular smell, that you must cook em thoroughly before eating, and that they taste chicken-like when you do. I also often heard people use the term chicken of the woods and suffer shelf interchangeably. I thought they were a mushroom that only grew on the east coast.

Then I moved back to California years later after learned much more about foraging, and learned that chicken of the woods grow on the West Coast too! And they grow freaking EVERYWHERE here.

But this is also when I learned I didn’t know as mush as I thought I did. For one thing, the chickens growing in the west are not the same as the chickens growing in the east. Laetiporus is the genus they share, but within that genus, there are actually quite a few species to be aware of. For the purpose of this blog post, i’m going to focus specifically on Laetiporus sulphureus, Laetiporus gibertsonii, and Laetiporus conifericola.

Laetiporus sulphureus is what people typically think about when they talk about sulfur shelves in the East. Laetiporus gibertsonii is typically the hardwood surfer shelf people find growing in the West. Laetiporus conifericola specifically grow on conifers, which is noteworthy, because conifers are toxic trees and if they leach toxins into the mushrooms that grown on them…. it could make you sick. People have reportedly gotten sick from eating chicken of the woods from conifers, black locus, and eucalyptus trees. Laetiporus huroniensis is another species found on conifers in the Great Lakes region that have been known to make people sick. I’ve read people make the case that cooking the mushroom removes these toxins. To be honest with you, Ive never gotten a clear answer on this, and prefer to steer clear of mushrooms growing on these trees.

What Im trying to say here is that if you can’t identify the tree the mushroom is growing on… maybe you shouldn’t be eating the mushroom. Do chickens found on toxic trees make everyone sick always? No. Do they make some people sick sometimes? Yes.

The more I learn, the more I get a little pissed off when people refer to chicken of the woods as a “beginner mushroom” to forage. Sure it’s easy to recognize, but if you are going to eat it, I would say you are going to need to do a bit more than that.

I say this, because among all my positive chicken of the woods cooking/ eating experiences over the years (like the tacos i’m sharing in this blog post), I also had one singular negative experience I want to highlight.

I foraged a chicken of the woods, cooked it, ate it, and 20 min later started vomiting uncontrollably. I didn’t stop until the mushroom was totally out of my system.

The chicken in question was growing at the base of a carob tree in Southern California. Carob trees are non toxic so its not that. I am 100% confident it was a chicken of the woods so its not that. People have suggested I may not have cooked it thoroughly enough. It coud be that, but I cook professionally and have cooked chicken of the woods many times correctly, so… don’t think its that either. People have also suggested that something else entirely might have made me sick, but my instincts say this isn’t so.

This opens room for speculation about the fact that the mushroom was growing low to the ground in LA. Car exhaust? dog pee? pesticides? something else wholly disgusting? I actually just don’t know, though if I think too hard about it, my stomach turns.

You might be thinking, jesus Olivia, are you really writing about this awful experience on the same post where you are going to publish a delicious recipe for Chicken of the Woods tacos?

Yes. Because if you are going to enjoy the joys of foraging, you have to constantly be self educating, learning, and re-learning. In other words, you need to be cautious. The more I learn, the more I see how many gaps exist in my own knowledge, how much misinformation exists, and how many gaps exist in the research on so many of the mushrooms and plants I am trying to learn about.

I also want to crowdsource for further information, so If you are reading this blog and something I wrote is factually incorrect or could use additional info, Let me know! I am always trying to learn more and appreciate any and all feedback.


Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, on to cooking!

If you have found a chicken of the woods you feel safe cooking with… I would highly recommend making these tacos. Its my favorite way to eat chicken of the woods.

The recipe is inspired by the vegan “tinga” an old co-op mate used to make when I was in college, using cabbage in place of chicken.

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS TACOS

  • Corn Tortillas
  • Chicken of the Woods Mushroom
  • Cabbage (green or purple or both)
  • Garlic
  • Sweet Onion
  • Tomatoes
  • Chipotle in Adobo
  • Crema
  • Lime
  • Cilantro

(ingredient amounts depend on how much chicken of the woods you have, how many people you are feeding, and how much you like garlic and spice. Use your best judgement!)

Julienne onion and sautè in a pan (I use 1 onion).

Add minced garlic (I use 3-4 cloves).

Add chopped tomatoes (I use 1-2 cases of Campania tomatoes).

Add chipotles in adobo (I add 1-2 plus a couple spoonfuls of its sauce).

When tomatoes have cooked down, add julienned cabbage (1/2 – 1 head, depending on size). You can also use a blender to blend the sauce smooth before adding the cabbage.

Cook until cabbage is soft.

While cabbage is cooking, chop or break up chicken of the woods mushroom into small, chicken taco sized pieces. (For this recipe, lets say 2-3 handfuls when chopped. Enough to cover the bottom of a medium sautè pan without crowding).

Sautè mushroom pieces in a separate pan with butter or oil on medium heat until they begin to brown/ caramelize around the edges. Always cook them for longer than you think you need to.

Add thoroughly cooked mushroom pieces to cabbage & sauce.

Warm corn tortillas and fill with cabbage & mushroom & sauce.

Garnish with cilantro, crema, and lime.

Enjoy.

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