Ahh, autumn! The leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp and chilly morning air, the pumpkin-everything-everywhere, and—what’s that huge cluster of orange cascading down that oak tree? Mushrooms, you say?
Yes, that’s delicious “Chicken of the Woods!” Laetiporus sulphureus, to be more technical, also commonly called Sulfur Shelf. Laetiporus cincinnatus is another edible similar-looking species, but not as delicious, so I’m focusing on sulphureus. It’s relatively easy to identify (David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified lists it as one of the “foolproof four”) and, as its name would imply, can have a quite chicken-like texture and flavor when prepared properly and if the specimen is young and from a good tree. Below I cover some key identification and harvesting tips as well as some ideas for culinary use.
Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR IT
Sulphur Shelf grows exclusively on trees. It grows on living (mature and already dying) as well as dead trees (as it is both parasitic as well as saprotrophic). This includes logs, so double check those logs and piles of wood to see if a Chicken might be lurking on the other side!
You will find it anywhere on the tree, from the base up through the height of the tree. You might also find it on stumps.
Only harvest from hardwood trees such as oak or beech. Oak is often a safe bet. Do not harvest from any conifers or locust or eucalyptus trees (these are the ones that might make you sick).
Be on the lookout during August through October, possibly even later, for that beautiful pop of orange as you walk through the woods. These mushrooms tend to grow fast and in large quantities. Make a meal to share with friends!
HOW TO IDENTIFY IT
The color can range from orange to salmon to orange-yellow to yellow. The color fades or becomes more white with age. You can use these photos for reference as well as any mushroom book, other websites, or online mushroom groups.
The underside has bright sulphur yellow pores (it’s a polypore, literally it will look like many pores, rather than gills).
The brackets are somewhat fan-shaped and can be smooth to wrinkled to lumpy; caps are usually overlapping or in bunches, though occasionally solitary.
There is no obvious stem.
OTHER COOL FACTS
Unlike some more rare mushrooms, there aren’t major sustainability issues around the ethics of harvesting this mushroom.
For the ambitious folks, it is possible to cultivate your own C.O.W. —but this is beyond the scope of this current article.
As for nutrients, Sulphur Shelf is high in protein as well as an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
These mushrooms may also have medicinal aspects such as antimicrobial and cancer-inhibiting compounds.
Sulphur mushrooms can also be used to make natural dye.
HOW TO EAT IT
Harvest only young and tender caps. If you do want to use the older specimens, you can try to just cut off and use the more tender outer edges.
If possible just clean with a damp cloth. The mushrooms are very absorbent and you don’t want them to become spongy.
Make sure to cook very thoroughly. This breaks down the cell walls, making the mushroom more digestible and nutrients more available. This also kills potential toxins or pathogens. And little bugs if you didn’t clean them well 🙂
Substitute the same amount of this mushroom in any recipe that calls for chicken.
Super easy way to cook: just slice it thin and fry it in oil or butter, with some salt and pepper. Use as little oil as possible, again because of their absorbency.
Easy: slice thin and add it to your next omelet or scrambled eggs dish.
Foraging meets fast food: Try making breaded “Chicken” nuggets or “Chicken” fingers with a side of homemade honey mustard.
Stay tuned for more episodes of “Meet the Mushrooms.” For those of you new to mushrooming, I really can’t say enough about the joy of relating to fungi. Mycelial networks are all around us, giant organisms largely invisible to our own eyes, yet engaging in all sorts of ecological functions that often transcend human categorization. Learning to identify and eat the fruiting bodies of some of these species is just one simple way of developing a relationship, albeit a very useful and nourishing one! While my articles will tend to focus on visible and edible species, I encourage the intrigued reader to embark on their own mycological research. It is a pursuit sure to inspire, or at the very least, boggle your mind.
All photos in this article are from members of the Philadelphia Mycology Club, specifically Bethany Teigen, Dan Schimmel, and myself.