Chicken of the Woods mushrooms definitely don't look anything like the characteristic mushrooms you might find on grocery store shelves or sprinkled in your salad. But these bright, funky fungi are a perfect find for amateur mushroom foragers; these popular mushrooms don't have a lethal doppelganger, and they really do taste like chicken.
By taking a bit of time to identify the host tree, check the species and then cook them up properly, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) are a safe and yummy way to get a hefty dose of protein and vitamins without sacrificing the taste of meat.
How to Recognize Chicken of the Woods
Out in the wild, a large cluster of this fascinating fungi looks a bit like a big yellowish-orange cabbage. Chicken of the Woods mushrooms have a bracket-like shape with a wavy curved edge that's typically lighter in color. The mushrooms form in layers, and their underside has its own style too — lacking the characteristic thin lines on the underside of many mushrooms, known as gills, they have tiny, round pores instead.
Their massive size helps make them easier to spot. The brackets can measure 2 to 20 inches (0.05 meters to 0.5 meters) across, and the clusters can weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms).
Chicken of the Woods mushrooms grow in North America, Europe and parts of Asia and feed on trees — dead or living. Oak trees tend to be their preferred choice of grub, but they also make other hardwoods their home.
It is important to note that these popular mushrooms aren't 100 percent innocent. They can cause brown rot on a living tree, a form of damaging decay. And while the makeup of the mushroom itself isn't poisonous, it's necessary to identify the tree they're attached to; when growing on cedar, pine or other conifers they may absorb some of the oils from the tree, which, when eaten, will cause some unpleasant reactions such as swelling of the lips and possible gastrointestinal symptoms. There are even different species of Chicken of the Woods, some of which may also cause those same unpleasant symptoms.
Cooking Chicken of the Woods
There's one must-do when it comes to eating Chicken of the Woods mushrooms: you've got to cook them. Eating them raw, while not deadly, will likely upset your stomach and bring some uncomfortable consequences.
Most people find it not only tastes like chicken, it also has the same soft, juicy texture. But for others, it reminds them of eating a lobster or even a crab.
There's no doubt Chicken of the Woods are one of nature's unique surprises. With a little care, you can turn your next hike into a healthy, meat-like meal — without spending a dime.
NOTE: Amateur mycology can be dangerous, so it's imperative to learn how to expertly identify mushrooms before harvesting and eating them.