One of the tastier fungi you'll find this time of year grows in large clumps, so you will probably need to store some for future use
Late summer and fall across the Midwest and South mean chicken of the woods mushrooms are sprouting, probably in a stand of timber near you. Chicken of the woods are big mushrooms, often nearing 2 feet across. Their bright orange and white colors make them stand out in the woods so they are easily spotted from a distance. The best part? They taste great and can be used in a ton of different recipes.
There are two species of chicken mushrooms across much of the Midwest. Laetiporus cincinnatus has a cream-colored underside, while Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as sulfur shelf, has a yellow underside. Laetiporus cincinnatus often grows above roots at the base of oak trees, while Laetiporus sulphureus grows directly on the wood.
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To harvest, use a sharp knife to slice away the mushroom where it attaches to the bark. Break or slice the mushroom shelves apart. Avoid older mushrooms that are extremely woody or insect damaged.
There aren't many real lookalikes for chicken of the woods, but as with all wild mushrooms, it is better to learn from an experienced forager or cross-reference at least two reputable field guides before consuming. Note that in a few people, chicken of the woods can cause a bit of gastric distress. If you have never eaten one before, it is best to start with small quantities to make certain you won't have any issues. I always caution people to treat chicken of the woods just like you would raw chicken when cooking and make sure the mushroom is cooked through before eating.
Since chicken of the woods often grows in such large clumps, you often end up with plenty of extra. You can store the mushrooms in brown paper bags inside your refrigerator for seven to nine days, but much longer than that and you will need to employ a long-term storage solution.
Unlike chanterelles and morels, which don't freeze well unless they have been cooked, chicken of the woods' meaty texture holds up to freezing well. In fact, freezing is the best way to store them that I've found. Once thawed, use the mushrooms just like you would if they were fresh.
To freeze, start by cleaning the mushrooms well. Trim away any woody or insect-eaten portions of the mushrooms. Brush away any loose dirt, bark, or leaf pieces. Rinse the mushrooms well under cool water, then pat them dry with a paper towel or clean kitchen towel. It's important that the mushrooms are dry when you package them, or else the texture will get soft and mushy.
Once you have the mushrooms clean and dry, pack them into zip-style freezer bags, or even better, vacuum seal them with your Weston or other brand sealer. Packaged in this way, the mushrooms will keep for up to a year.