Don’t let these last Indian Summer days of 80 degrees fool you. Rooftop Fridays and Saturdays (and outdoor Sunday-fun-days) will slowly start to take a time-out until spring. It is time for cozy dinners, snuggles, and a little Netflix and chill. But, just cause you aren’t going out, doesn’t mean the menu should be bland—especially now that National Mushroom Month has arrived.
Now, I know. Mushrooms, whether “recreational” or culinary tend to be a polarizing member of the American pantry. While some people obsess over, crave, and demand them, others scream in distaste and disgust. However, regardless of these “opinions”, there is one mushroom that is so out of this world it will make mushroom haters think differently. I have seen it happen. It’s called Chicken of the Woods.
To eat a tasty preparation of this mushroom is a mind-blowing experience. Your body will be satisfied and your mouth will be utterly confused as to what on earth it’s eating. Why? Because it actually tastes like chicken. Intrigued? Well, I am here to tell you everything you need to know.
Let’s start with a little biology.
What exactly is this mushroom and what is its relation to chicken? First, for the vegetarians and vegans, it has no relation to chicken. You are safe. Laetiporus is the genus of a mushroom most commonly known as Chicken of the Woods, Crab of the Woods, or Sulphur Shelf. This should not be confused with Hen of the Woods, which is actually just a maitake mushroom.
What does it look like? They are huge. I am serious—like 2 to 20 inches across. The mushroom grows on dead or mature heartwood, so it literally looks like large flowers of coral are growing on the bark of a tree. The youngest mushrooms range from bright blood-orange to yellow in color with beige on the underside. The most colorful are the best to eat as they are young, plump, and tender. If you cut them into slices, they resemble chicken breast and cooked lobster.
Please note when buying, older Chicken of the Woods fade to a brown and have a brittle texture. As with most food that has lost color, older Chicken of the Woods is neither tasty nor recommended.
Now, let’s get to what we have all been waiting for: What makes it so out-of-this-world tasty? At first bite, there is definitely a lemon-y, gamey flavor similar to meat and it will remind your palate of chicken, crab, or lobster. The mushroom is also high in protein (about 14 grams per 100 grams, which is similar to quinoa) and you feel it. It is like when you are starving, you eat a lot of peanut butter, and then suddenly feel full. This feeling is partially from the satisfying dose of protein in peanuts. Chicken of the Woods has a similar effect. Also, when you cut a cooked portion of the mushroom, it has a sinewy texture that pulls apart like—you guessed it—chicken. Now, what does this all amount to? It is literally like a soft, juicy, tender chicken thigh with less fat. So, to put it in your mouth and not have your mind blown is rare.
Ok, they sound amazing, but where do you buy them?
Sadly, this is not yet a supermarket go-to. These are wild mushrooms, so you are better off going to a local farmers market or specialty store. You can also contact your local mycological society (a mushroom lover’s club) to find out if there are mushroom foragers in your area (mushroom hunters). There are also all types of mushroom communities on Facebook. A friend of mine belongs to one that is basically a free market for mushroom lovers and foragers in South Carolina and Georgia. If you are bold, you can also DIY if they grow in your area (East of the Rockies) but, be warned, it’s best to learn about mushroom foraging before you try it at home. You don’t want to end up with something that’s not edible.
Great! Now, how do you cook it?
The best way is to substitute it for chicken in practically any recipe. There is a slightly shorter cook time for mushrooms. Most chefs will wait to see a little bit of browning and stress not to overcook them to keep them juicy.
To get you started, imagine how much fun it would be to substitute the chicken in these recipes:
Quesadillas are always tasty. So, why not make them even better? Just imagine a tart sour cream with a light and juicy sautéed Chicken of the Woods mushroom. Get our Basic Chicken Quesadillas recipe.
If it isn’t obvious, most aficionados love to opt for America’s national pastime: frying food. So, making chicken fried Chicken of the Woods is practically your civic duty. Get our Egg Shop Fried Chicken recipe.
Once you have explored Mexican and American cuisine, why not go international? A Katsu’s creamy coconut curry usually calls for you to tenderize the chicken. Luckily, as we now know, Chicken of the Woods is already nice and tender. Get our Japanese Chicken Katsu recipe.
Header image courtesy of Eating Appalachia.