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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Succulent Sulfur Shelf / Chicken of the Woods


an example of an absolutely prime specimen of the chicken of the woods

Fall mushroom season is in full swing here in southern Illinois, and a long time favorite  is the sulfur shelf, or as it more commonly, called chicken of the woods. Many people are frightened at the thought of eating the chicken of the woods, given it's bright orange and yellow coloring. How could something colored like that be good eat?

Trust me, they are very good to eat!

A very young specimen just beginning to flush, these are the most tender and succulent, although I usually leave this size for a day or two to grow. Chicken of the woods grow VERY fast!

The chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphurus) is a polyfore, which means it has pores on the underside versus gills. The cap can range from two to as big as 20 inches or more across, and is normally anywhere from about 1/4 to an inch and a half thick.Hard to miss  when  in the woods; the cap is a brilliant bright blaze orange, with a bright yellow margin and underside. Chicken of the woods caps grow in stacks, or shelves.. usually overlapping and giving the mushroom and "stacked up" appearance. they can range from as small as 2 inches across to as large as almost 20 inches across. It is important to note that the color fades toward whitish tones with age. The caps also thin out tremendously with age giving the older specimens a somewhat ruffled edge look.

This specimen would be considered "past it's prime" and not collected

Chicken of the woods are usually found from late summer through frost. I have found them as early as late June when weather conditions are just right. The chicken of the woods frequently fruits on the same tree season after season until it depletes all nutrients in the tree. If you find a great specimen. Make a note to revisit that tree or log  the next year about the same time. You will likely be rewarded with another year's harvest.

Again, it's hard to miss this mushroom - the brilliant blaze orange and yellow coloring combined with it's size and propensity for very large flushes, is easily noticeable when walking through the woods .It grows on many types of dead or mature trees with hardwoods such as oak, or beech being more likely than conifers.  The best tasting younger specimens can have a large amount of clear or bright yellow watery juice/sap pour out of them immediately after cutting. These with the "sap" or " juice" running from them are the absolute choicest specimens for eating. It can run almost like a faucet from the best specimens.

Note the "stacked" or "shelf" like appearance

 The edibility of the chicken of the woods is excellent, and yes, it really does taste like chicken! I use these mushrooms just as I would a chicken breast. You may have heard from some people who have harvested and older specimen , that the chicken of the woods has bland taste and tough chewy texture. A rule when harvesting that will help you always  take the best and most choice specimens, is that your knife should easily slice through the mushroom. Literally like a hot knife through butter. While older specimens will not necessarily make you ill, they are often tough, trending towards mealy and just not that great of a culinary experience.  To avoid having any "tough" pieces simply trim away the outside edges of each cap versus taking the entire cap. It's important to always cut the mushroom away from the tree/log and leave a couple of inches. Simply ripping the whole bundle away will likely result  in the mushroom never appearing there again.

One of my families most favorite ways to enjoy the chicken of the woods is to simply slice them into strips,  saute in olive oil with a good grind of sea salt until they are browned and crispy around the edges , add a little italian seasoning and a healthy shake of McCormick's Smokehouse Maple seasoning from their Grill Mates line.  The maple flavoring really seems to bring out the earthy woodsy flavor of the mushroom.

Once prepared in this fashion, the mushrooms can serve as an entree  to replace meat,  can be mixed with pasta and bacon in light cream sauce, or perhaps the true favorite at our house,  piled onto a big, toasted  whole wheat roll,  with a thick slice of munster slipped under the broiler just long enough to melt and brown the cheese.

Since chickens routinely flush in such large amounts,  I often have way more than I can possibly eat while fresh. The best way I have found to preserve them is freezing. Over the years I have experimented and found that the most satisfactory way to freeze them is to chunk them up or slice them and lightly brown /saute in butter prior to freezing. While this isn't absolutely necessary,  it does seem to really improve the end product  when using during the dark cold says that lie ahead. The chicken of the woods can also be sliced thin and dried. The dried ones are best used in long cooking soups and stews as they tend to take quite awhile to rehydrate, and can have chewy texture when re-hydrated.

Keep your eyes peeled when you are traversing the autumn forests, and when you see that splash of brilliant orange,  scurry over to investigate. You may find your self with a huge chicken of the woods!

I was sure happy to find this nice fresh bunch!

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