Chicken of the Woods


I once read an author who said, “I served Chicken of the Woods to a friend of mine, without revealing to him what I had served. He told me it was the worst chicken he had ever eaten in his life. When I told him what it actually was, he exclaimed that it was the best mushroom he had ever eaten in his life.” I wish I remembered the source, but the sentiment has always stuck with me. There are very few mushrooms who imitate their namesake so faithfully as Chicken of the Woods. And yet, I recall seeing only two recipes for it amongst all of the mushroom cookbooks that have crossed my desk over the years – one for an etouffee, and one for “Creamed Chicken of the Woods” – certainly we can do better than that.

The reason that Chicken of the Woods does not feature more prominently in cookbooks is that the quality and edibility of the mushroom varies greatly, depending on several factors. The first and most important of these factors is YOU. No one quite knows why, but certain people are more sensitive to Chicken of the Woods than others. If you unfortunately did not win the Chicken of the Woods lottery, you can expect sweating, gastrointestinal distress, and dizziness. For this reason, we recommend that anyone who is eating this mushroom for the first time start by trying a very small amount, and wait 24 hours to see how you feel. If you are foraging for COTW yourself, be aware of your tree identification. This species loves to grow on Eucalyptus, which unfortunately makes them bitter and hard to digest because of the oils in the wood. Look for mushrooms growing on oak trees, or other hardwoods. The third determining factor for COTW is the maturity of the mushroom. Aged specimens that are woody, thin, and dry are terrible! Young mushrooms that are plump, soft, and dewy are excellent!

Now that we have thoroughly scared you away from eating Chicken of the Woods, let’s talk about how amazing it is and how you totally want to try it. At its best, COTW is like the McDonalds of the mushroom world. Pudgy and tender, with colors ranging in an appetizing gradient from French fry yellow to deep fried orange, they look so good you’d want to take a bite of them right off the side of the tree (don’t do this; even at their best, they must be thoroughly cooked). Their texture is so much like a succulent cut of white chicken breast, you could truly frighten a vegan with it. They have citrusy overtones, like a bird stuffed with fresh lemons and roasted.

We suggest slicing the mushrooms into quarter inch thick “cutlets” and braising or poaching them in broth with lots of butter and herbs. A thorough cook time of 10 – 15 minutes should put you at ease as to whether you’ve undercooked it. Just like real poultry, it’s a hazard when it’s too raw – but when has that stopped you from cooking chicken? If you want to go full-on Fast Food Mode, bread and fry the cooked cutlets. It doesn’t get much better than a deep-fried Chicken of the Woods sandwich on a brioche bun with coleslaw and spicy pickles. Try marinating them in BBQ sauce and putting them on a Buffalo “Chicken” pizza with red onions and blue cheese. Or, if you are seeking some modicum of refinement, try substituting them for chicken in a Thai-style red curry, or mixing them into alfredo pasta.

But whatever you do, be kinder than our aforementioned author, and do not serve them blindly to a friend who has never tried it before!