Foraging for Mushrooms
In Search for the Chicken-Of-The-Woods Mushrooms
By Christopher Nyerges, California
Knowledge of edible wild mushrooms can really enhance your outdoor experience and give you a little bit of self-reliance. Yet, there is this mystique about mushroom hunting. A lot of folks are very wary about venturing into the field of mycology. And this is understandable, considering the fact that even “experts” occasionally die from eating the wrong mushroom. For example, in March of 2009, life-long mushroom hunter Angelo Crippa, collected some mushrooms in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. He sautéed them, and ate them, and told his wife they were delicious. Unfortunately, rather than an edible species, he collected a close-lookalike, Amanita ocreata, which is deadly. Even with hospital treatment, he died in seven days.
I often have told my students that they should avoid eating any wild mushrooms if they do not devote considerable time to studying mushrooms, and learning how to positively identify different genera and species. One of the biggest hurdles to studying mushrooms is that they appear, as if by magic, and then a few days later, most have decayed back to nothing. By contrast, most plants are available for inspection all throughout their growing season. You can leisurely study the leaf and floral structures, clip some for your herbarium, and casually take (or send) samples to a botanist to confirm your identification. Generally, you don’t have the luxury of time with mushrooms. Furthermore, there seem to be far fewer mushroom experts than plant experts, so even if you have a perfect specimen, there may not be anyone to take it to for identification.
Despite the obstacles, thousands of people collect wild mushrooms throughout the United States on a regular basis. Many—such as myself—began the pursuit of mycology by joining a local mushroom group, which conducts regular field trips.
Nearly everyone I’ve met who collects wild mushrooms for food collects only those few common mushrooms, which are easy to recognize. These very common, easy-to-recognize edible mushrooms include field mushrooms (Agaricus sps.), inky caps (Coprinus sps.), fairy rings (Marasmius oreades), chantrelles, Boletus edulis, chicken-of-the-woods, and a few others.
Today we’ll take a look at the chicken-of-the-woods, also known as the sulfur fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus, formerly known as Polyporus sulphureus).
The sulfur fungus is a polypore, or shelf fungus. Instead of the more-familiar cap on a stem, this one grows in horizontal layers. It is bright yellow as the fungus begins its growth, and then, as multiple layers appear, you will also see orange and red. As it grows older, it fades to a very pale yellow or nearly white color.
Typically, the chicken-of-the-woods grows on tree stumps and burned trees. It can grow high on the stump, or right at ground level. Though it can appear on many types of trees, in my area (Southern California), it is most common on eucalyptus and carob trees, both imported from Australia and the Middle East respectively.
This fungus is very easy to positively identify. If you are uncertain, you can call around to the botany departments at local colleges, or nurseries, or check to see if there are mycology groups in your area. Most full-color wild mushroom books include this mushroom with color photos. Fortunately, you can collect a sample of the chicken-of-the-woods and put it in your refrigerator or freezer until you can get it to someone for identification. This mushroom will keep well.
In fact, when I locate some of the fresh chicken-of-the-woods, I cut off as much of the bright yellow tender outer sections as I think I can store. I only cut back a few inches; if I have to work my knife, then I am into the tougher sections of the fungus, and those are not as good eating. Typically, I will simply wrap the chunks of this fungus and freeze them until I am ready to use.
Once I am going to prepare some for eating, the process is the same whether I am using frozen or fresh mushrooms.
I put the chicken-of-the-woods into a pan and cover it with water, and bring it to a hard boil for at least five minutes. I pour off this water, and repeat the hard-boiling. Yes, I am aware that some people do not seem to need to do this. However, if I do not do this boiling, I am likely to vomit when I eat the mushrooms, however prepared. I find vomiting one of life’s most unpleasant experiences, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. Thus, I always boil my chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms twice.
If you are experienced with this mushroom and you know you can eat it without all this boiling, that’s fine. Just be sure to thoroughly cook it for your neophyte friends when you have them over for dinner.
Once boiled, I rinse the pieces, and cut them into small nuggets on a breadboard. I roll them in egg (whole eggs, whipped) and then in flour. In the old days, we would then deep-fry the breaded pieces. But since we now know all the bad things that deep-frying does to our arteries, we gently sauté the breaded chicken-of-the-woods in butter or olive oil, maybe with a little garlic, in a stainless steel or cast iron skillet at very low heat. When browned, we place them on a napkin and then serve them right away.
We have made these little McNuggets, packed them, and taken them on field trips for a delicious lunch.
Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging Edible Wild Plants of North America, How to Survive Anywhere, and other books. He has studied mycology, and led wilderness trips since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90401, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.