Today I’d like to explain a little bit about exactly where to find hen of the woods mushrooms because they’re totally excellent edibles and they grow in some abundance east of the Rocky Mountains. Hen of the woods’ scientific name is Grifola frondosa, and this leafy, brown-and-white mushroom is the princess of the fall mushroom season for us North Carolina mushroom hunters.
So, gentle reader, if you’re having a touch of trouble finding hen of the woods, read onward for my own personal guidelines for how to find them!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Overview of Hen of the Woods – Grifola frondosa
Hen of the woods is also known as maitake, so if you’re interested in trying this mushroom and are having difficulty locking one down in the wild, I suggest visiting an Asian market post haste and picking up a cultivated specimen. These delightfully chewy and meaty mushrooms make excellent additions to soups, sauteed dishes, and sauces.
The fruiting body of hen of the woods grows on the ground at the base of trees and is made up of a large number of leafy fingers or protrusions. Hen of the woods is a polypore, which means that the underside of the leaves are covered with tons of small holes that drop spores as the mushroom matures. The top of the leaves is a brown color that often has little concentric growth bands. The leaves of this mushroom give it its common name “hen of the woods” because it looks a little like a giant hen in repose at the base of a tree. When it’s young, this mushroom is dense and has a series of pits and pockets that eventually grow into leaves, and it looks a little bit like a malformed brown and white brain emerging from the ground.
Grifola frondosa is iconic and very difficult to misidentify and is a pretty safe mushroom for beginners. Lookalikes for hen of the woods are nontoxic and edible for the most part. A possible exception is the very long-shot lookalike Laetiporus persicinus, which fruits in the summer and is not listed as edible in the field guides I typically use. The closest lookalike species, in my opinion, is the black-staining polypore, Meripilus sumstinea, followed by Berkeley’s polypore, Bondarzewia berkeleyii, both of which are edible if not terribly inspiring. For more on all these species, take a look at this post about chicken of the woods (Laetiporus) mushrooms from a few months ago.
Grifola frondosa can get quite large, sometimes in excess of 10 pounds per specimen. It is best to collect this mushroom when its colors are rich and chocolate-brown, because as it ages, it can turn dull brown or gray, and at that point it tends to become a little tough and less succulent. Also, it’s important to not harvest this mushroom too early. If you find a hen of the woods in its infancy, mark the spot and return in a 5 to 10 days. If you gather them too young, the leaves will be filled with pockets of dirt and grit that is very difficult to remove. As the leaves unfurl and expand, that grime is much easier to brush off or wash away.
Where to Find Hen of the Woods
Hen of the woods is a fall mushroom, and it starts to emerge once night time temperatures dip into the low 60s or high 50s and there are some consistently cool daytime temperatures and, of course, a bit of rain. Although these mushrooms can grow to tremendous size, they are not terrifically quick to do so; they tend to pop up and expand over the course of a week or even two, which means you can carefully watch them and harvest them when the time is just right!
Hen of the woods is particularly associated with oak trees, and I find that black oak and other broad-leafed oaks are more likely to be hosts to this mushroom than pin oak, live oak, and other small-leafed trees. Also, these mushrooms like older oak trees more than younger ones. The best place to look for Grifola frondosa is in unmaintained parks and oak groves that have loads of majestic, tall, and wide-trunked oak trees. Also, these mushrooms seem to favor spots that have rich dark topsoil (as opposed to sandy or clay-rich soils), but this is just my observation.
Another thing I have noticed is that hen of the woods mushrooms like sunbathing a little bit. I rarely find them in dense woods as opposed to more open, park-like spaces where they get a bit of sunshine. This also rules out certain spots that are otherwise ideal for other mushrooms that associate with oak (like chanterelles). While I frequently find chanterelles lounging in low and shady spots that are naturally very moist, the hen of the woods seems to prefer sun enough that it will forgo hiding away in damp low spots.
Of course, like all wild mushrooms, the hen of the woods is a fickle creature and cannot be trusted to grow where you might expect to find it, even in spots that seem “logical” for them to take up residence. The first season I hunted mushrooms in North Carolina, I found not a single hen of the woods all fall, which was disappointing and left me wondering whether I had been fed an elaborate hoax about these mushrooms growing in NC at all (OK not really, but from time to time I do suffer from a sense that because I care about mushrooms, I logically should find them when I go looking). However, in subsequent years I decided to branch out and visit as many old oak groves as I could, and in due time it paid off.
One final note on looking for hen of the woods that may or may not be obvious: although these mushrooms do associate most commonly old oak trees, you are not terribly likely to find them in very well-maintained and mulched spaces. The reasons for this, I suspect, have a lot more to do with mowing and mulching than anything else, but on the whole I find them much more frequently in places where the oak trees are left to their own devices rather than being made centerpieces of landscaped, manicured “forests.”
This of course is not universal. My first hen of the woods in North Carolina was underneath a large oak tree right in downtown Raleigh next to a bus stop and in front of a government building. I was a little hesitant to gather it due to concerns about pesticide contamination, but nonetheless, this aforementioned “rule” about unmaintained sites is not a strict one. However, coupled with my desire to only eat mushrooms that haven’t been sprayed with weird shit, I tend to stick to the wilder spots anyway.
Cooking and Enjoying Grifola frondosa
Hen of the woods is a hearty mushroom and most of the fruiting body is good to eat, save for portions of the mushroom that become extremely tough and dirty toward the base. However, the leaves are the most tender and tasty bits of the mushroom, and so more often than not I transform the stumpy base of my hens into broth or mushroom tincture (Grifola frondosa has potent antiviral and anticancer properties).
In general, you’re going to want to treat this mushroom to a good bit of cooking so that it softens up enough sufficiently; if you don’t, it can have an a crunch to it that I don’t particularly fancy. In this vein, I usually add some stock or wine to this mushroom when I cook it on the stove so that it has a little something extra to simmer instead of just pan frying it with oil or butter. This is especially true when dealing with older specimens that may be tough and thick.
Another rule of thumb that I observe when cooking this species (and many others) is not to fiddle with and stir mushrooms in the pan too much; it’s delightful when a mushroom gets a bit browned and crispy, and in order to accomplish this, you must resist the temptation to stir them constantly. Vigilance alone will do, there’s simply no need to go crazy with your kitchen implements while this mushroom is cooking!
If you’re feeling a little lazy, like I frequently do, here’s a great trick for enjoying hen of the woods: cut it into strips or cross-sections, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with spices, then bake it at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes, flipping it about half way through the baking time. In this way, you can prepare tender and delicious roasted hen of the woods without all the fuss!
Also, this mushroom is terrific for marinating and grilling because it’s got enough substance to take the high heat of charcoal or gas. I do suggest using a marinade that has a little bit of lemon juice, vinegar, or another acid so that you can help break down the tough cell walls of this mushroom, but don’t overdo it (unless you’re going for a sour-citrusy hen of the woods thing) lest you end up with so much lemony zest that you lose track of this mushroom’s delicate, meaty flavors!
Hen of the Woods Dairy-Free Cream Sauce
My personal favorite use of hen of the woods is to create a creamy sauce that brings together the flavors of the mushroom, shallot, olive oil, parsley, rosemary, sage, and a lot of white wine to top gnocchi. Here goes nothing:
1 medium-sized hen of the woods, sliced into 1 1/2-2 inch pieces
3 shallots, diced
3 cloves of minced or mashed garlic
3 tablespoons extra light olive oil
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup veggie stock
Salt and black pepper to taste
- Heat the oil in a pan on medium-high heat
- Saute the shallots and garlic until the shallots are translucent, 2-3 minutes
- Reduce heat to medium and add the mushrooms. Saute without stirring much for 8-9 minutes or until the mushrooms start to brown on the edges
- Stir in the flour and herbs/spices
- Add the wine and veggie stock. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir thoroughly so that the flour is evenly distributed through the mixture. Allow to cook and reduce for 10 minutes or so, stirring frequently.
- Serve on top of gnocchi (preferred), spaetzel noodles, or a baked potato.