Every spring Americans wait for warmer weather to arrive for morel mushroom hunting. However, fall is the time of year for hen of the woods, aka maitake mushrooms. I love morels, but I crave hen of the woods.
Hen of the woods is a fall delight. It has a rich flavor with a firm texture that lends itself to almost any recipe. It is usually bug free, at least inside the flesh. Pick over it but unless it is over the hill you will not find much bug larvae. It is also easy to store. Chop it into pieces and store in recloseable bags in the freezer. It is also good for you. Studies are beginning to reveal immune enhancing and cancer preventing properties.
The mushroom varies widely in color, from pure white to tan to brown to gray. It appears to get darker in direct sunlight. Large overlapping leaf-like fronds grow in brushy clusters that get larger with time. Each frond is from a half to four inches across and usually darker to the outward edges of the caps. The entire fruiting body can be as big as several feet across and weigh 40 to 50 pounds. The underside of individual caps consists of a pure white pore surface.
Hen of the woods is a polypore – a mushroom which disperses its spores from pores as opposed to gills. The pores are close together and tiny, almost difficult to see. The spore print is white, and the caps are firm and juicy. The stem is thick firm, white and branched.
Hen of the woods fruits anytime from early September to late November and seems to be triggered by the first cold nights at the end of summer. It is most often found around the bottom of the trunks of dead or dying oak trees, but under dead maple trees is a possibility. They are often hard to see because their color can blend in with fall leaves. Be prepared because when you find one, it could be bigger than you want to handle yourself. Look for a large rosette with spoon or fan-shaped caps. Once you find one, go back the next year and you’re likely to find another.
Hen of the woods is a meaty mushroom, delicious in soups or my favorite preparation below:
1 pound hen of the woods mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (no stems), finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Brush any soil off mushrooms and cut into 1-inch dice. Melt butter with oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. When butter stops sizzling, add mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add shallots, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté 2 minutes and serve.
Try searching out these fall mushrooms abundant this time of year. It’s fun to search for these mouth-watering delights, but it’s important to be certain what you have is hen of the woods and not a poisonous look-alike. There are mushroom identification books or the internet to guide you in the right direction.
Or, if you can find someone willing to take you out for the first time to help you identify hen of the woods, that is a good option. The problem with the latter is that not many people are willing to show you their good mushroom spots.