It’s prime mushroom picking season but it’s quickly cooling down. You might be seeing mushrooms all around you, even in city parks and on the side of highways! There’s still some time to go out and forage before winter chases us indoors for Netflix, hot chocolate and hibernation. However, most mushrooms take a lot of experience to identify which can be scary and discouraging.
It is also extremely dangerous to eat anything that you’re not certain about. Although there are many YouTube videos and Facebook groups are not always a reliable way to be sure that you will be safe. Even after you read this article, go talk to experienced mushroom pickers, join a mycological society and always be overly careful.
Two other warnings:
- It is not legal to pick mushrooms everywhere. Ask a police officer, park ranger or at the info center where you can pick them. If you go anywhere else, you risk getting a hefty fine. In NYC it can be up to $250!
- Wild mushrooms are not like the ones you buy at the store. Some people might experience an allergy to a specific type even though they are not allergic to others. Some edible mushrooms have skins that certain people might react to with a stomach ache. Although I am lucky to be allergy free and tolerate everything I’ve tried so far, I’m aware that I might eat a perfectly good edible mushroom that might make me feel sick.
That being said, mushrooms are a great way eat sustainably, healthily and package-free. They are also vegan but can be cooked with whatever ingredients you prefer. Some people make ice cream and cheese cake out of mushrooms…
Let’s get down to business, there are mushrooms that are growing everywhere around New York right now and they happen to taste delicious! The hen-of-the-woods (maitake) doesn’t have any poisonous look alikes, grows to be huge so it’s satisfying to find and it’s a great way to begin your mushroom picking lifestyle.
The hen-of-the-woods looks a little like the fluffy feathers of a hen, hence it’s name. Here are some photos of how they can look at different stages of growth.
Don’t confuse the hen-of-the-woods with the chicken-of-the-woods. Chickens can grow higher up on the tree, they are orange and they grow in layers. I have heard a lot about these mushrooms and I’m told they’re delicious, however I haven’t found any yet and I don’t know how to tell them apart from the many other orange mushrooms that grow on trees! Stick with hens at the beginning, you can’t go wrong with them and there are plenty to go around!
Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms typically grow on oak trees, so if you see acorns on the ground you’re in the right spot. If you look at the roots of an oak, you’ll notice that they have a clumpy shape with many little lumps which is very similar to the hen mushroom. From a distance, you might confuse a hen mushroom with some dried leaves. Always go check it out, and take a look around the entire tree. They tend to grow on bigger, wider oaks and there can be a several clusters of them around a single tree!
I find these mushrooms the most rewarding to pick, because even a small one is enough as a side dish to any meal and the bigger ones can feed an entire family! Every time I’ve looked for hens, I found at least one and usually had 2-4 kilos (4-9 pounds) in just 30 minutes of searching. Of course, you can also find a single mushroom that weighs 13+ kilos (30+ pounds).
Hen-of-the-woods are either off-white, kind of beige/grayish or more brownish, especially around it’s rounded edges. They always grow in clumps, so from a distance you could confuse them with clustered mushrooms – remember that even though it looks like a cluster, it’s one big mushroom that spreads out and looks fluffy. If you cut it at the stem and you see many individual mushrooms, it’s not a hen. If you see any gills (pictured below) it is NOT a hen.
Hens are smooth, fluffy looking, single-stemmed mushrooms.
Remember, the picture above is NOT a hen-of-the-woods. It’s an example of gills, that hens do NOT have.
Sometimes, the hen-of-the-woods grows on trees other than oaks. If you want to be extra safe, you can stick to only eating the ones that you find on oak trees, although like I already said, there isn’t any dangerous look-a-like. Hens are very unique looking.
Don’t forget to bring some common sense with you to the forest. If there are too many bugs on the hen, if it looks dry or off-color, then it’s probably not good for eating. While most insects are pretty safe to eat if cooked correctly, you should stay away from unintentional entomophagy. Plus, insects can cause allergic reactions in people who are also allergic to shellfish.
Another common sense move is to avoid picking mushrooms in forests where there’s a mark on the tree, or a colorful rope tied around an area. These could mark a protected area, a sick tree, some sort of pest, pollution, disease, etc. If it looks questionable, don’t go there.
Same goes for roadside mushrooms. Think about the pollution that they are exposed to. Would you like some car exhaust with your mushrooms? I don’t think so. Don’t pick anything that looks unclean (not including natural forest dirt) or could be polluted. Similarly to road exhaust, some places could be using pesticides or other chemicals in the area. Although most of us are already exposed to them from the food we buy in supermarkets, the less chemicals we consume, the better.
When you find a hen and bring it home, watch a video on how to clean it correctly. It has many layers, the thick white stem isn’t as yummy as the rest of it so you want to cut that off and if possible, clean it outside or in a large tub to avoid clogging your drain with forest debris. If you see any holes, cut into them and remove any insects, spiders or slugs.
How do you cook a hen?
There are so many ways to cook these mushrooms! Chop them into tiny pieces and stir fry, with other veggies, or if you’re not vegetarian then maybe some meat, lard or eggs to make the perfect mushroomy omelette.
The nutritional value of hens varies depending on the website, but everyone agrees that they have very little fat or protein and lots of vitamin D. Some websites claim that they have very few carbs, others claim that they are 70% carbs. Almost everyone agrees that they are a healthy addition to a balanced diet!
I tend to use too much olive oil and caramelized onions to make a fatty, crispy, scrumptious meal but there are much healthier alternatives. You can cook them in the oven with coconut oil, you can steam them, boil them, grill them probably even air fry them. Whatever you chose to do, make sure to cook them well as they can be a bit chewy and hard on the stomach if you undercook hens, although this is true for mushrooms in general. You can find various recipes here.
If you didn’t manage to find any, or didn’t want to risk picking the wrong mushroom, you can still enjoy eating wild hen-of-the-woods. Check out your local farmers markets from August until November and I guarantee that you’ll find some hens – generally for $1 per pound!
Do you enjoy picking mushrooms? Have you tried hen-of-the-woods? Share your stories, tips, recipes and favorite mushroom picking spots in the comments below!