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What Is a Hen of the Woods Mushroom?
Hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa, are a type of polypore mushroom, or bracket fungi, with a fruiting body that features open tubes or gills on the undersides. Hen of the woods mushrooms grow in tightly packed groups, or shelves, with soft overlapping caps.
In the United States, the hen of the woods mushroom is also known by its Japanese name, the maitake (which means “dancing mushroom”). In Japan, maitakes have been known to reach upwards of 100 pounds, rightfully earning it the moniker, “King of Mushrooms.” Hen of the woods are also known as “signorina,” “ram's head,” and “sheepshead mushroom.”
What’s the Difference Between Hen of the Woods and Shiitake Mushrooms?
While both shiitake and hen of the woods mushrooms are commonly used in Asian cuisine and are thought to have medicinal benefits, there are a few things that set them apart.
- Shiitake mushrooms are easily recognizable for their brown, convex (umbrella-like) caps, off-white gills, and tan stems. They have a meaty texture and release an earthy, umami flavor when cooked. Unlike hen of the woods, shiitake usually grow individually.
- Hen of the woods mushrooms grow in lightweight, fanned clusters with wide, flat ends at the base of oak trees. They are light brown to dove gray in color, sometimes fading to an off-white, and can be easily peeled apart into individual sections. While also classified as a meaty mushroom, hen of the woods have a milder flavor than shiitake.
4 Ways to Cook With Hen of the Woods Mushrooms
Hen of the woods mushrooms have a semi-firm structure, they hold up well to just about every cooking method. You can sautée, braise, sear, roast, and fry these wild mushrooms, and still maintain their delicate, juicy chew.
- Sauté: Hen of the woods don’t need much extra flair to really shine. Sear 2 cups of the mushrooms in a large skillet over high heat with olive oil or melted butter. Add 2 minced garlic cloves and 3 sprigs of thyme to the skillet, and cook until the mushrooms have softened and the edges turn crisp and golden brown. Enjoy as a side dish or pair with a fried egg over the top.
- Pan-fry: Hen of the woods mushrooms are ideal for shallow pan-frying because of the flat shape of their caps. Whip up a quick, week-night tempura with a light rice flour batter, and fry mushrooms over medium-high heat. Serve with a soy dipping sauce. Cooked hen of the woods mushrooms also make excellent additions to grain salads. Consider using a substantial whole grain with a warm, nutty profile to play off the meatiness of the mushrooms, like farro, barley, or wheat berries. Toss with fresh herbs, chopped nuts, and a garlicky red wine vinaigrette.
- Grill: The earthy umami of hen of the woods mushrooms and a hint of smoky char from a grill are an excellent pairing. Brush or drizzle olive oil over large sections of the mushroom—the bigger the better—and season with salt and pepper. Place on the grates over indirect or low heat (after the heavy-duty grilling is out of the way), and cook until deeply golden and crispy. Slice larger pieces at the table and serve with a garlicky salsa verde.
- Infuse: The savory, meaty notes of hen of the woods mushrooms are especially notable when used to infuse olive oil for a mushroom conserva, served alongside polenta, or cream for an indulgent pasta.
Precautions When Foraging for Hen of the Woods Mushrooms
As with any fungus, mushroom hunters must be wary of poisonous look-alikes: Berkeley's polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi) is one such fungus, which grows in thick fans similar to hen of the woods.
Black-staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei), which also grows at the base of oak trees, and sulphur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus), which goes by the name chicken of the woods, are edible.
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