Maitake or Hen of the Woods is one of the easiest to identify and nutritious mushrooms found in North America.
In The Forager's Feast (The Countryman Press, 2016), by Leda Meredith, even experienced foragers will be impressed with plantain leaf chips that are crisper and tastier than kale chips. Dandelion flowers become wine, Japanese knotweed becomes rhubarb-like compote and tangy sorbet, red clover blossoms give quick bread a delightfully spongy texture and hint of sweetness.
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When a forager says, “I found hen today,” he isn’t talking about poultry. He is talking about one of the best and easiest to identify edible wild mushrooms: hen of the woods, also known as maitake.
Grifola frondosa grows in large clumps at the base of trees (especially oak trees) and on tree stumps. It has a firm, fleshy but tender texture. Maitake sometimes appears to be growing on lawn or bare ground, but if you look up or dig around you’ll realize it is growing on buried wood or tree roots.
When I said large clumps, I meant large, sometimes measuring as much as 2 feet across. The clumps look like big corsages made up of gray, brown, and/or off-white ruffles. The layers have pores on their cream-colored undersurface rather than gills.
Beginners might confuse turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) with maitake. Turkey tail is much smaller and usually spread out along a log rather than in a rounded clump at the base of a tree trunk. It is thin, tough, and leathery or papery, rather than tender and meaty like maitake. Although it has medicinal properties and sometimes the flavor is interesting enough for soup stocks and infusions, the texture is pretty much shoe leather (unlike the firm but tender texture of hen of the woods).
As with all mushrooms, the aboveground fruiting body that we eat is only a fraction of the actual mushroom. The mycelium, the “roots” of the mushroom, are invisible to us when we look at a massive clump of hen. You are not harvesting the mycelium when you cut off the aboveground parts of this mushroom. Use a sharp knife and cut near the base. Have a sturdy, breathable container — a basket, cloth, or paper bag is best — ready to hold your harvest.
The only tedious part of working with maitake is scrubbing away the dirt that clings between the ruffled layers along with any insects that might have moved in. I like to slice the mushroom into pieces about 1/3-inch thick before cleaning them with a vegetable brush. Go ahead and do this under running water or in a large bowl of water — it will save you much trouble. The culinary advice about not washing mushrooms in water doesn’t apply here.
Hen of the woods needs to be cooked before you eat it, as do all wild mushrooms (and some would say the cultivated ones, too). Sautéed in the lipid of your choice (butter, olive oil, duck fat, etc.), it is sublime.
Raw hen dries and freezes beautifully and needs no preparation for freezing other than the thorough cleaning mentioned above.
To dry hen of the woods, place slices of it in a dehydrator at 125 degrees F or in your oven on the lowest setting with the door propped open with a dish towel or wooden spoon. The mushrooms should be crispy-dry within 4 hours.
To use dried hen of the woods, first reconstitute it by pouring boiling water over the dried mushrooms and letting them sit in the hot water for 15 minutes. Remove the mushrooms. Carefully pour off and save the soaking liquid, leaving behind the last bit of liquid with any gritty sediment. Use the mushrooms in any mushroom recipe. Use the soaking liquid in soups, sauces, or (heaven!) risotto.
To freeze hen of the woods, clean, chop, and spread it in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze, uncovered, for 1 to 2 hours. Transfer to freezer bags or containers. This method keeps the pieces of mushroom loose so that later on you can take out just what you need for a recipe. If you just put raw chopped hen of the woods into a container or bag and freeze it, you end up with a big brick of chopped mushroom, probably far more than you need for any one recipe.
Reprinted with permission from The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles by Leda Meredith, published by The Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. Buy this book from our store: The Forager’s Feast.
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