A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Mushrooms: Chickens, Hens, and “Eggs”

by John Michelotti of Catskill Fungi

Some chickens are hens and all hens are chickens, but when it comes to mushrooms chicken-of-the-woods and hen-of-the-woods are two completely different fungi. Around this time in September I wish these mushrooms made as much noise as their namesake birds, so that I might find them easier. Until these evolutionary characteristics develop, I will look to the old oak trees for my hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) and stray away from the conifer forests when looking for chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

Chicken mushrooms are a shelf fungi that grow on dead trees in bright orange and yellow fans. A modest find could yield a few pounds of tasty chicken-textured, protein-building delectables. Two years ago in western Ulster County, I found a log replete with chicken mushrooms. I harvested a third of what the log held, and I wound up with 30 pounds! For any readers who’ve found their fair share, I am sure you can relate to a counterful of neon yellow and the joyous time to slice, cook, and freeze these fungi for the winter.

Hen-of-the-woods, also called maitake.
Puffballs, resembling the white eggs of chickens from afar, are also popping up this time of year. There are a few popular varieties of edible puffballs that grow in our area. The Gem-studded puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) grows out of the ground and the pear-shaped puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) grows on decaying trees and stumps. Both are one- to three-inch, pear-shaped mushrooms that grow in clusters. They are great mushrooms for beginners to identify as distinguishing them from their poisonous look-a-likes can be easy.

Before going further, I must take the time to explain that there are poisonous mushrooms in our woods that can cause death. Unless you are 100 percent sure of which mushroom species you have, do not attempt to eat them. There is a saying: there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters. There are plenty of sources we all have at our disposal to help with identifications; such as our friends. Now, if you feed suspicious mushrooms to your friends, you may not have many friends. Instead, I suggest making friends with people who know their mushrooms and asking them to help you identify mushrooms as you find them. At Catskill Fungi, we host mushroom ID walks and help people learn how to identify mushrooms. We talk about sources like mushroomobserver.org, a site where you can post pictures and characteristics of mushrooms and within a few hours another mycophile (lover of mushrooms) will have given the name of what they think it is. These are good places to start to get you total certainty. Be sure to save a sample of the mushroom you are eating in a paper bag in the fridge in case of accidental poisoning due to misidentification or allergic reaction.

So, how do you tell poison puffballs from edible ones? Cut it open and look at the color inside and the thickness of the skin. If the skin is very thin (less than .5mm) and white, you could be holding an edible mushroom. When I say white, I do not mean off-white, I mean white like snow. If they are a little off-white or olive colored then the interior flesh has started to turn to spores which, in a few more weeks, will be those dried brown balls that when you step on them let out a puff of green “smoke.” That “smoke” is millions of spores launching off into the air to find the next best place to grow more puffballs. The pigskin poison puffball (Scleroderma citrinum) is also common in our woods. When you cut open the warted, thicker skin (about 1mm) inside is a purplish/black interior. The outside of the skin and interior can be white when young so skin thickness is essential to recognize. I do not recommend eating puffballs until you have seen both and can distinguish one from the other.

Even though puffballs are not eggs, it does not mean they are not delicious with eggs. When asked my favorite way to cook any certain mushroom my answer is the same answer that many chefs and mushroom cooks have recommended to me: slice and saute with oil and butter. This beautiful base can be eaten as a side, added as toppings to pastas, eggs, added to sauces, or blended to become a variety of different spreads, soups, or stock. Mushroom recipes are abundant, but this mushroom guy recommends cooking to taste the mushroom for what it is and the flavor it inherently exudes.
September is a beautiful time of year to begin to notice the color changes as well as a time for our feathered friends to fly south. Not all birds fly south, similarly, not all the colors come from the leaves, so keep your eyes out for the chickens, the hens, and the “eggs”. It is not a matter of which you will find but more of a question of which will come first.

To find out more visit catskillfungi.com.