What is Hen of the Woods?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Hen of the Woods is a delicious edible fungus found in many parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. The scientific name of the mushroom is Grifola frondosa, although it is also known as Sheepshead, Ramshead, or Maitake. This fungus has a unique and festive appearance and lends itself well to a wide variety of dishes. Unlike some other mushrooms, they can also be stored relatively easily.

Hen of the woods should be stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator.
Hen of the woods should be stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator.

This fungus should not be confused with Chicken of the Woods, another type of edible mushroom. In appearance, the two look completely different. Hen of the Woods is a gray to brown mushroom with a white spore print found at the base of oak trees and growing on certain other living hardwoods. The mushroom resembles a ruffled collar or coral reef, forming rosettes of fan shaped caps. They can grow to be quite large, with specimens of up to 30 pounds (13 kilograms) reported.

Saffron Milk Caps are another type of edible mushroom.
Saffron Milk Caps are another type of edible mushroom.

Hen of the Woods can be found most commonly in the early fall, although it may fruit during other seasons under rare circumstances. It is a distinctive mushroom, making a good choice for identification by less experienced mushroom hunters, who can verify the identification by using a good mushroom manual and checking the spore print. The younger the mushroom is, the better it will taste, so harvest early and often; they will grow in the same place year after year.

This mushroom can be challenging to clean properly because of the many folds of the fungus. It is easiest to clean when it is fresh and can be brushed gently, although older specimens will have to be trimmed with a knife to remove hard growth and clusters of dirt. Allergic reactions have been reported, most commonly as a result of eating more mature mushrooms, so use care in trimming away the older part of the mushroom and taste a small amount of the mushroom before cooking a large meal with it.

In texture, Hen of the Woods is somewhat chewy, and the mushroom is also very resilient. For this reason, they can be used in a wide variety of dishes including soups, stews, and stir fries. Hen of the Woods can be delicious baked, added to stuffings, broiled, or steamed, although the mushroom itself is somewhat bland and it may taste better with the addition of a sauce or marinade. THey can be stored in the fridge in a brown paper bag for several days or cleaned, cut up, and frozen for future use.

Hen of the Woods can be used as a meat substitute or in addition to proteins in many Asian dishes.
Hen of the Woods can be used as a meat substitute or in addition to proteins in many Asian dishes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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