Hen of the Woods, a Fall Foragers Delight

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The perfect pairing for your next fresh game meal

Story and photos by Gretchen Mueller Steele

For many of us, autumn means big bucks, readying our dogs for upland birds, and watching the skies for the first incoming waterfowl. Fall foragers know that late autumn also means the mushrooming season, for the most part, is coming to a close; however, there remains one last great treat for those perusing the autumn woods. One last great big giant treasure, because those glorious autumn days are when you can find a fruiting of hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) as big as forty or fifty pounds. 

Yes, I said forty or fifty pounds, in one mushroom. The largest I have harvested weighed 49.3 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly, a single mushroom weighing in at almost 50 pounds! Now that’s more enough mushroom for eating fresh and for putting up for the rest of the year.

Grifola frondosa can fruit anytime from late September to mid-November and seems to be triggered by the first cold nights of the end of summer. As I am out scouting deer, acorn crops, waterfowl etc. starting in late September, you can also bet I’m checking under those oak trees for hen of the woods. It is found primarily at the base of oak trees, though I have also occasionally found them under maples along creek and riverbanks.

Hen of the woods can with stand a light frost, and there have been some years with early snow that I have brushed snow off the large mounds of mushrooms. 

Just what is it  about the hen of the woods (AKA Maitake in Japan, grocers, and markets) that make it so highly sought after? 

Ease of identification – Hen of the woods truly have no poisonous look alike, but there are similar species, namely black staining polypore and Berkley’s polypore. As always, be certain of your identification before consuming any wild edible. The hen of the woods grows throughout most of the US at the bases of deciduous trees, living or dead, often for many autumns in row at roughly the same time every year. 

Find a giant hen this year? Remember that spot come next fall and start checking the tree regularly when temps start to drop at night. Colors can range from almost pure white to tan to brown to gray. Later in the season after much of the leaf cover has dropped, they appear to get darker depending on exposure direct sunlight. Large overlapping leaf-like petals/fronds grow in bushy clusters that get larger with time. I always liken a hen of the woods’ fronds to petals that can be easily pulled away after removing the core. Each petal is from a half to four inches across and is usually darker to the outward edges of the "caps." It is not unusual to find an entire fruiting body as big as several feet across. The underside of individual caps/petals consists of a pure white pore surface. Grifola frondosa is a polypore, a mushroom which disperses its spores from pores as opposed to gills. The pores are close together and tiny, almost difficult to see. The caps are firm and juicy. The stem is thick firm, white and branched. The spore print is white.

Size – One or two good sized hen of the woods can be preserved through drying, freezing or pickling and will yield enough to last a family of four through until the next season. One of the easiest to preserve, just chop this one up into whatever size pieces you like to cook with and store them in freezer bags in the freezer without any parboiling, etc.

Delicious flavor and texture – The deep rich earthy mushroomy flavor of a hen of the woods can stand alone, yet remains present when combined with stronger flavors. Truly a flavor that it seems Mother Nature designed specifically for pairing with the fresh game of autumn. The texture lends itself to virtually any cooking method you care to employ without becoming watery or slimy. It pairs exceptionally well with venison and goose. 

Few Creepy Crawlers – In general Hen of the Woods are the least buggy of the shrooms. When harvesting, to make it easier to clean once you get home and to keep the mycelium intact  for future fruitings, do not pull it from the ground. Use a sharp knife and cut it off level with the ground. While still there go ahead and brush of any extra dirt, twigs, etc. that may be in the multitudes of folds. I often “field clean” mine at the time of picking, trimming away undesirable parts and making as clean a bundle as I can for the basket. 

It’s good for you! More and more studies are proving that hen of the woods mushrooms display decidedly healthful properties and are even being studied in the prevention and treatment of certain cancers. The American Cancer Society page about maitake mushrooms tells us that research has shown that maitake D-fraction indeed has effects on the immune system in animal and laboratory studies. This is no secret to those who have used the hen of the woods or Maitake in folk and Asian medicine. I have read many anecdotal references that Hen of the Woods tea consumed on a daily basis helped to shrink malignant tumors when chemotherapy was no longer effective.


With all the great things associated with hen of woods, I encourage you to keep your eyes peeled on your autumn journeys afield for one of these big beauties and then try one of these tasty recipes. You will not be disappointed, and be sure to save some of the hen of the woods to add to that backstrap that is just around the corner! 

For this delicious mushroom, sometimes the simplest way is the best to genuinely enjoy the deep earthy flavor and firm texture.
 

Sesame Hens 

  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds 
  • 2 pounds hen of the woods mushrooms (maitake), separated into serving size wedges; 8-10 total 
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper 
  1. 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herb of choice (parsley, thyme, and summer savory are all good choices) 
  2. In a small skillet, toast the sesame seeds over moderate heat, stirring a few times, until golden, 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
  3. Heat a grill pan and preheat oven to 425°. Gently and generously brush the mushroom wedges with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Grill the mushrooms in batches over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes per batch.
  5. Transfer the wedges to a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes.
  6. Arrange the mushrooms on a platter. Sprinkle with the chopped herbs and sesame seeds. For additional flavor boost, drizzle with a commercial sesame dressing, such as Kraft’s Light Asian Toasted Sesame. 

Here is a crock pot favorite among my fellow waterfowl hunters. This is such a favorite among my waterfowl hunting pals , that I have straggled in later the others only to find the crock pot empty!  According my pals in the blind, there is nothing better when heading in after a chilly morning afield than to find this bubbling away.
 

Hen of the Woods Stroganoff                                

makes about 8 servings
 
  • 4 T olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 c. hen of the woods, packed
  • 1 c. vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 c. half and half
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. sour cream
  • 2 T flour
  • 2 T chopped chives or parsley
  • cooked potatoes, pasta or egg noodles
  1. Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté the garlic over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the packed mushrooms and cook, stirring often until the mushroom starts to brown.
  2. Add the cream and broth, and allow it to reduce by half, stirring often. Add the salt and pepper.
  3. In a bowl, mix the flour and the sour cream together. Stir the sour cream into the mushrooms and cook 5 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.
  4. Place sauce, the potatoes, or noodles, in a crock pot, mix well and set crock pot to low.
  5. Garnish with chives or parsley, serve with crusty toasted French bread and a green salad for a delicious autumn lunch!


Gretchen Steele is an award winning outdoor communicator, her byline and photo credits have appeared in multiple outdoor related publications and media outlets. Steele hails from Southwestern Illinois. She and her yellow lab Willie spend approximately 250 days a year afield chasing the ultimate outdoor storylines and photos throughout the Midwest.