Hen of the Woods is a friendly little name for a very common mushroom in our area and their season is just beginning. It ranks right up there with other “Poultry of the Woods,” like Turkey Tails, Chicken of the Woods, Hawks Wings and other fowl names. They can be a little tricky to identify because their colors vary quite a bit as well as their size. A good thing about “Hens” is that their lookalikes are not poisonous. The Black Staining Polypore has lighter colored fronds which, within five to 20 minutes, will stain a black color. The other one is Berkeley's Polypore which has many fewer fronds and can get really, really large. Both lookalikes are edible when young and tender, but tough when older and you probably wouldn't want to eat them anyway. If you store them, clean them and keep in the fridge in an open paper bag only. Never in plastic or closed containers.
Hen of the Woods do not grow in a symbiotic relationship with trees, like so many other mushrooms. Rather, they are saprobic and decay the dead or dying tissue, usually of oak trees, removing what sugars they can get out of the lignin and cellulose. Bugs don't really eat Hens much, so their tissue is often quite clean, but all sorts of bugs do hide away inside their fronds so best to clean and cut them outside. Cut away any yellowing tissue and be on the lookout for pieces of grit or dirt they may incorporate into their flesh. These tiny pieces of grit need to be cut away although some specimens are totally clean of it. A great way to cook them is to add soy sauce and crushed garlic to olive oil in a bowl. Tear the fronds apart to potato chip size pieces and toss them well. Spread them out on a large tray, dust with salt and pepper and roast at 425 for 30 minutes until they singe a bit. You'll eat them up quickly in the end. Remember, before eating any wild mushroom, know the mushroom well and know its look-alikes. Enjoy