I love mushrooms. There’s something about their savory (yes, umami) flavor that’s just irresistible. They’re not only a top-three pizza topping, they’re also delicious when simply sautéed in some butter with a bit of salt, without much else, really. While I can’t quite say they make a perfect substitution for meat (portobello mushroom cap “burgers,” no thank you), there is one variety that is curiously meat-like, and it’s called chicken of the woods.
Adrian Chiles, a writer at The Guardian, explains his love for this semi-rare mushroom. I have had chicken of the woods on multiple occasions, and I can confirm that the name makes sense; it has the texture of chicken, more or less. It’s not perfectly like poultry, but it does have a bit of that stringiness (in a good way) you associate with chicken breast. Factor in that umami mushroom flavor, and that’s another meat-like quality in its favor. I am going to warn you, on the occasions when you can find it in a market somewhere, it’s not a cheap ingredient. Plus, you have to clean them thoroughly, as they can be gritty if you’re not careful.
What’s very confusing is that there’s a variety of mushroom called hen-of-the-woods, also known as a maitake mushroom, and this looks completely different. Chicken of the woods is orange and shelf-like, whereas hen-of-the-woods has a slightly frillier texture and a dark gray color. Hen-of-the-woods is easier to procure too (but not by much); there always seems to be some stocked at our local Korean market.
Chiles explains he has a supplier in Croatia who specializes in chicken of the woods, which is where he gets his bounty. There, they are called vrbovača, after the willow trees they grow upon. You don’t have to go nearly as far if you’re in the United States, since a variety can be found in the Northeast, says Mushroom Appreciation, a mycology enthusiast site.
If you can get your hands on some, or if you find them on the menu at a fancy restaurant, they’re definitely worth trying at least once. I couldn’t get enough of them when I tried them for the first time, so hopefully you get your chance too.