If you're looking for an outdoorsy way to have fun, there's a fall treasure hunt waiting for you in the woods.
Mushroom hunting is a growing trend across the country, including in Minnesota. The appeal? It's an activity that can be fun for people of all ages, doesn't require any expensive equipment, and gets you moving around in the fresh air.
Bonus: finding some super tasty mushrooms – which are often quite valuable – for free.
The season for perhaps the most talked about fungi, morels, is pretty much over now. But several other types of edible mushrooms can be found in the late summer through early fall, like chanterelles and maitake, which the Pioneer Press says are showing up in St. Paul.
But we're the most curious about a mushroom that people claim tastes like chicken.
Chicken of the woods
"Chicken of the woods" mushrooms are one of the "Foolproof Four” – the four most easily identified mushrooms, according to nature tourist site MinnesotaSeasons.com.
That makes them a great option for new mushroom hunters, because if you're not an experienced forager, it can be dangerous to pick and eat mushrooms in the wild – some edible mushrooms look a lot like poisonous mushrooms.
Plus some people swear they taste just like chicken, which makes them sound pretty approachable and a great substitute for meat in vegetarian or vegan dishes.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms often grow in clusters and are most likely to be found from August through October, MinnesotaSeasons says. They are vibrant yellow and orange in color.
There are actually several species of the mushroom – some fruit on the ground, others on logs or trees, University of Minnesota biologist David J. McLaughlin told GoMN.
Learn how to identify chicken of the woods with this helpful video created by mushroom blogger Adam Haritan:
How to find them
To learn how to find chicken of the woods, GoMN had a chat with Alexandra Schulz.
Schulz is a licensed teacher and experienced naturalist, outdoor educator, and foray leader in Minnesota. She runs the website mushroomforaginginmn.com and has a Facebook page dedicated to mushroom hunting in the state.
Although there are many different species of chicken of the woods, Schulz says the two main types you will be looking for are Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus.
Laetiporus sulphureus has a yellow pore surface and grows directly from the trunks and branches of dying wood. The more rare Laetiporus cincinnatus has salmon or white pores, and grows in a rosette formation from the roots of dying trees, so it's found at the tree's base rather than on the tree.
She offers these tips for beginners:
– Look in areas that have a lot of large, older trees – especially oak. Although chicken of the woods mushrooms do grow on many other types of trees, they seem to prefer oak.
– Look several days after a good rain or in areas that are mostly damp/don't get a lot of direct sunlight.
– If you find some, there will likely be more around. As with many mushrooms, chicken of the woods are usually found in spots where more than one tree has been infected with their mycelium.
– Mark spots either on your phone or by taking notes when you find chicken of the woods, because they grow back in the same places each year at roughly the same time.
– Pass up any chickens that are dry or bug ridden. With chickens there really isn't any such thing as too young. You want to harvest them as early as possible as they dry out and get infested with maggots quickly.
– Use a knife and if you have it a small brush or cloth to cut the mushroom free and then wipe off any debris. This will save you a lot of cleaning time later.
– Specimens you harvest for the table should still ooze water at the point you cut them away from the tree or ground.
If you're looking for a wooded area, foraging for personal consumption is legal in all of Minnesota's state parks and state forests.
Minnesota mushroom hunters have listed some locations here where they've found chicken of the woods.
But if you'd feel more comfortable being accompanied by a pro, Schulz leads private guided forays.
How to eat them
"Chickens are good sautéed, deep fried, baked, and may be used in soups, MushroomCollecting.com says. "They can have a lemony, chicken-like taste and texture or at least go well with chicken or chicken stock."
But not all chickens are created equal.
Just like you wouldn't eat an old, dried up potato, you don't want to eat an old chicken of the woods mushroom, Forager Chef says. You want "young" chickens that are tender and don't have a bunch of holes from bugs.
Schulz says you can tell when chicken of the woods mushrooms are old, because they turn white and chalky.
And you can't eat them raw, so make sure to cook them thoroughly.
Forager Chef has a bunch of recipes to try, like "Chicken Fried Chicken of the Woods" or "Pickled Baby Chicken of the Woods."
One last thing
Before you get all excited about finding and eating chicken of the woods, there's one very important thing to consider: You might be allergic to them.
Schulz says around 7 percent of people have a mild allergic reaction to the mushroom.
Foraging blog Northern Bushcraft says it's due to toxins absorbed from the tree the mushrooms grow on, and most often linked to conifers.
So pass up any specimens you find growing on conifers, just to be safe.
And if it’s your first time having chicken of the woods, most mycology (the study of fungi) enthusiasts recommend nibbling a small (cooked) piece and then waiting at least an hour – or even up to a day – before eating any more to make sure you aren't going to have a reaction.