Gourmet mushrooms are often used as a meat substitute – for example, Lion’s Mane can be used as a substitute for crab meat, Oyster Mushrooms can be a substitute for pork in a pulled BBQ sandwich, etc. Folks like to use mushrooms as a healthy alternative (Meatless Monday), due to ethical reasons (Vegetarian friendly) or due to food allergies (shellfish allergy). In these cases, it’s pretty impressive when someone can say the mushroom is “as good as” or “nearly as good as” the real thing.
However – I think I have found one case where the mushroom is BETTER than the real thing.
Introducing “Chicken of the Woods”, or COTW, or chicken mushroom, or sulphur shelf. In North Carolina we have two species: Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus. This fascinating orange-yellow mushroom is one that cannot be cultivated or farmed easily (in fact, it is known to be extremely difficult to accomplish), so we only forage for them. They tend to show up summer through fall, but are not commonly found, at least in our experience thus far. Therefore it’s always a treat when we discover it.
The claim to fame for this mushroom is that it tastes like chicken. Everything tastes like chicken, but this mushroom actually has the texture of chicken as well – with some benefits.
Close up of COTW – Note the resemblance to real cooked chicken meat
To put this claim to the test, I prepared two generic “Cashew Chicken” recipes. In one, I followed the traditional directions, in the other I substituted the Chicken of the Woods (COTW). I used the first recipe I hit on Google, which turned out to be the following:
Everything you need to make a vegetarian Cashew Chicken
First things first. Chicken of the Woods looks much nicer than raw chicken, and since it is dry, is a lot safer to handle. I did not have to use a separate work space than the other produce that needed chopping, which was nice. Score one for COTW.
The Chicken of the Woods did require much more oil (I used butter) than the normal chicken, as it was drier. I used 1/2 a stick of butter to fry the normal chicken, and 1 full stick of butter to fry the Chicken of the Woods – Of course, you can use any oil, but I just prefer the taste of butter. Aside from that, the Chicken of the Woods just looked better in the pan. The orange becomes more of a deep red as it cooks, as opposed to the grayish blobs of chicken meat. The Chicken of the Woods also absorbed the oil in the pan, so it was less of a greasy mess.
Chicken of the Woods on top, real chicken on the bottom
Other than that, the recipes went all the same. I served them up, then decided to do the ultimate test on my teenage son, who enjoys foraging, but is pretty sick and tired of eating mushrooms. I begged him to try a piece of the Chicken of the Woods, to which he reluctantly agreed. Knowing that it’s all mental for him, I gave him a piece of the real chicken instead (my kids are gonna have trust issues). He immediately exclaimed it was gross, and he really does not like mushrooms. I told him that he was eating real chicken. Since he was exposed as a mushroom hating fraud, he agreed to try the real Chicken of the Woods. After a few bites, I told him it was actually squirrel meat. After we cleared up that joke, he did admit that the Chicken of the Woods actually tasted better than the chicken. SCORE!
Real chicken on the left, Chicken of the Woods on the right.
As you can see, the Chicken of the Woods has a much deeper color. It also has more volume – 1lbs of meat is only 1/2 the volume of 1lbs of mushroom. The taste is really amazing – imagine the crispy fried skin part of a good piece of fried chicken – that’s more what the Chicken of the Woods tastes like. It holds up great in the pan, looks better, tastes better… Overall, I would have to say that it’s better than the real thing.