Temperatures are starting to suggest that autumn is arriving here in North Carolina. It’s teetering between summer swelter in the day and chilly autumn mornings. I wake up looking for a blanket, and I know what that means: The maitake mushrooms are coming! With the temperatures getting tolerable, it’s not as if I needed another reason to go traipsing through the woods, but there is a big one, literally.
Around these parts, maitake mushrooms are better known as hen of the woods. In other places, they have other names: sheep’s head, ram’s head, or even king of mushrooms. Officially, mycologists recognise it as Grifola Frondosa. In Japanese, maitake translates to “dancing mushroom”, which makes about as much sense to me as reading that in Japanese script, but it is what it is. I think there may actually be a tradition of dancing after finding a maitake.
The fact of the matter is maitake mushrooms, in my humble opinion, are the choicest of choice mushrooms. More so than morels. More so than chanterelles and more so than chicken of the woods (which while delicious and of similar nomenclature are not the same thing). Maitake have a juicy bite, yet firm texture. They are an extremely versatile mushroom, able to stand up to and shine through all sorts of preparation methods.
What Do Maitake’s Look Like?
While the Japanese name doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the maitake’s appearance, some of its other designations do. Hen of the woods are typically composed of several fans that are tan, grey and white, with a colour arrangement that resembles the feathers of roosting country hens, Plymouth rocks and several other similar hued breeds of chickens. King of mushrooms comes from the fact that maitake are massive, able to produce clusters weighing more than 40 kilos, with 20 kilos not being all that abnormal. That’s a huge haul of amazing food!
To be a little more precise, the maitake mushroom measures up to a metre wide and is a cluster of overlapping, spoon-shaped caps that are individually about two to seven centimetres across and maybe half a centimetre thick. The brownish-gray colors are on top of the caps; underneath, they are solid white (or perhaps with a little greyish-ness). The caps are fleshy to touch and on the underside, rather than gills, this mushroom has tiny pores. Further down, the fruiting body sprouts from an underground tuber about the size of a fist. It does have a central stem (aka stipe) with a complicated branch structure coming off of it.
Where Do Maitake Mushrooms Grow?
In the wider, global sense of this question, maitake mushrooms are found throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada. I have found several as far south as the North Carolina-South Carolina border and I’ve heard of them being found in the Northwest as well. They also grow in Japan, obviously, as well as China. Plus they grow in several countries in Europe, including Germany (“Laubporling”) and Italy (“Signorina”).
In terms of mushroom hunting, wild maitake grow in the forest, particularly older forests. More often than not, they are found at the base of oak trees, especially dead or dying oaks or stumps. Occasionally, they’ll fruit from elms or maples. Because of their colouring, they tend to blend in very well with the leaf litter around them, so they can be challenging to spot from a distance.
Another great thing about maitake is that they can actually be grown at home, cultivated on logs!
When Can I Find Wild Maitake Mushrooms?
As important as where to find them, for those foraging, we have to know when to find them. Maitake mushrooms are true autumn mushrooms. In North Carolina, they’ll start sometime around September (look for the leaves to just be falling) and can be found into November. There’s no point looking for them in the heat of summertime or frigidness of winter, and they don’t come out in spring. Those are times to have an eye out for other edible species.
The real beauty of the maitake, aside from its appearance, texture, and flavour, is that it has only a couple of lookalikes, both of which are easily differentiated from the hen of the woods. They are also technically edible, though sometimes bitter, anyway that’s not to say to forego due diligence. While foraging mushrooms needn’t be a scary endeavour (it should at first), identifying a mushroom with 100% assurance must be part of the process every time.
Black-Staining Polypore (Meripilus giganteus): In reality, this mushroom does look like a maitake. However, its caps are consistently much larger, though the entire fruiting body can be quite big like a maitake, allowing wishful thinking to distort reality. The giveaway, however, is the black stains that it gets after handling it. Maitake don’t do this, and in fact, they have white spores not black.
Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi):To me, due to its orangish-yellowish color, the Berkeley’s polypore more resembles an old chicken (not hen) of the woods mushroom (Laetiporous sulfureus), another incredibly delicious and easily identified edible. Its shelf caps are generally larger than the maitake’s, and its pores are also larger. Again, while somewhat similar in stature, it doesn’t really look like a maitake.
Weirdly, I spotted both of these mushrooms nearly side-by-side this July, jumped out of the truck to investigate, and stood scratching my head. They’d fooled me from a distance, but upon closer examination, it was obvious something was off. They didn’t quite look right, and it was a bit early in the year for maitake. I verified my reservations with a mushroom group online. All of the mushrooms that I forage are easily identified with minimal lookalikes, and it is imperative to understand how to ID both the mushroom you are after and the one that might be mistaken for it. There are always tell-tale clues to help distinguish them.
How to Cook Maitake Mushrooms
While maitakes are extremely versatile in the kitchen, content to be stewed, steamed, sautéed or sizzled on the barbecue, the most important part about cooking them is that they must be cooked. This is the case with all mushrooms really. Raw mushrooms, even those from the store, have tough cell walls that make them indigestible, but cooking them solves that. They also have toxins that are destroyed during cooking. It’s pretty difficult to ruin a maitake. They hold their own much better than other choice edibles, like chanterelles.
Maitake mushrooms also store/preserve very well, which is great because often the harvest is so large. They can be diced and frozen. Some people like to dehydrate them and grind them into powder to add to sauces, soups, and seasonings, but I find the texture too alluring to go that route. They can be pickled or canned, and they can also be freeze-dried, which maintains the most nutrients. Because the maitake is a valued medicinal mushroom, regulating the immune system, it’s worth keeping them around.