For wild mushroom lovers, September and October offer prime hunting for another one of nature's delicacies— the sheepshead mushroom. Ok, the king of all wild edible mushrooms is arguably the morel. But sheepsheads run a close second in their taste, and they are a lot easier to find. Here are a few tips that will help you put some wild mushrooms on the table this fall.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The Sheepshead mushroom, also known as Hen-of-the-Woods, has a very spongy texture and grows in somewhat of a bracket style. Unlike conventional umbrella mushrooms that consist of a single stem with a cap, the sheepshead mushroom grows in a clump, with many stems and smoky-brown petals emerging from a white central base. There are several varieties of sheepsheads, but most of them have the appearance of the top of a sheep’s head—hence the name. They vary in size ranging from two to three inches to as large as two to three feet in diameter.
WHEN TO LOOK
Sheepsheads usually start to grow around the second week of September, and can be found through the middle to end of October. As with other wild mushrooms, weather conditions play a factor in their emergence and abundance. Rain is one factor. Most mushrooms thrive with a little rain, and so do the sheepsheads. After a decent rainfall (anything over an inch), hit the woods within a day or two. The growing cycle for mushrooms is extremely short, meaning they grow quickly, like overnight. So be sure to go back and check your spots once a week. Just because there were no mushrooms popping on your first trip, doesn't mean they won't be there in a week or two. Sheepsheads are not as fickle as morels, so they are less dependent upon temperature to sprout. So check the woods often.
WHERE TO LOOK
Unlike the mystery of morels, this one is simple— sheepsheads love giant oak trees. The bigger the tree, the better chance you will find mushrooms. Prime spots to find them are in old patches of oak timber. Target the biggest oaks. If you can't put both arms around the tree, look there. They typically grow on the ground near the base of the tree but can also be found within several feet of the tree. Once you find a giant oak, make sure you look all around it. I usually find more on the north side of the tree, but they will grow on all sides. Again, sheepsheads are like morels in that they emerge in the same spot year after year. So once you find oak trees with mushrooms, mark that tree on your gps and check back every year. After a few seasons of “shrooming”, you will discover which trees produce the most, making it a little easier.
HOW TO EAT
Sheepshead mushrooms are excellent table fare. They have a slightly stronger taste than morels, but they are delicious and can be prepared in a variety of ways — sliced and pan fried, diced for mushroom soup, or battered and deep-fried. After harvesting, cut them up and rinse under cold water to remove dirt, leaves or bugs. Let them dry on paper towels and start cooking. Our favorite method is to simply make beer batter, dunk the small chunks into the batter, deep fry until they float, then drain and serve with blue cheese dressing. Wild mushrooms are always better when eaten right after they are picked, but we have had some success with freezing them. I cut them into small chunks, batter them, place on a cookie sheet in the freezer for a few hours, and transfer them to a ziploc bag and keep in the freezer until ready to cook. Then simply deep-fry them frozen, just like french fries.
Fall mushroom hunting is great fun for the entire family. Once you know what to look for, you can spot them fairly easily, which makes this an excellent activity for kids.
For recipes and places to look, visit danstefoutdoors.com.