There is one mushroom I am often asked about every spring and fall. It is a gorgeous mushroom at its prime, undergoing a transformation from an alien looking stub to a huge fan-like mushroom. This mushroom is of course the “Dryad’s Saddle” or “Pheasant Back” mushroom, known by the latin name Polyporus squamosus (which is fun to say).
As the binomial name suggests Polyporus squamosus is not a gilled mushroom, but possess a porous surface of many, many little tubes. It is from these tubes that the mushroom shoots its tiny white spores, often down onto the dead tree from which they are growing. Because of this you are often able to find this mushroom year after year, sometimes twice a year, growing on dead stumps and occasionally as a parasite on dying trees. "Squamosus" refers to another identifying feature which is the brown shaggy cap, although this cap can fade in older specimens leaving them looking very white.
Before weather and bugs take their toll this mushroom can get to be bigger than a dinner plate, mind you, you wouldn’t want one that big on your plate. It is truly magical watching these inedible giants sprout forth from tender young “bulbs”, and then fade away, only to return in all its glory with the next cool rain.
I found one patch of this prolific fruiter growing from a stump in my backyard. I discovered it last fall during its final fruiting of the year, and proceeded to stalk it this spring so that I could harvest the tender and edible young mushrooms. For nearly two weeks I was able to harvest a handful every day, to the point where Sarah couldn’t keep up with cooking them all. They are now back in season in the cool, wet weather of autumn so it will start all over again.
When harvested young they have a firm, meaty texture, but if they are allowed to grow further, dryad's saddle eventually becomes so tough as to be inedible (think cartilage). I would recommend harvesting before the mushroom gets bigger than a silver dollar (1-2 inches) around, and even then make sure when cooking that you chop them thinly.
One identifying feature of the dryad’s saddle that will become apparent when cutting it up is the scent of watermelon rind or cucumber. When fully cooked this scent should fade to a normal mushroomy taste and smell, but if it doesn't you still need to cook them longer. Because of their firm texture they are perfectly suited for soups or stews, but we also really enjoyed them in homemade yakisoba noodles with fiddleheads instead of the usual shiitakes and cabbage.
Preparing and Cooking Dryad's Saddle
Always cook wild mushrooms very well before you eat them. Slice thinly, sautee in a frying pan with butter, oil, or bacon fat, and add to soups, stews, and mushroom gravy. Save the tough parts and trimmings to add to homemade stocks to make your soups and stews with. These mushrooms are not worth drying for eating later and are best only eaten fresh, young, and tender. You can used the dried pieces to make stock and soup bases, however.
If working with the small, young, tender babies (that look more than slightly phallic just like King Oyster Mushrooms), slice and add to veggie stir fry, roasted vegetables, pastas, or any other dish you would usually add button mushrooms from the store to. If you missed the time when these mushrooms were perfect, but they are still small, try taking only the caps and cooking with them (you're looking for ones at a maximum of 4-6 inches across).
For more cooking information and recipes visit our fellow mycophile Chef Alan Bergo's page on Dryad's Saddle.
~ Alex & Sarah