Some folks suffer from morel-induced tunnel vision during springtime foraging season. They’ll step over ramps and allow fiddleheads to go unpicked, but perhaps the spring edible most frequently encountered—and ignored—is the pheasant back mushroom.
Also known as the dryad’s saddle, this beginner-friendly mushroom is abundant and easy to identify. It’s often passed over by foragers who dismiss them as being near-inedible—but that’s false and a shame.
Not only are these mushrooms edible, they can be downright delicious. When harvested and prepared correctly, pheasant backs provide meaty, substantial morsels that add texture and subtle flavor to any dish. They also make wonderful pickles, or you can dehydrate and grind them into a hearty, flavor-boosting powdered addition to soups, sauces, and gravies.
Here’s everything you need to know about pheasant backs, from picking to pickles.
How to Identify Pheasant Back Mushrooms
Known to mycologists as Cerioporus squamosus, the pheasant back is a widely distributed mushroom, popping up each spring in all states east of the Rockies.
The pheasant back mushroom gets its common name from the brown, feathery appearance of its scaly cap. It’s a polypore, meaning that its underside is covered in pores rather than gills. Unlike some similar polypores like chicken of the woods, the pheasant back attaches to its host tree with a short, thick stem.
The pheasant back is a white-rot fungus, commonly found growing on dead and dying hardwoods, particularly elm. These mushrooms will always be found growing on a host tree. They never flush from a pure soil substrate.
Pheasant backs are a bracket fungus, meaning they will flush in small clusters to shelves of more than 20. Individual mushrooms vary greatly in size, from the width a quarter to over a foot across.
One of the most interesting ways to identify a pheasant back is by its smell. There’s almost nothing “mushroomy” about the scent. Instead, a freshly cut pheasant back smells pleasantly of sliced cucumber or watermelon rind.
When taking habitat, time of year, appearance, and smell into account, the pheasant back has virtually no toxic lookalikes, which makes them easy for novices and very safe to hunt.
How to Find Pheasant Back Mushrooms
If you’ve done any morel hunting, you’ve likely already seen a few pheasant backs. Not only do these two mushrooms emerge around the same time of year, they also share some of the same habitats. In fact, I often take the presence of pheasant backs as a good sign when I’m out looking for morels.
When foraging for either mushroom, I look for the same things: creek bottoms with well-draining soil (but not swamps), gentle hills, a mix of standing and dead-fall hardwoods (particularly dead or dying elms), and spots that get about equal parts sun and shade throughout the day.
I also pay attention to the direction of the sun exposure. Most mushrooms have an ideal range of soil and ambient temperature for growth, and the pheasant back is no different. In the early season (around mid-April to the first of May), I keep my eye on hills and creek bottoms with southerly exposure. These areas will be first to warm up and hit the ideal temps for mushroom growth. As the season progresses into early summer, I work my way toward northerly exposure facets where temperatures surpass the ideal range for mushroom growth last.
How to Select Pheasant Back Mushrooms
Everyone loves to find a giant morel or a flush of chanterelles that looks like a carpet of sunflowers. Big ones, however, are generally not what you want in a pheasant back.
More often than not, the larger, more mature mushrooms are too tough to eat. Typically, I look for mushrooms no bigger than the palm of my hand, about 3 or 4 inches across at the broadest part of the cap.
Outside of that generalization, a sure-fire way to determine the edibility of a pheasant back is by examining the size of its pores. Mature pheasant backs have wider, dilated pores. Freshly flushed pheasant backs (which are the ones you want) have pores about the size of pinholes.
Another way to test the edibility of a pheasant back is to simply tear the mushroom down the middle. I use this method a lot. If I can easily tear it from the outer edge down to the stipe, I have an ideal eater. If I can tear it from the outer edge to about the middle of the cap, I’ll cut off the tender edges and discard the rest. If I can’t tear into the cap at all, I’ll discard the mushroom entirely.
The stem is usually the first part of the mushroom to become inedible. When harvesting, slice off the cap with a sharp knife and leave the stem intact on the log.
Rather than waiting for these mushrooms to grow bigger, pick them as you find them because the younger they are, the better they will taste.
How to Cook Pheasant Back Mushrooms
Prepping a pheasant back for the table is pretty straightforward, so long as you remember one golden rule: slice them thin.
“I often scrape the pores off with a knife then slice them thin with a mandolin, holding them by the stem and discarding any tough portion,” forager and chef Alan Bergo said. “After slicing, they’re excellent sautéed on their own with a knob of butter or cooked alongside fresh spring vegetables like fiddleheads or asparagus.”
Bergo suggests taking advantage of the pheasant back’s unique flavor profile when planning a meal: “They smell and taste like cucumber or watermelon rind, so I sometimes treat them with similar flavor pairings, like fresh dill and hot pepper. After being shaved thin, they also make great pickles.”
You can also dehydrate and powder the mushrooms that are too tough to sauté or pickle. Use the dehydrated mushroom powder to create unique and savory soups and stocks, like in this pheasant back ramen recipe. If you have some birds left in the freezer, double up on “pheasants” with Danielle Prewett’s pheasant with mushroom sauce recipe.
An Overlooked Mushroom
Springtime is the best time to be a forager, and there’s no reason not to take full advantage of all the season has to offer. Next time you’re in the mushroom woods, don’t hesitate to pick some pheasant backs for the table—sliced thin, ground down, pickled, or sautéed, you’ll be sorry you ever passed them up.