Though puffball mushrooms are not that well known, they are a group of commonly seen wild mushrooms that are edible and delicious. In fact, some experts say that all true puffball mushrooms are edible.
That said, there are a few toxic look-alikes, some of which can cause stomach distress and others that can be fatal if eaten. In other words, as with harvesting any wild mushroom, it’s important to know how to identify what you have found, including knowing how to distinguish it from similar-looking fungi.
Thankfully, puffball mushrooms have quite a few unique characteristics to keep foragers safe and happy. With that in mind, and knowing that newbs to foraging should always consult an expert when trying a new mushroom, we can dive deeper into a spotlight on puffballs.
Identifying Edible Puffball Mushrooms
Though there are many species, even genus, of puffball mushrooms, they have some trademark identifiers that make identifying them relatively easy. Furthermore, puffballs aren’t edible at all stages of their life, and these identifiers will signal they are fit for eating.
- Puffballs have no caps or gills, though a few do have stems. They should be solid and roundish rather than the conventional mushroom shape we see in supermarkets. Any sign of gills, inside or beneath the mushroom suggests it isn’t worth harvesting.
- Cutting into puffballs is the surefire test. Puffballs are white, particularly on the inside. If there is any discoloration on the inside, that’s reason enough to throw the specimen out. The interior of a true, edible puffball mushroom should resemble a marshmallow.
Common Types of Edible Puffball Mushrooms
There are dozens of mushrooms that are classified as puffballs. The group expands through several genera and even families of mushrooms. However, there are some forager favorites that can be easy to find and enjoy.
- Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantean) are probably the most remarkable and sought-after puffball mushrooms. They can get up to 20 inches across, bigger than a basketball! In other words, one of these mushrooms equates to a lot of food.
- Common puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum), also known as gem-studded puffballs, are another beloved edible puffball. These are generally smallish and grow in bare soil. These are roundish and white with little studs poking out of them.
- Pear-shaped puffballs (Apioperdon pyriforme) grow in large clusters are decaying wood. They are yellow-brown on the outside, but they should be pure white on the inside when cut open.
Finding Puffball Mushrooms
When searching for mushrooms, it’s best to know where they like to grow and when they tend to fruit. In the case of the above varieties of mushrooms, they tend to come out around the same time, but they have different habitats and/or growing mediums.
Searching for puffballs is best done from late summer (August) to mid-autumn. This, of course, can vary by location as some places are colder sooner and others hotter longer. But, whatever signals summer is closing and fall is starter also signifies when puffballs are coming.
Different puffballs grow differently and in different places. Giant puffballs like to grow on the ground in open fields or near forest edges, occasionally in open forests. Pear-shaped puffballs grow in the forest on woody material, particular stumps and logs, and they grow in troops. Common puffballs are the most widely distributed puffball in North America. It’s just a matter of researching what you are looking for.
Puffball Mushroom Lookalikes
It’s as important, if not more important when hunting mushrooms to know which ones might be confused with what you are looking for. In some cases, a lazy identification can result in serious consequences that may prematurely end a mushroom forager’s career. Puffballs do have some dangerous lookalikes.
- The pigskin puffball (Scleroderma citrinum), sometimes called earthball, is not an actual puffball, but it has a puffball shape. On the inside, however, the pigskin puffball is dark purple-to-brown. It is poisonous.
- Young amanita mushrooms, which include lethal species like the Death Cap and Destroying Angel, can look like small puffball mushrooms before they open. This is why it is critical to cut open potential puffballs and look at the inside. If there is a mushroom forming or gills in the interior of the mushroom, it is potentially deadly.
Preparing Puffball Mushrooms
Puffball mushrooms are a lot of fun to prepare. They are incredibly versatile mushrooms that can be battered and fried, marinated and grilled, or cubed and treated a bit like tofu. The trick with puffballs, after they’ve been identified, is to peel the outer skin away. Don’t wash them as they’ll sponge up the water.
For giant puffballs, use a long, very sharp knife to cut them. They can be a little resistant to slicing cleanly, so it might be a good idea to cut only by pulling the knife through as opposed to sawing. Then, choose your method of cooking.
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