Puffball mushrooms are mushrooms that are only edible when they're a milky white. But mushroom aficionados enjoy puffball mushroom identification. The round, white fungus can range from golf-ball sized to the size of a watermelon.
You want to look for puffballs that are smooth and white, with a soft, bread-like texture inside. If there are any blemishes on the puffball, it may be poisonous and should not be eaten. Consult a mushroom expert before eating any mushrooms you've picked.
How to Identify a Puffball
Puffball mushrooms are common in the central and Eastern U.S. and Canada. They emerge in late summer and fall in meadows, stands of trees and around forest openings, according to Utah State University. You can also sometimes find them on lawns during particularly wet stretches. According to the New York Times, you might see them in sports fields and on highway medians.
They appear to be sitting on the ground, which is where they grow, according to Utah State. These mushrooms grow from spreading underground roots, according to Michigan State University. They can grow quite large, and the giant puffballs are easiest to spot.
For good puffball mushroom identification techniques for a puffball that's safe to eat, look for a smooth white mushroom, round to oblong, that can easily be picked off the ground, according to Michigan State. The inside should also be a solid white, with no blemishes on the flesh. Any blemishes or discoloration inside or out indicate the puffball is poisonous. If you're unsure about whether the puffball is safe to eat, consult your local authorities.
Puffball Mushroom Recipes
Puffball mushrooms appeal to those who like to forage for their food, says Utah State. When looking for puffballs, edible puffballs are easy to slice. Your knife should slice through solid white flesh, with no blemishes on the outside. You can cook with puffball slices similar to the way you cook with morels or other large mushrooms, according to Stratford University Culinary Arts.
According to Utah State, puffballs may have no flavor of their own and simply absorb the flavors of whatever is around them, much like tofu. Others say the puffball is rich, earthy and nutty. If you want to try one and can buy one from a reputable seller, it's a good idea to try your first puffball this way.
The most popular puffball mushroom recipes call for them to be fried in oil with batter, Utah State says. Stratford suggests braising them, roasting them, or pairing them with pasta. Stratford has recipes for wild mushrooms that include wild mushroom soup, creamy mushroom pasta and sauteed mushrooms on toast.
Puffball slices can be used in many recipes that call for mushrooms. The New York Times suggests Puffball Parmigiana, similar to eggplant parmesan. While nutritional information on puffballs is mostly lacking, Colorado State University says mushrooms are good sources of B vitamins, vitamin D and selenium.
Picking and Storing Puffballs
Puffballs live underground until the right conditions cause them to burst forth from the ground. Fungi that lurk in the soil produce the spongy globular mushrooms. If you want to get rid of puffballs from your lawn, picking them won't stop them from recurring, says the New York Times. Rain and late summer into early fall combine to give puffballs the right conditions to appear. They will appear into late October in some areas, as long as it's above 32 degrees F.
Giant puffballs can grow quickly. The largest ever found weighed 48 pounds, according to Michigan State. Typically, they range in size from four inches in diameter to one foot, according to Stratford. They are oval to round in shape. You can usually find them in the same place year after year, so if you want to pick them, remember where you see them.
If you plan to eat a puffball, you must pick it when it's just right, Stratford says. Puffballs safe for eating are smooth and have the color of a creamy, solid white on both the outside and inside. Once the inside turns mushy or is yellow or brown, it is not edible. A puffball is edible for a short time, Utah State says.
Puffball mushroom storage isn't easy. These fungi don't store well. It's one reason why you don't often see them for sale commercially. They last a few days, and can be stored in the refrigerator. But if something seems off, or they begin to darken, you shouldn't take a chance. It's best to eat a puffball soon after you've picked it, says Utah State.
Other Puffball Oddities
There are mushrooms similar to young puffballs, called Amanita mushrooms, that have gills inside their flesh, but these are not puffballs, and they're not edible, according to Stratford. Puffballs often look like large white volleyballs sitting on the ground, although they may not be perfectly round.
Puffballs can produce up to seven trillion spores, according to Michigan State. In fact, they get their name from the millions of spores released in a puff when a mature puffball mushroom is disturbed and bursts open, according to the New York Times. In fact, this is how puffballs spread. According to Utah State, raindrops or just a crack along the surface can cause the spores to escape. The wind then carries the spores off to create new puffballs elsewhere.
According to the New York Times, this is how puffballs get their name. Clouds of spores explode out of a disturbed mushroom and fill the air around the mushroom, before they float off to create new puffball mushrooms.
Medicinal Value of Puffballs
Like many edible plants, puffball mushrooms have some medicinal value. One alternative medicinal use of puffballs is they are good at stopping bleeding. According to Utah State, some members of the Lakota Native American Nation used dry puffballs to make a powder. They would crush the puffball until the fungus became a cluster of powdery spores.
The Lakota would then use these powdery spores to pack large wounds to slow bleeding and help blood to clot. The dried spores slow bleeding and act as a coagulant. This powder also helped to prevent infection.
Giant puffballs, with the Latin name Calvatia gigantea, were used in a 1960s study to see if they had other medicinal value, according to Utah State. Researchers isolated the substance they named "calvacin," which they found could inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors in mice. Calvacin, according to Utah State, is now cited as one of the first substances with anti-tumor activity that was isolated from a mushroom.
Poison Mushroom Guide
Sometimes even safe mushrooms can cause reactions in sensitive people. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following to avoid mushroom poisoning:
Never eat any mushroom unless you have positively identified the species.
Cook all mushrooms thoroughly and never eat a wild mushroom raw.
Be careful the first time you eat a new mushroom —
only consume a small amount and wait several hours to make sure there is no reaction. Some mushroom species react with alcohol, so be sure you know which ones do, and avoid alcohol (for two to three days) with consumption of those species.
Save a small portion of any new mushroom consumed, as it will be helpful to medical staff in the event it makes someone sick.
Never try mushrooms that are not considered generally safe to eat. For more information on edible mushrooms visit Midwest American Mycological Instruction or a County Extension Office in your state to get information specific to where you live.
- Springfield News-Leader: "Perfect Weather for Morels Means 'Epic Season' Ahead, Mushroom Hunter Says"
- New York Times: "Puff, the Magic Mushroom"
- Utah State University: "Giant Puffballs"
- Michigan State University: "Calvatia gigantea"
- Stratford University: An Illustrated Guide to Mushroom Foraging (& 10 Earthy, Savory Recipes)"
- Michigan State University: "Identifying Wild Michigan Mushrooms That Are Safe to Eat"
- Colorado State University: "Mushrooms"