Identifying Edible Puffballs
Puffballs are a great family of mushrooms for novice foragers to pick from, for a number of reasons…
All true Puffballs found in the UK are edible when young.
They grow almost all year round and can often be found in large quantities.
With a little care they are easy to identify.
Some of them are very tasty!
The safest of all UK mushrooms to identify, is also the best tasting in the Puffball family; the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantia. It has no look-a-likes when mature, and will provide a decent sized meal from just one mushroom.
An average Giant Puffball can produce seven trillion spores. These spores are very fussy and the mushroom is lucky if more than 1 of them grows to maturity.
This is quite lucky for us too, as it has been calculated that if each spore from one mushroom germinated and the same happened to that generation, it would produce a mass of fungi 800 times the volume of the Earth!
In 2010, schoolboy Finley O’Neil from Yorkshire found a world record breaking Giant Puffball, measuring 66.5 inches (nearly 170 cm) in diameter. The Giant Puffball holds another record too; it produces more progeny than any other living thing.
Calvatia gigantia roughly translates to giant bald head!
Not all are as easy to identify as the giants though; other family members range in size from less than a marble, to bigger than a beach ball. There are roughly 18 members of the true Puffball family in the UK.
To ensure that you have an edible Puffball, follow these simple rules:
First find a mushroom without gills, spines or pores under the non existent cap! Basically, find a mushroom that either looks like a ball or a ball with an elongated stem. Pictured right are young Stump Puffballs.
For further identification purposes, the ball-like mushroom you have found must be cut in half.
Inside, the mushroom should be pure white with a spongy flesh and nothing else. Young fresh edible Puffballs have white spongy flesh all the way through the mushroom. See the Common Puffball sliced through below right.
As the mushroom matures, the flesh inside will begin to turn yellow. This is now no longer edible and can make people sick. There are a few nasty look-a-likes, which is why cutting the mushroom in half is an important key to identifying which Puffball you have found.
If there is anything else apart from white sponge inside your mushroom, it is NOT an edible puffball.
The Earthballs These mushrooms fool many people and account for the second most mushroom poisonings in the UK each year. They are not deadly, but can make you very ill.
Earthballs are easily identified though, as they have a tough warted skin, giving them their other common name ‘The Poison Pigskin Puffball’.
They are also more solid to the touch and less spongy throughout. If cut in half, almost all Earthballs are purple or black in the middle; this should put most people off eating them!
But beware, as some species of Earthball can remain white in the middle; though they are still much firmer to the touch and without the spongy effect inside. The skin will still be tough and warty.
Remember; if you are at all unsure of what you have found, follow the rule and do not eat it!
The Amanitas Some members of the Aminita family are Deadly. This family of mushrooms grow from a white ‘egg sack’, which can look very much like a puffball, as shown in the picture on the right.
If cut in half, this egg sack would reveal a small mushroom ready to burst through the egg skin and start growing.
Do not eat an Amanita Egg! Only some Amanitas are edible and these can only be identified when they are beyond the egg stage.
Some Amanitas, including the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel are deadly poisonous with no known cure.
The Stinkhorn mushroom
Immature Stinkhorn ‘Egg’
This mushroom also grows from an egg, but it is easily identified by the gelatinous layer between the immature mushroom inside and the skin of the egg.
Some parts of the Stinkhorn are actually edible, if a little smelly! But if you are going to try this, you must to be 100% certain that you do not have an Amanita instead!
If you slice a Stinkhorn through, it will be pretty obvious that it isn’t a mamber of the Puffball family that you’ve found.
Watch what happened when we did the taste test in our Stinkhorn YouTube video.
Young Silky Rosegill
These also grow from an egg sack and although they are listed as edible, they are too similar to the Amanitas to be of any interest to a forager.
One of the prettiest of the Volvariella family is the delicate Silky Rosegill (Volvariella bombycina).
We were lucky enough to spot one of these rare fungi, watch our Silky Rosegill YouTube video.
Cooking and preparation
We use the large Mozaic Puffballs (pictured right) and even larger Giant Puffballs to make our Puffball schnitzels. This simple method is the best way we have found of cooking them.
These mushrooms have a lovely flavour, but when fried in large slices they do tend to end up with a rather floppy texture. Coating them with breadcrumbs before frying helps to firm them up a little.
The Smaller Puffballs The smaller Puffballs generally have less flavour than the larger ones, but can still be used to create some tasty meals. Their spongy composition enables them to soak up a marinade fairly quickly, so are great for carrying flavour into your meals. They can be used in the same way as described for the Giant Puffball schnitzels, (pictured on the right) or added to stir-fries and pasta dishes.
A bit more about Puffballs..
Puffballs are a ‘Decay Fungus’ and play a massively important role in the care of our environment. Along with the likes of Oyster Mushrooms and Honey Fungus,they are one of the few living organisms that are able to breakdown and encourage decomposition of the toughest material in wood; Lignin. Without them, our planet would be covered in fallen trees and organic matter to such a depth, it would be extremely slow and difficult to continually break it all down.
If inhaled in large quantities, Puffball spores can lead to Lycoperdonitis which causes inflammation of the alveoli in the lungs. This was discovered through an old nosebleed cure; however, I don’t know if contracting Lycoperdonitis can cure nosebleeds…
More shockingly, in 1967 eight teenagers from Wisconsin snorted Puffball spores whilst searching for a ‘high’, but ended up hospitalised for four weeks! It is reported that the spores germinated to hyphae stage in the lungs and had to be treated with a fungicide.
There have been no human fatalities associated with Puffballs, but dogs breathing in large amounts of the spores have died.
The spores have many sharp microscopic spines which can cause severe irritation of the lungs. It can be equally as bad if you get the spores in your eyes.
It’s not all bad news with the spores though, smithies used to keep Puffballs in the forge to help heal burns and as a styptic to stop bleeding. As it turns out they knew what they were doing; these spores are antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial, fighting Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella typhimurium and Escherichia coli (the list goes on) as effectively as the antibiotic Ampicillin!
The fungus starts white throughout but when mature the interior turns yellow to purple to brown and becomes many millions of spores called a gleba with a paper thin skin holding them together. The mushrooms are then light enough to be blown around, therefore spreading the spores.
Even one raindrop hitting the mushroom can cause the spores to shoot out of the fungi at a velocity of about 100 cm/second. This forms a centimetre tall cloud one-hundredth of a second after impact. A single puff like this can release over a million spores in the Common Puffball, the spores being typically 3.5 to 4 microns in size.
The scientific name for most of the Puffball family is Lycoperdon, which translates as Wolf Farts, with Lyco meaning wolf and perdon, burst of wind…
Puffballs are placed within the Basidiomycota group of fungus, meaning the spores are on the inside. Its old name Gastromycete, means ‘stomach fungi’.
Oh, and sometimes they can grow in some amusing shapes!…
How to identify, cook, and store puffball mushrooms
Giant puffball mushrooms, or Calvatia gigantea, are a popular and recognizable edible mushroom.
Puffballs are round with a white interior and exterior and grow on small, barely noticeable stems.
The tofu-like texture of puffballs makes them extremely versatile to cook with.
Take a walk around outside after a rainstorm, and you might see a large, white fungus sprouting from the ground. Indy Officinalis, an urban farmer and global forager, says it’s the type of thing you probably kicked to your friend on the playground simply because it “looks funny” and slightly resembles a soccer ball.
These growths are actually giant puffball mushrooms, a commonly foraged and edible mushroom currently sweeping
Identifying giant puffball mushrooms
Officinalis describes puffballs as an entirely smooth and “super round, marshmallow-white mushroom,” with a feta-like interior (as opposed to the powdery interior some mushrooms have). Their stems, which Officinalis says look like “fine, little anchors to the ground,” almost appear unnoticeable and disappear underneath the bulk of the mushroom.
You’ll mostly find puffballs in fields located in especially wet areas throughout many parts of the country during the early fall, but Officinalis states they sometimes appear in late fall and early spring.
Warning: When foraging, it’s important to maintain caution over what you put in your mouth. Edible puffballs have a completely white interior, says Officinalis, and other kinds of puffballs have a dark inside and shouldn’t be eaten.
Cooking with puffball mushrooms
According to Officinalis, cooking with puffballs is a lot like cooking with tofu, given the mushroom’s dense consistency. “The texture [of puffballs] outweighs the flavor profile. It makes them a very versatile mushroom,” Officinalis says.
She also explains that puffballs soak up flavor really well and can taste sweet or savory, depending on how they’re seasoned. Dry out the puffballs and use them as a soup thickener or gravy, or simply slice them like a loaf of bread and saute them to maintain that same feta-like consistency. “[The puffball] holds up really well in a saute pan,” Officinalis says. “It’s a really unique texture.”
Quick tip: If foraging isn’t for you, you can cultivate your own puffball mushrooms at home with water, a clean container, and molasses. Find puffball mushroom spores on Etsy.
Storing puffball mushrooms
There are a few options when it comes to storing puffball mushrooms. One is to slice and dehydrate the puffballs in a solar or kitchen dehydrator, drying rack, or by cooking them in the oven at a low temperature. This will suck out the moisture and allow them to be stored indefinitely, so long as they’re kept in an airtight or vacuum-sealed container.
When you need to cook with them again, rehydrate them by allowing them to soak in broth or water and then dry sauteing them to cook out a bit of the liquid.
The other option is to store them fresh in a brown paper bag in the fridge for 7 to 10 days, or saute them in oil, store in some tupperware, and freeze them in their cooked state.
With a distinct soccer ball-like size and shape, giant puffball mushrooms are relatively easy to find in the open, grassy fields where they’re most common.
Their tofu-like texture and ability to soak up flavors makes them a versatile ingredient to cook with or season. To maintain the thick consistency of puffballs, simply saute them with your choice of spices.
As with anything when foraging, it’s important to maintain caution when determining what is or isn’t safe to eat. Edible puffballs are entirely white on the inside and outside, while non-edible puffballs will have dark interiors. Be sure to extensively research and observe any plant you’re looking to forage before taking it home to cook with.