I remember as a kid taking a stroll through the local neighborhood in search of a tiny mushroom no larger than a dime. No, I was not intent on picking and eating these mushrooms, for I knew nothing about them. My goal was to find and then step on them, because upon being stepped on the tiny little mushroom would release a neat plume of “smoke.” There would be a time or two when nothing would happen, at which time that mushroom be declared a dud. I showed all my buddies who then began their own assaults on the fungi.
It would be years later that I would realize there was more to this “smoke ball” mushroom. The mushroom was called a puffball, and under the right conditions they grew much larger, sometimes to the size of basketballs! Once I found out they were indeed edible, my curiosity turned into a full-blown love affair.
Nearing October now, conditions are perfect for the growth of the puffball mushroom. While I did mention that I would find specimens in town on neighbors’ lawns, it is the local woodlots where the best growing conditions occur. You can still find the tiny little guys, but you will also find puffers the size of baseballs, softballs, and up to basketball-sized monsters.
I begin looking in September for the puffball but they become easier to find in October as the forest undergrowth begins to lose its vibrant green color or dies off. Puffballs can be found just about anywhere on the forest floor. Unlike Morel mushrooms where you sometimes have to get on your hands and knees to get close-up views, the larger puffballs can be seen from some distance away. But unlike Morels, where you can carry several home in a small grocery sack, the puffball might need a bit more carrying space.
I was floored the first time someone told me that you could eat this mushroom. I quickly looked back on my escapades as a youth and felt a bit guilty. That whole time I was destroying an edible food source. In fact, the guilt did not subside until I learned that my smoke ball days were OK as I was dealing with the mushroom when it was well past its edible stage.
When then is the edible stage? That’s the nice thing about puffballs, it is fairly easy to tell when the best time is to eat them. Upon first coming up the mushroom is a solid white as well as the meaty inside, all great indications that it is perfect for consumption. You can even slice open a few and see the white, firm inside. It will not be rock solid, just a soft but yet very firm feel.
If you find another puffball that is discolored or a brownish color you can compare it to your fresher mushroom. A mushroom that should NOT be eaten will have that discoloration, as well as a more spongy and ribby looking inside. Anytime you have ANY doubt about the edibility of the mushroom, do NOT eat it. Look for brilliant white, firm mushrooms and you will be OK. Size does not matter as far as those being eaten, just look for edible conditions of the mushroom.
When the mushroom is well past the edible stage, the meaty inside will break down, which causes the “smoke” when you step on or kick it. I still like that little ball of smoke and when I see one that is in the smoke ball state I will give it a kick. And as the smoke rises, my youth floods back and I am strolling my neighborhood again.
What can you expect in taste from the Puffball? Honestly, not much. So why then would I mess with picking puffballs if they offer little in the way of flavor? While they are rather bland by themselves, they do pick up flavors from other foods or spices and with their firm, meaty texture they make a good side dish. Let your imagination run wild and use the puffball like you would other mushrooms. Adding a bit of “wild” to your dinner will make it all the more special.
If you have any doubt or are new to wild mushroom hunting, please consult someone who has experience in the field. Take no chances if you are unfamiliar with identifying wild mushrooms. There are plenty of great books out there as well as a vast amount of information on the internet. This is my experience only and I would suggest that you become familiar with your target, edible species before you do try eating them.
Once you add this wild mushroom to your wild food plate a whole new world will be opened up. Euell Gibbons would be proud, I am sure!