Even if you haven’t ever thought about eating one, you’ve probably seen these around, and likely kicked them as a child, I know I did growing up in the windy plains of Midwestern Minnesota. They’re easy to spot, generally very large, and pretty versatile in the kitchen. They also don’t have poisonous look a likes, if you pay attention. If it’s solid, lacks gills, and is shaped like an ovoid blob, you probably have yourself a puffball.
Puffballs grow anywhere that their spores have landed, so unlike mushrooms like chanterelles or hen of the woods where they come up exactly in the same spots, puffballs can move around a bit as their not bonding with a particular tree. That being said, I do have puffball patches where I see them every year, but they seem to float around in an area, rather than sticking to a specific GPS point. I have seen them in fields, in the deep woods, and directly on trails. This is because, unlike many other mushrooms that are parasites, or live in harmony with specific trees, puffballs are just huge spore factories and after they mature, they let their billions of spores fly on the wind.
Most people know the large, field dwelling alien soccer ball, but there’s a couple other puffs out there that I like, and to sweeten the deal, I think the others are better than the big white guys. Heres a few I’ve picked, eaten, and enjoyed. My measly 3 species on this page doesn’t even scratch the surface of unique, individual puffballs you can eat, but, I would say they’re probably my favorites (especially the little brown ones).
First things first, when you find a puffball, no matter what size, turn it over and inspect where it attaches to the ground. Cut away the flesh with dirt attached, then inspect the mushroom for color: it should be absolutely, perfectly white. If it’s at all yellow or greenish, it’s too old, look for another one or use it as an excuse to kick it like a soccer ball and not feel bad about it. If you see tunneling which can mean worms, cut away the mushroom flesh to see if you can remove any sign of tunneling, if you can remove any tissue with holes in it, and the rest is still perfectly white and firm, you should have removed the bugs and they won’t continue to eat the mushroom.
Chill that puffball!
My grandmother mentioned a while ago that she and grandpa enjoyed the puffballs they’d picked in the back 40, but after a few days they started to smell. Puffballs, like meat, are basically pieces of protein material, and if you leave them on the counter, they’re going to go bad just like meat, and they will stink, bad. Just like harvesting a wild animal, chilling the mushroom down as fast as possible is one of the first lines of defense to ensure you get a great shelf life out of your puffballs. There’s a problem though: puffballs can be very large, and can be impossible to fit in your fridge. You have a few options here, and it’s really up to you. For cooking fresh, you can cut the mushroom into hunks that will fit in the fridge, chill them, then rotate in any others until they’re all cooled down.
What I usually do is dehydrate or make some into space saving puree or hummus (recipes below) —all good examples of what you can do with the excess puffball that can’t fit in the fridge in it’s raw form. The fresh puffballs will get cooked a few different ways, over the next few days, or some of them might get sliced, cooked, and then frozen to make something like lasagna in the winter (recipe at the bottom of the post).
Cleaning is relatively easy with these guys, compared to most other wild mushrooms you’ll find. They’re covered with a leathery protective coating that keeps dirt out of the part of the mushroom you want to eat, which is pretty convenient. In a restaurant setting, I keep the skin on the mushroom until I’m ready to cook them, since it keeps the mushroom flesh inside moist, while still allowing it to breathe. The skin peels off easily by using your fingers or a decent paring knife.
Can I eat puffball skin?
Yes, you can eat puffball skin, just make sure you brush it clean so you don’t get dirt and twigs in your mouth. For the first few years I always peeled puffballs I picked, and I told other people to do it too. As I’ve picked them more over the years I changed my mind, slightly. Here’s my thoughts: peel the puffballs if they need to be peeled for cleaning, or if you’ve been keeping them in a cooler and using the skin as a natural shield to preserve freshness. Otherwise, wipe them dry and cook the whole shebang. The outer crust isn’t bad at all, and it’s part of the mushroom. The texture is good too, giving a different texture than the inside, which can be sloppy and soggy if not properly cooked.
There’s a couple different ways to approach these. most people will batter and fry puffballs, and that’s fine, I do too. I don’t eat fried food all the time though, and sometimes I need something lighter. Without a breading, the biggest thing to know, unless you want to put them in soup (where they become a bit like mushroom marshmallows, is that puffballs like to be browned, they love it. Greasing them up and then baking or putting in a large skillet until golden will unlock real flavor in these, flavor you wouldn’t expect each slice to have from something that can be so massive.
Cooking Puffballs as a Tofu Substitute
This is a great idea, and to be honest I feel slightly better about eating puffballs like tofu than eating tofu like tofu. Sear them and put in a stir-fry, cut tiny chunks and float in miso soup, grill them and toss in teriyaki-whatever your tofu poison, puffballs will probably do it for you.
Generally when I cook these, I peel, then slice or cut into chunks. Afterword, I saute in oil or fat until they’re golden brown, lightly seasoning them with some salt and pepper to draw out their nutty-cheesy flavor.
One of the worst things I ever made was boiled, pickled puffballs. Without caramelizing and browning in fat, they’ll just shrivel up and be awful.
Since they’re so large, (some weighing in at 50lbs or more) People have found creative ways to preserve them, in pioneer days, I’ve read that people would dry and powder them, and then use them to make a sort of unleavened bread. See my post on making puffball powder below.
To dry them, peel and slice as thin as possible, then place them in a dehydrator. You could also dry them in the sun on wire racks or screens, just make sure it’s hot outside. A bit of warning: dehydrating puffballs will make your kitchen stink, and pureeing/grinding them up will fill the air with puffball powder, which is sticky stuff. Open a window or puree dried puffballs into flour in wide, open areas, or bring the blender outside with an extension cord.
Strangely enough, even after a good run in the dehydrator, the fluffy, poofy composition of these things can be hard to get cracker dry after dehydrating. To get your puffballs cracker dry, smash the slices of mushroom with your hand all over to compress them lightly before dehydrating.
Freezing puffballs can be a good technique, especially if you don’t want to take the time to make a puree, or dry them into powder. To freeze them, cut the puffballs into thick slices, spray or brush lightly with oil, season with salt, then bake in a hot oven (400F or more) or grill until wilted and lightly browned. After cooking, cool then vacuum seal and freeze.
- Puffball Lasagna
- Puffball Hummus
- Puffball Ravioli
- Cheese Stuffed Puffball Croquettes
- Puffball Gravy
- Caramelized Puffball Puree
- Puffball Dumplings
- Puffball Powder
One of my favorite ways of preserving these is a conserve, or type of pickle. The only thing you really need to know is that they have to be browned first, otherwise they will be soggy and…not good. Here’s a shabbily shot home video, it may be old, but you’ll get the jist.