Years of mushroom foraging under my belt and I’ve still never seen a giant puffball mushroom. I keep hearing they’re everywhere, and I know that they’re one of the “foolproof four” easiest to identify mushrooms along with chicken of the woods, shaggy mane and morels. Easy to identify and even easier to spot can only get you so far, if there just aren’t any nearby.
While giant puffball mushrooms may be the most famous, there are dozens of edible species of puffball mushrooms and they’re all just as easy to identify.
This particular patch of puffball mushrooms was discovered by my 3-year-old daughter. She’s been foraging with me for over a year, and she’s always excited to learn a new mushroom. She rushed over with her find and this proud mama congratulated her on her very first puffball mushrooms.
Identifying Puffball Mushrooms
There are many species of mushroom that look like puffballs when they’re small, including several toxic species. When cut in half though, it’s easy to identify puffballs. Mushrooms with gills may look round while they’re immature, but their telltale gills will still be developing inside. If a mushroom is a pure white on the inside, with no sign of gills at all, then it’s a puffball.
Still, there are a few puffballs that are toxic, so a lack of gills isn’t a sure sign that you have an edible puffball mushroom. A lack of gills and a pure white interior are both required to identify edible species. Toxic puffball look-alikes either have gills, or they’re not white on the inside.
It’s not at all ambiguous. No gills and white means puffball, and gills and any other color is no good. Poisonous puffball species don’t mess around, and a black puffball is a toxic puffball.
Since puffballs don’t have gills, they have to get their spores out into the world somehow. They do it by converting their entire mushroom bodies into pores, which has me uniquely impressed. Once a puffball has passed the edible stage, the interior will begin to turn yellow or green, and that’s the mushroom entering its reproductive phase.
Puffballs with a green or yellow interior are no longer edible, but it’s not necessarily an indication that you’ve found a toxic species. It may be a perfectly edible puffball species but you’re just a week too late. The same patch of puffball mushrooms, a week later, will be a completely different find. Mine, in particular, turned a very unambiguous green on the inside and puffed out a cloud of spores as I opened them.
Once puffballs have begun to change color on the inside, do them a favor and step on them. Jumping on a patch of puffball mushrooms pops them open and helps send their spores far and wide. You may have missed out on this patch this time, but dispersing their spores will help you have better luck next time.
Besides, it’s fun. Overripe puffballs are basically just tough skins full of millions of tiny spores that pop on contact. If you ever stomped packing bubbles as a kid, you’ll love stomping puffballs. My daughter took my invitation to puffball stomping seriously and gladly went to work.
A potential edible look-alike is shrimp of the woods, though they’re only vaguely similar. Shrimp of the woods mushrooms are a strange aborted mushroom growth that fruits out when honey mushrooms come into contact with another mushroom known as Entoloma abortivum. They’re brownish/white blobs with a pink/white interior, and like puffballs they have no visible gills inside.
Shrimp of the woods are edible, and here’s a recipe if you find them.
How to Prepare Puffball Mushrooms
Assuming you’ve found a patch of puffball mushrooms and positively identified them. What’s next?
Many people choose to peel them because the exterior skin can be a bit tough. That makes sense because once the interior flesh turns to spores the exterior skin is basically a balloon waiting to be popped by some passing animal. Peeling puffballs can be a bit tricky though, and not to mention time-consuming.
The skin is definitely distinct from the body of the mushroom, but it takes a bit of skill to remove it efficiently. Honestly, it’s a complete pain and not strictly necessary.
Peeled or not, it’s important to get puffballs into the refrigerator soon after harvest. They’ll begin to spoil quickly if left unrefrigerated. I particularly like the idea of making a dried puffball powder to preserve them for long-term use.
Puffballs are remarkably versatile, and they can be substituted for tofu in recipes like this puffball stir fry. Someday, when I find a giant puffball, I’m going to take a slice and make a puffball pizza using the big thick mushroom slice as a crust. In the meantime, these tiny puffballs are getting diced up and browned in olive oil to top a simple plate of pasta.