This is the second in a series of three successive mushroom posts, sparked by our recent forays into the woods where we harvested honey mushrooms, puffballs and aborted entoloma.
Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are perhaps the easiest mushroom to confidently ID. I mean, how many mushrooms grow to such enormous size, look like big white volleyballs, and are almost impossible to not see when their fruiting bodies appear. There are several species of puffball, and many of them are edible, but for this post we're really only interested in the giants.
Of course their size is the first key to identifying a puffball. Generally growing from softball to basketball size they can, however, get much larger. I believe the largest one on record is 66" in circumference; that's five-and-a-half feet around! The biggest I've ever found was the size of a basketball, with most being near volleyball-size.
Things get a bit humorous for we puffball hunters come autumn, when the mushrooms begin appearing. I don't know how many times I've hit the brakes while driving or pulled over to the side of the road upon seeing a large puffball setting in the grass somewhere, only to discover that the suspect actually is a volleyball or white pail or even something white but not remotely resembling a ball at all. But one is correct often enough that the occasional embarrassment of being fooled is worth it.
Giant puffballs grow on grass or the forest floor, not on wood as do many other mushrooms. That makes them even more conspicuous. They also grow singly and not in clusters, although it is not uncommon to find several growing in proximity of one another. Every year we get a few softball-sized ones in our yard. They're small and have rougher, faceted skins than do giant puffballs, which leads me to think they may be a species of Sculpted Puffball (see image below), but my understanding is that sculpted puffballs are primarily a western species. I'm not sure, but I do know that they are edible and delicious.
The skin of the large puffballs is leathery, in both texture and thickness. It is easy to peel off, which should be done prior to preparing for the table. The interior of a good, edible puffball is beautiful in its pure, clean, unblemished whiteness. The texture is something akin to a firm, dry marshmallow (no stickiness) or a dense foam such as you might find in certain packing materials. Upon examining the inside, if you see any discoloration, any yellowing or greening, that means that the mushroom is beginning to turn and that its spores are developing in order to soon be released. You may as well toss the mushroom in that case, because it will not taste good at all. Toss it in your yard and maybe you'll get lucky next year with some puffball offspring.
Cleaning puffballs is as easy as wiping the surface with a damp cloth, although you should also give the underside where the mushroom attached to the ground a good examination, as puffballs are a desirable food source for a number of creepy-crawlies, especially millipedes. If you have some buggy diners working their way into the mushroom you can simply cut away the portion that they have claimed and, if the rest of the mushroom is white and firm, make good use of the remainder.
Puffballs do not have a good shelf life. You usually need to use them within two or three days before they start to turn. Refrigerating them may extend the shelf life a bit, but once they start to discolor they go very quickly indeed. I haven't yet come upon a preservation method that I really like. As far as I'm concerned, puffballs really are a seasonal food and are at their best when prepared immediately. Their ephemeral quality somehow makes them all the more special, I think.
To prepare you'll usually slice slabs or "steaks" off the mushroom, around ¼" to ½" in thickness. I think the best tool to use to slice puffballs is a sharp fish filleting knife. The cuts made with a fillet knife make a smoother and more even cut through the mushroom. Most everyone I know cooks puffballs one of two ways: one, lightly salt and pepper the slice, and saute in oil and/or butter until golden brown, or two, coat with a milk/egg wash before dusting with salted and peppered flour and frying in oil. Either of these methods is simple, easy and reliably delicious. If you use a flour coating you can of course also play with the spicing of the flour, adding things like cayenne, garlic powder or whatever suits your fancy. I like to add a pinch of fresh nutmeg to the flour, but don't ever overdo the spice lest the delicate flavor of the mushroom be overpowered.
Fried or sauteed puffball has a consistency and texture I'd liken to tofu. But of course the flavor is uniquely its own. You can also dice the puffball and add to soups or rice and risotto dishes. Another interesting and fun way we've used puffballs is as sandwich filling, sauteing puffball slices and adding to turkey sandwiches or to BLTs for a whole new spin on those classic sandwiches.
However you choose to prepare it, when you bring home a big puffball mushroom that you saw and snagged on the way home or discovered while intentionally foraging for them, you can be assured that you will get a lot of oohs and aahs and curious comments about this strange, large white ball of mushroomy goodness.