Puffball Overview

General Information

Unlike most other groups, puffballs contain their spores inside, so they're somewhat rounded. When mature, any pressure from outside, such as a raindrop or a kick from a child's shoe, ejects the spores in a cloud of dust.

Puffball Ejecting Spores

Puffball Ejecting Spores

Kids love playing with mature puffballs, but make sure they don't breath in the spores, which can irritate the airways.

Similar Groups

Ascomycetes and truffles also contain spores inside, but they grow underground. Puffballs grow on the ground or on dead wood.

Identification

Immature puffballs are roughly globular, and white and soft inside, like cream cheese (or, if you're a vegetarian, like tofu).

Precautions

If you're careless enough, you could confuse puffballs with very different mushrooms and poison yourself. Carefully check the smaller puffballs to make sure they're not really members of the following groups (puffballs fist-sized or larger are unmistakable):

Unlike immature (button) amanitas (which may be deadly poisonous), when you cut a puffball open, you'll find no stem and no gills inside.

And unlike immature stinkhorns, there are no layers of slime inside.

Poisonous earthballs (Scleroderma species) start off hard and white inside, then become black inside, remaining hard.

Edibility

Puffballs are ideal for beginning mushroomers because there are no poisonous species, and they're easy to tell apart from other groups if you pay attention. If a puffball has no stalk or "legs," and is pure white, soft, and undifferentiated (no separate parts) inside, then it's in an immature state, and it's a choice edible mushroom.

Puffballs beginning to turn yellow inside or are already forming powdery spores are too late to eat. But you may find them again in the same place the following year, when you can collect them when they're younger.

Puffball Types

Edible puffballs fall into two groups. The larger puffballs, Calvatia, grow on composted soil and meadows, while the smaller puffballs, Lycoperdon, grow on wood.

There are relatives of true puffballs that you can't eat, but they won't poison you. These include puffballs covered with jelly and elevated on stalks, and those standing on leg-like rays, called earthstars.

Ecology

All puffballs are decomposers, breaking down dead wood, or organic material in the soil, into their constituents. Plants can then use these materials for renewed growth.

Seasons

The best time for finding puffballs is in the fall. Nevertheless, there is an edible species the grows in the spring, and you can sometimes find giant puffballs beginning in the second half of the summer.

Cooking

Puffballs have a rich, penetrating, earthy flavor. These gourmet mushrooms won't get lost in a recipe, even when there are lots of other ingredients or strong seasonings. I've baked pear-shaped puffballs into an intense wild sourdough bread, the mushroom flavor emerges strong and clear.

Puffballs stand up to virtually every form of cooking. You can sauté them, simmer them in soups, cook them with grains, and even bread and bake them in a casserole if they're large enough. They generally cook in about 7-15 minutes. The smaller species dehydrate well. To store the larger ones long-range, cook and freeze them.