[ Basidiomycetes . . . ]
by Michael Kuo
“The term “puffball,” as I am using it here, is not at all scientific; I mean more or less any mushroom that looks like a ball when mature. Typically the interior of a puffball is composed of spore-bearing flesh. When the puffball matures it splits open, or a perforation develops on surface of the ball, through which the spores escape–when raindrops land on the puffball, via air currents, or by some other means.
Puffballs range widely in size and appearance–from tiny species that grow in clusters on wood, to large, terrestrial species growing in fairy rings in meadows. A few species, like Calvatia gigantea, are enormous, reaching diameters of 50 cm! I am including the “earthstars” with the puffballs since they consist, at maturity, of a puffball sitting atop a star-shaped arrangement of fleshy arms–as well as the so-called “stalked puffballs,” which consist of a ball-like spore case that sits atop a stem.
When sliced open, puffballs contain only flesh–or, if they have matured, spore dust. This separates them from buttons of some gilled mushrooms that have universal veils and can appear like puffballs, since those mushrooms display the future mushroom in cross-section. Some slime molds can appear like puffballs, as well, but when sliced open they are filled with gooey, gelatinous material. Stinkhorn “eggs” are also gelatinous inside, and display the stinkhorn-to-be when sliced open.
Taxonomically, the term “puffballs” is incoherent, since they are so diverse and come from many different families and genera. They are all Basidiomycetes, since their spores are produced on basidia–but some belong in the gilled mushroom order (many in the Lycoperdaceae family) while others are more closely related to the boletes and a few are related to the stinkhorns, according to recent DNA research.
If your puffball is growing underground, it may well be a truffle or false truffle. I have not yet treated these mushrooms at MushroomExpert.Com–and, to be frank, I know virtually nothing about them; I recommend Arora (1986) for a thorough introductory treatment.”
“Puffballs seem to prefer disturbed earth, and enjoy surprising the forager, for they are seldom the prey being sought. The largest ones are members of the genus Calvatia. It is estimated that the average mature specimen of C. gigantea contains 7 trillion spores stored inside the puffball!
Most puffballs are safe to eat, although rare reactions have been reported. Assuming you have obtained reliable puffballs, you should sitll follow these steps before eating them:
They must be all-white inside. Any shade of yellow or purple makes them inedible or upsetting.
When cut, they must have a uniform internal consistency. The external appearance of immature Amanita species is similar to puffballs. However, the cap and gills of these unexpanded mushrooms become apparent when the egg-shaped fungi are cut in half. The Amanita genus includes the most poisonous species of mushrooms.
Clean them as necessary and dry on paper towels. Some people develop intestinal irritation from the outer covering, so peel this layer with a knife.
Some people refer to puffballs as “breakfast mushrooms” because they blend so well with eggs. But they also serve beautifully as side dishes with dinner entrees. A thick slab of puffball develops a lovely golden color when browned in butter. They are often cut into cubes for cooking.
Dip slices in a batter of egg and milk and cover with bread crumbs seasoned with salt and pepper. Sauté in butter and serve with a piquant sauce as the main course for a vegetarian dinner.
Thinly sliced and pan-seared large Calvatias can be used as crêpes. Rolled around crab meat, tuna, or other fillings, and held in place with a toothpick, they can be baked for your next party.
Chop and sauté them before freezing. The larger species may be sliced and slightly fried, then frozen for later use as crêpes. Separate each portion with waxed paper. Dehydrated puffballs can be powdered for flavoring bland foods.”
The puffball should be firm and hollow-sounding when tapped, pure white when sliced. (If yellow-tinged, the mushroom is going to spores.)