Not everyone is so enthralled by puffball mushrooms. Well, by the size, maybe—for accounts of huge Calvatia boonianas and their proud finders grace newspapers perhaps more than any other mushroom, says Vera Stucky Evenson in Mushrooms of Colorado (1997), a publication of the Denver Botanic Gardens. But the taste, some opine, is nothing to write home about.
“I took one to dinner tonight, and one of my friends wasn’t impressed,” Butter wrote to me yesterday at 2:00 a.m. “Puffballs don’t have the strongest taste, but they are nice, and I really enjoy their texture.” Of course, she would—as would I, wild edible plants enthusiasts that we are. But to the distinguished palette? Are they worth the effort?
Success with puffballs may lie in the preparation method, for while some mushrooms are so flavorful that they constitute a meal or side dish in and of themselves, other might be better suited to, say, a cream sauce—which is how Gregg and I inevitably eat our puffballs.
Flavors among puffballs seem to vary, though—whether by species, locale, size, or other factor. I say this because Gregg and I found last summer’s small puffballs from the back yard to be quite strong, in contrast to Butter’s observation; I almost needed the Alfredo sauce to tone down the flavor.
Pasta with Puffballs in Cream Sauce
To make our go-to puffball dish, Gregg and I clean the puffballs with a paper towel (instead of water), slice to confirm that they are white on the inside (instead of turning yellow-brown en-route to powderizing), and then cube small. We sauté the cubes for about 20 minutes, repeatedly adding butter because the puffballs suck it up quick. Then we make the cream sauce (sometimes we use Alfredo mix, sometimes garlic, and almost always Parmesan cheese), add the puffballs, cook a bit longer, and serve on pasta, often with broccoli and sausage or both.
We pretty much use any kind of puffballs for this dish—and there are several different species. For more information on puffball identification and harvesting methods, please see my entry, Holy Puffballs, Batman! and the links to experts contained therein, as mushroom identification is not be taken lightly and this writer will not be held accountable for your mistakes.
What I’d Do with the Big Beasties
There are “crazy big” puffballs out there, some the size of basketballs and beyond. They are the stuff of legends, though I have personally heard first-hand tales of huge puffballs—both outside the steer pen on a friend’s property in Golden and also on a big cattle ranch in Wyoming. (Maybe it’s the bovine poop?)
“How would you eat that much mushroom?” says our cattle-ranching friend, who finds enormous ones all the time amidst the sagebrush when he’s out with his animals.
My solution would be to cube the entire beasty, sauté the cubes in butter, eat as much as I could in pasta, and freeze the rest. I’ve read that puffballs don’t dry as well as other mushrooms, so a quick cook-then-freeze might be the best approach—though I’ll have to get back to you with my source on that.
My Biggest ‘Shroom Yet
Two days ago Gregg and I drove as far as we could up Mosquito Gulch, which incidentally is the route the burros and their drivers will take during next weekend’s Burro Days in Fairplay, then parked and walked a mining road up the valley. Everything was lush and amazing, though I now understand how the gulch got its name, for it was all I could do to snap a picture or forage a leaf before 10 mosquitoes starting biting me simultaneously.
After reaching some mines on the side of the hill, we headed straight up the steep hillside off trail, following a route I thought might get us to the top and Gregg thought might intersect with Mosquito Pass Road (CR-12). Near the top, which opened into a beautiful high-elevation meadow, I stumbled right on top of the biggest puffball I have ever found! At 4” in diameter it wasn’t all that big compared the storied pasture puffballs, but it was my biggest, and also my first of this mushroom season.
Gregg cut it down the middle with his Leatherman and it was white in the big puffy part (the gleba) but just starting to go yellow-brown in the sterile base, which according to Evenson may or may not be present. I almost left it there because of the discoloration but at the last minute Gregg convinced me to take it, and as a result we had yummy puffballs in cream sauce on our pasta last night, with no ill effects to report as of this morning.
(Our preparation included cutting generously so as not to eat one bit of the yellow-brown part, keeping only the pure, fresh white flesh, and no parts evidencing decay near the peridium (the skin). We also followed the mushroom-eating rule of keeping some pieces in the fridge for identification just in case we needed to visit the toxicologist later.)
Oh No, Maggot Situation
Today I took the leftover puffball pieces out of the refrigerator, including the slightly-decayed sterile base, thinking I’d leave them on the deck railing for the squirrels—only to find that the bottom of the Tupperware and several of the mushroom pieces were covered with tiny translucent worms. Come to think of it, I did notice some little wormy-shaped pieces of what at the time I thought was mushroom flesh when we cut the sterile base away from the puffball last night. I wonder if any of them made their way into our bodies?
“Gross,” I said, leaving the whole mess outside, having lost the will to deal with the situation.
“Now there’s your protein,” said Gregg, who as I have mentioned is not amenable to eating our squirrels as a wild source of the nutrient.
In Case You Didn’t Bring a Pot
One more story and then I’m done: A few weeks ago, a sometimes-foraging but definitely squirrel-eating friend of a friend of mine went camping in Colorado’s Front Range. When he and his buddies found themselves in the forest with eggs but no cooking utensils with which to prepare them (How does that happen?), they ended up halving big puffball mushrooms, putting an egg in each, and cooking them in the fire. I guess it worked, because they gobbled up their puffball-egg combos—so just be sure to keep this in mind should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
Ready, Set, Puffballs!
Never mind the naysayers or the worms, then, my appetite for wild mushrooms—and that includes each and every kind of puffball I can get my hands on—is now fully whet. Let me just get this post off so I can head out into mosquito land to find some more!
NOTE: Also see Butterpoweredbike’s post on puffballs if interested at her foraging blog, Hunger and Thirst for Life.