Forage Friday: Puffball Mushrooms

These little beauties are my sweetheart’s very favorite. We go out specifically for this one species of mushroom, and, luckily, we’ve found a few places that it seems to love, so we gather them regularly this time of year.

These brown puffballs, Lycoperdon pyriforme, also known as pear-shaped puffballs, can be found very late summer through fall, growing on dead or dying trees. Early in the season you might see teeny-tiny tan bumps all over a fallen log or even on the side of a tree stump. Within a few weeks, those tiny bumps will have grown into little balls about the size of a dime to a quarter across.

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Here you can see a pretty good range of growth, from the tiny bumps on the stump above the larger puffballs growing in the moss at the base. And they are called pear-shaped mushrooms because, well, they are upside down pear-shaped.

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Our harvest

We try to leave a decent amount of “foot” when we forage mushrooms to encourage regrowth (and so there is more next season!), but you can see the bottoms taper down from the ball on top, creating a “pear” shape.

Identifying

I find these puffballs pretty easy to identify:

  • They always grow on wood. There is a similar-looking species that grows on the ground called an earthball. My daughter picked one by mistake once, and the difference was quickly apparent.
  • They should be pure white inside. Cutting the earthball my daughter picked revealed a purple-black color inside. Additionally, we’ve picked puffballs too late in the season which were yellowish, greenish, and brownish inside. While we were sure of the species, these were too mature (getting ready to spore) so we left them be. I hadn’t cleaned the ones pictured above yet, but those brown spots on the cut end are dirt.
  • The inside flesh is solid all the way through, with a marshmallow consistency.

Other species and lookalikes

There are many other species of puffball and earthball, as well as other mushrooms that have an early pod stage, which look like puffballs from the outside. Cutting them in half usually reveals the truth: earthballs are not pure white inside, and when you cut open an early pod-stage, the outline of the actual mushroom can be seen inside.

There is a giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea. If you’ve ever come across a white ball in the grass that you just had to kick…that was probably it. They grew all over the yard at the edge of the woods at the last house I lived in, and the kids and I would run around stomping on them and seeing how far we could kick them. It was especially fun when they were mature and we’d send billions of tiny spores flying in a cloud of grey-brown dust. Of course, that was before I’d even thought about foraging anything. And, of course, I haven’t seen a giant puffball since. But I’m still on the lookout! I hear with their sheer size and that sold, marshmallowy texture, they are fantastic for grilling!

Getting them home

We usually take a backpack and a handful of grocery bags when we go out mushroom hunting, and the puffballs do just fine in those conditions, even with a long hike back. Once home, I brush off the dirt and forest and check for critters or damage. If we aren’t going to use them right away, they go straight into the fridge in a paper bag in the crisper drawer for good airflow and low moisture. I did leave an unfortunate bunch in a plastic bag on a shelf in the fridge once for a week, and found a mushy, rotting mess, so we try to use them within 2 -3 days of gathering.

But what to do with them?

Well my sweetheart likes to snack on them raw while we’re foraging. He has had no ill-effect, but I can’t find any definitive information anywhere about any possible hazards with that, so make your own decisions on that one. I find the raw consistency weird on my teeth…they do that squeaky thing that makes my skin crawl a bit.

We always, always cut every single puffball mushroom in half to inspect the inside. Every single one. You can see from the earlier pictures that the maturity even within one area can vary quite greatly, so one good one doesn’t mean there isn’t an older one about to spore right next to it.

Puffballs do cook up wonderfully. They maintain their firmness, even after a long soak in a soup or mushroom gravy. They pack a good amount of bite for such a tiny morsel, and add an earthy slight sweetness to whatever they are in. I’ve souped them, gravied them, roasted them, sautéed them, and stir-fried them… Puffballs so stand up well on their own, but they don’t get lost in a dish made up of other strong flavors or textures either.

 

Have you foraged any puffballs or other wild mushrooms? What do you do with them? I love to hear ideas and recipes!

 

As always, please be respectful, responsible, and informed when you wild-harvest.

  • make sure you know what you are picking
  • check for critters, both around you and in/on your forage
  • only forage where you know it’s safe (contaminants, chemicals, etc.)
  • never take more than you need; leave some of nature’s food for nature
  • leave some to grow for another day

 

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