“Never eat anything bigger than your head.” I don’t know if cartoonist Bernard Kliban came up with that or if it’s a nugget of old folk wisdom. Certainly you should not eat anything that large without at least chewing it first. But if you like mushrooms, you can find wild ones that are in fact much bigger than your head.
The giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea, appears in late summer and early fall in pastures, lawns and deciduous forests. These brilliant white globes are the fruiting bodies of the actual fungus, which is out of sight below ground. They seem to magically appear overnight, and are typically six to twenty inches in diameter. In rare instances they have reached nearly five feet across, bigger than the heads of all but the the most conceited individuals.
To be sure, fresh puffballs are inflated and puffy, but their name comes from what happens once they mature and dry out. In that condition, a smoke-like stream of brown spores will jet from the top of a dry puffball any time it is disturbed. A puffball may produce as many as 7,000,000,000,000 spores, so it can puff seemingly forever. Back in “the day” kids used to think it was a riot to step on these. More than likely, there’s now a cell phone App that is more convenient, and hypoallergenic.
Statistically speaking, most wild mushrooms are edible. A few, though, cause irreversible liver failure, hence it is a drag to mess up. In addition to these deadly Amanita species there are other types which cause gastric discomfort (to put it mildly), all the more reason to be careful. I know of self-taught mushroom hunters with decades of experience who in rare cases still make a mistake. Even morels and chanterelles, considered easy to find, have dangerous look-alike species. Fortunately for the well-being of the public I readily admit mushroom identification is not one of my strong suits, and I’m usually reluctant to make a positive ID on a specimen.
One of the few exceptions is the easily recognized giant puffball. I suppose a determined soul might be able to get it wrong, but it would take some real talent at screwing up. If you follow a few simple rules it is nearly impossible to mistake a giant puffball for anything else:
Small is bad. Remember where “giant” is part of its name? The problem is, a toxic Amanita mushroom when newly-emerging, before its cap unfolds, can resemble an undersized puffball. So only select ones six inches in diameter or bigger.
Forget political correctness—white is best. But only where puffballs, tennis attire and office paper are concerned. Cut open your giant puffball. If its flesh is white as the driven, pre-Industrial Age snow, it’s good. Slight yellowing indicates it has become too mature. Eating it at this stage is not dangerous but it won’t taste as good and might give you a belly ache.
“Homogenous is next to Godliness,” as they say. Actually no one says that, but when you slice a puffball its interior should look uniform. Any hint of an outline of a stem, gills or still-folded cap means it’s dangerous. Back away slowly in case it tries any sudden moves.
However, if your find is large, and white with no “shadow” or outline inside, it is almost certainly the real deal. If it’s your first time as a wild mycophage, though, check with someone (preferably one with knowledge in this area) before serving it for supper.
Puffballs can be cut into strips and sauteed just like commercial mushrooms. They can also be sliced and frozen for later, which is great in light of that head-size restriction mentioned earlier. My father used to relate how, when he was little, his mother pan-fried large thin puffball slices and served them with maple syrup like pancakes. “Heavenly,” according to him. One day he finally tried to recreate this delicacy. We both agreed that mushrooms with maple syrup fell a few steps short of Nirvana. OK, but much better in sauce or a stir-fry, I think.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.