While spending the weekend with my brother’s family in downstate New York, the topic of mushroom foraging (one of my favorites) came up. Apparently, there was a spot on their neighbor’s lawn that kept growing huge, white mushroom orbs. Needless to say, I was compelled to walk over and check it out.
When we arrived, there was the largest single mushroom I had ever seen growing out of a pile of wood chips. Giant Puffball Mushrooms, Calvatia gigantea, are a type of puffball mushroom that are commonly found in meadows, fields, and deciduous forests usually in late summer and autumn. Or, in my case, sprouting up out of wood chips in front lawns.
Giant Puffballs are edible when mature, when the interior is pure white. Unlike most mushrooms, the spores of Giant Puffballs are inside the fruiting body itself. As they mature, the inside spores of a Giant Puffball become greenish brown at which point it is dangerous to eat. Before the mushroom turns brown or becomes too mature, the white the exterior cracks and the white interior shows through. This is a good time to harvest the giant puffball for cooking.
To check, simply cut the puffball open and note the interior: Edible puffball mushrooms will be a solid white, without any gills or holes from pests or other insects. If you notice any gills, discard immediately. Some species, including the deadly amanita, have a “universal veil” of tissue that surrounds the mushroom when young, making it look like a puffball.
Giant Puffballs can, as the name implies, grow quite large! And it’s possible I may hold a record for finding the largest Giant Puffball…in Chappaqua, New York least!
As a disclaimer, the neighborhood they live in has many condos with landscapers who tend the their properties. Without a doubt, those wood chips and lawns are heavily treated with pesticides and other fertilizers. Mushrooms are porous and the mycelium, the root of the mushroom, absorbs toxins and heavy metals found in the substrate they grow in and channel them into the fruiting body. The Environmental Working Group recently published a new report that updating the research behind the “Dirty Dozen” vs “Clean Fifteen” rule, and, while mushrooms do accumulate toxins, they didn’t make it on either list. Typically I aim to eat only organic fruits and vegetables and definitely adhere to the “clean 15/dirty dozen” rule, but in this circumstance, for the sake of science, I knew I had to harvest this mushroom and test it out.
Needless to say, I did in fact eat it. But first, I had to fly from New York to Chicago with it (since no one in my family was willing to taste it with me)! I chopped off a large chunk and brought in a brown paper bag as a carry-on item for my flight back to Chicago. Mushrooms can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks if kept in a paper bag to reduce moisture.
So, what can you make with a Giant Puffball Mushroom? Puffballs are similar to tofu in texture and can be cooked in a similar way. As this was my first time cooking with them, I kept it simple, trying to experiment more with flavor and cooking techniques. Check out these options below!
To prepare the mushroom, wash the Giant Puffball and remove the outer leathery skin like layer. If you see the puffball has begun to spore, throw it away. Brush off any leftover dirt. Use minimal water, as puffballs are very absorbent.
Option 1: The Simple Saute
Saute in butter and garlic: To be honest this one was not very impressive. The mushroom texture was kind of strange. Almost like eating cottage cheese. or a very soft tofu (I prefer a firm tofu, personally).
Option 2: Puffball Mushroom “Fingers”
To fry puffball mushrooms, cut them into thick slices. In one bowl, mix up a batter of egg and a splash of milk. Fill a separate bowl with bread crumbs seasoned with salt, pepper, shredded parmesan and other spices if desired. Drench each slice in the batter and then coat with the bread crumb mixture. Sear in a pan with butter or oil until golden, using minimal butter, as the puffball will absorb almost any amount of liquid. Drain on a paper towel and serve, topped with additional shredded parmesan and a sprinkle of salt.
Option 3: Puffball Pizza Crust
While I didn’t make this recipe (this time), it was tested by a friend and should be added to the approved list of ways to cook with puffballs. This is a great recipe here. I will definitely try out that recipe next time. Here’s a teaser of what it could look like: