A Wonderful Year for Puffballs

If you find one you can eat it, but it isn’t great.

More about hunting mushrooms in Indiana:

The past summer of 2018 was a great mushroom year here in Indiana. I had problems with virtually everything else but the mushroom harvest was excellent and I’m currently working my way through a freezer full of them. Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, plus one that I am remembering now as Hansen’s Lepiota, and lots of good oyster mushrooms. Just finished a big pot of chowder I made with the chanterelles as an added perk. But! what I meant to talk about in this post was the Giant Puffball. I could have filled the freezer with that one, but chose not to. I still enjoyed the puffballs I ate.

I had been looking for chanterelles that day, in a location I will not let you know because no real mushroom hunter tells that. I remember in the Ozarks when I was learning this, Bill Hacker would come over for supper sometimes and we’d talk about hunting for morels. He’d tell me what sort of trees he looked for, and the rough time of year, and he came home with buckets of them. But! he would never tell me where he hunted for them, and he would never give me a sample. Mmmmm, mmmm, morels! I did find a few myself, and they were good but not great. Up here in Indiana the morels are great, but there are so many morel hunters out in the springtime that the chances of finding some are slim.

Momentary aside: If you are hunting mushrooms, get this book, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (National Audubon Society Field Guides). Study it. Take it with you when you hunt and it will prevent bringing home a hundred pounds of mushrooms you can’t eat. Take classes if you want! but get this book. Learn to use it. I would not ever even take advice from a university professor about which mushroom to eat. I’d listen to what they said, and then I’d check it out in this book.

Later in the summer and on into the fall, I have much better luck with mushrooms. By that time I’m the only one out in the woods looking. The crop changes from year to year. Last year (2017) it was chanterelles and a rather scary mushroom very similar to Fly Agaric but not hallucinogenic. Sigh, it was just tasty, and I fought the local deer for them. Anyway, I was out looking for chanterelles, unsuccessfully, and on the way out of the woods I saw something under a pile of brush that looked like a plastic balloon. I nearly passed on that, but I do pick up trash and haul it out of the woods on occasion, so I went over to look. It was a giant puffball and I picked it and took it home and ate it. Fully grown it would have been twice the size it was, but as it was, that’s still a lot of mushroom.

Some puffballs will make you sick, and even this one will do that if it’s too old. The key to picking puffballs is that you have to discard any that are discolored inside. When they develop spores, that is the discoloration, and that’s also the point at which they start to rot. The inside should be uniformly white, with no structure. People have gotten into trouble by picking poisonous white mushrooms in the button stage, unopened, and thinking they were puffballs. If you slice a possible puffball in half and see internal structure of stem, cap and gills yet unfolding, that’s not a puffball. Puffballs are easy. Slice them in half and they look like tofu. No internal structure.

The best thing about puffballs when you cook them is the aroma. They have a nice mushroomy smell. Although the guide books say that the giant puffball is a choice mushroom, I’ve read that about a lot of wild mushrooms and I don’t think it’s all that great. If you fill a freezer with them you’ll throw them out in the spring and in the winter you’ll buy Agarica mushrooms in the grocery. But the giant puffballs aren’t bad. The texture is a little grainy and they don’t have much flavor. If you add butter and salt and garlic, it’s a nice dish, but if you put butter and salt and garlic on an old rag it would taste good. It’s still a good wild mushroom and if you want to start somewhere, start with the Giant Puffball.

Not long after I ate this one, Zenita and I were hiking through a local park and saw a long line of about twelve undeniably odd white round head-sized objects at the edge of a woods. Again, I thought they could not possibly be natural, but when I went over to look, they were giant puffballs. In a good year you could literally gather a hundred pounds of them. But from a culinary point of view, there’s no reason to do that. If you pick them try to get them before they are full sized. If it’s about the size of a cantaloupe that’s about right. You’ll be excited but not thrilled by the taste.

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