Editor’s note: The author is a certified chef and specializes in wildfire and wilderness cooking.
I remember the first time I encountered a puffball mushroom. It was autumn — the height of puffball mushroom season. I was 17 and was walking my dog in a particularly remote and thick deciduous forest. I was stunned to see what appeared to be an ultra-bright soccer ball on the dark and neutral detritus of the forest floor. I, of course, did what any self-respecting 17-year-old boy would do, and kicked it. It shattered into pieces and I was stunned that something like that could grow in the wild. Little did I know I had just destroyed a delicacy. It wasn’t until years later that I grew to appreciate the value of the puffball mushroom.
You always have to be careful about eating any mushroom found in the wild. Typically, very colorful mushrooms are poisonous, but some of the deadliest are white or cream colored. I’ve harvested mushrooms for years and I wrote a previous article about the most common and safe-to-eat mushrooms. But, for me, the puffball is king — literally.
Finding puffball mushrooms is easy. So easy a child can do it, and I’ve found my grandkids to be the best puffball hunters. Puffball mushrooms can grow from the size of a marble to the size of a bowling ball overnight. They are a very bright white and stand out even at a distance. But you have to harvest them at the right time.
Here’s how to know you’ve found a perfect puffball mushroom:
- Tap it gently and if it has a hollow sound like a drum, you may have found a perfect puffball at its peak. I carry a five-gallon plastic bucket for my puffball hunts and it fills up quickly.
- Slice it in half with a bread knife. The center should be bright white through and through, and the texture consistent.
- Smell it. It should have a mushroom smell like a button mushroom you’d buy at the grocery store with some radish-like flavor notes.
If it appears green or any other color than bright white, throw it back in the field. It’s the old adage, “when in doubt, throw it out.” If you’re lucky, it will generate spores to reseed for next fall.
Storing Puffball Mushrooms
I’ll usually do a gentle wash over running water when I get my puffballs home (and I mean gentle). The thin skin of a puffball is easily cut and bruised. Rinse it like you would rinse the scalp of a baby in the sink. I’ll then either put them into the fridge whole, or sauté them in olive oil and freeze them. Fortunately, I have a fridge in the garage that has enough room for some basketball-sized mushrooms. Unfortunately, my wife asked me five minutes ago what I planned to do with those weird mushrooms. I suspect she’ll be playing soccer with them soon.
I think you’ll be amazed by what you can do with a puffball mushroom. You can easily make these recipes if you are lucky enough to encounter a puffball.
Puffball Mushroom Steak With Onions
You can make a carefully sliced chunk of puffball mushroom not only look like a steak, but taste kind of close. The key is to marinate it and follow the recipe below:
- 1 large slice of puffball mushroom cut 2 inches thick by 3×4 inches wide
- 1 tablespoon of teriyaki sauce
- 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of butter
Cut the puffball into shape as indicated. Mix the sauce and vinegar in a bowl. Place the puffball steak into the bowl and press down. It’s like a sponge and will absorb the marinade. Let it marinade for five minutes, turning it once. In a hot pan, melt the butter and sauté the puffball steak. Brown it gently on all sides. Heat a cast iron grill with grilling ridges or fire up the kettle grill. Grill the puffball steak and serve with thin-sliced onions.
Puffball Mushroom Extraordinaire
This involves slicing a 1-inch slice of puffball mushroom across the center and sautéing it in butter and topping it with some caramelized onions and garlic. You slice it and serve it like a pizza. My kids and grandkids eat it like locusts.
- 1-inch slice of puffball mushroom cut across the center
- 1 large onion diced
- 6 cloves of garlic chopped
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- ½ teaspoon of seasoned salt
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and caramelize the onions and then add the garlic for one minute. Remove the onions and garlic from the pan and sauté the puffball slice for 2 minutes a side or until browned. Remove the puffball to a platter and top with the onions and garlic and the remaining olive oil from the pan and sprinkle some sea salt on top. Cut and serve like pizza slices.
Parmesan Puffball Mushroom Cubes
This is a great side dish to most any savory recipe. It’s easy and simple to make and the puffball cubes are almost like snack food.
- 4 cups of puffball mushrooms cubed
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the olive oil and butter in a sauté pan and sauté the mushroom cubes until browned on all sides. Sprinkle with salt. Top with the grated parmesan and serve.
Puffball Mushrooms Strips With Salsa
Who needs chicken strips when you’ve got puffball mushrooms? This recipe is simple and all you do is cut the puffball into strips and sauté and serve with a spread of salsa on top with some lime wedges.
- Puffball mushroom cut into strips of varying sizes
- ¼ cup or olive oil
- Salsa (store-bought or your homemade recipe)
- Lime wedges
Cut the puffball into thick strips about 1-2 inches wide and about 4-6 inches long and about ¼ to ½ inch thick. Bring the sauté pan up to heat and add the oil and sauté 1-2 minutes a side. Remove to a platter and top with the salsa and serve with lime slices.
Ramen Noodle Soup With Puffball Mushrooms
My youngest son is a college student, and like most college students he’s amassing enormous school-loan debt, working three part-time jobs for around minimum wage and living on ramen noodle soup. I’ve tried to do everything I can to help him and he enjoyed the afternoon when I showed him how to make ramen noodle soup with puffball mushrooms.
The great thing about puffball mushrooms is they’re a lot like tofu. They absorb the flavor of broths and sauces and make a great addition to a dish like this.
- 2 packages of ramen noodles plus seasoning packet
- 4 cups of water
- 2 carrots sliced
- 1 medium onion diced
- 4 cups of cubed puffball mushrooms cut into ½-inch cubes
- ½ cup of chopped spinach
Add the seasoning packets to the water in a saucepan and add all of the ingredients except for the ramen noodles. When the water comes to a boil, add the noodles until done and pour into a bowl and serve.
I’ve made puffball mushroom burgers, which are a great alternative to Portobello burgers, and have used puffball mushrooms in everything from omelets to stuffing for poultry to wild-game gravies and sauces. They’re out there and they’re free, so see if you can find one at its peak and enjoy some puffball mushroom cuisine.
Have you ever eaten puffball mushrooms? Share your foraging and cooking tips below: