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Question 10: Are puffballs good to eat?


Yup. There are two issues, though:


Topics:
1) You have to make sure that it's a puffball.
2) You have to make sure that it's not ripe.


Puffballs come in two different sizes. Anything bigger than a (non-baby) potato or a baseball is in the genus Calvatia; puffballs the size of a golf ball or smaller are probably in the genera Lycoperdon or Bovista.

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1) You have to make sure that it's a puffball.


Specifically, you have to make sure that it's not an Amanita, a stinkhorn, or an earthball. Earthballs can make you very sick, and Amanitas can kill you.

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Image of Amanita caesarea from Abbé Giacomo Bresadola (1927 - 1960) Iconographia mycologica
Amanita caesarea

To test this, slice the fruiting body in half from top to bottom. Amanitas and some other mushrooms emerge from the ground enclosed in a white cottony "egg" that looks a bit like a puffball. But when you cut it in half, you will see the cap and stem of the baby mushroom inside (bottom left in the picture). If the cap and stem are white (as in the destroying angels), they are not as easy to see! Similarly, if your "puffball" is really a stinkhorn egg, you will be able to see all sorts of strange internal structures.

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Checking for earthballs is a little more tricky; like puffballs, their interior is a solid, undifferentiated spore mass. There are a couple of ways to tell if you have an earthball instead of a puffball.

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Image of Scleroderma geaster from Jean Louis Émile Boudier (1904 - 1909) Icones mycologicae ou iconographie des champignons de France, principalement Discomycètes
Scleroderma geaster

1) Except for Scleroderma geaster, earthballs max out at about the size of a golf ball. So if you have something significantly larger than this (and it's not an Amanita; stinkhorns also max out at about the size of a golf ball), you are pretty well assured that it's not an earthball.

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Image of Pisolithus tinctorius from Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (1816 - 1817) Das System der Pilze und Schwämme
Pisolithus tinctorius

Besides Scleroderma geaster, Pisolithus tinctorius is another large, inedible puffball-like fungus; but both of these usually break open and are blackish and powdery inside before they ever break ground.

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Image of Scleroderma citrinum from Eugen Gramberg (1913) Pilze unserer Heimat
Scleroderma citrinum
2) Instead of ripening to yellow, an earthball spore mass ripens to a purplish-black color. So if some of your "puffballs" have turned (or are starting to turn) this color inside, they are earthballs.

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3) Earthballs have a much thicker and tougher skin. If the skin of your (small) puffball is thicker than a millimeter or so, you probably have an earthball (the big Calvatias have a pretty thick skin also).

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Photo of Lycoperdon pyriforme by John Denk
Lycoperdon pyriforme

4) The puffballs' outer skin layer is white (sometimes brownish) and frequently has pointed spines on it that rub off. The Calvatias sometimes have spines that are a couple of inches high! Earthballs are usually yellowish on the outside (although there is one white one!) and their outer skin is frequently broken up into flat, tile-like sections.
5) The above guidelines are meant to maximize your safety, not to maximize the number of edible species indicated. The only way to REALLY know what you're doing is to Know The Mushrooms (see Question 6). Get yourself a field guide. The large ones are fairly easy. With the small ones, once you can tell Lycoperdon pyriforme from Scleroderma citrinum, and Scleroderma cepa from the white Lycoperdon species, you'll be doing okay.

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Photo of Scleroderma cepa by John Denk
Scleroderma cepa

5) The above guidelines are meant to maximize your safety, not to maximize the number of edible species indicated. The only way to REALLY know what you're doing is to Know The Mushrooms (see Question 6). Get yourself a field guide. The large ones are fairly easy. With the small ones, once you can tell Lycoperdon pyriforme from Scleroderma citrinum, and Scleroderma cepa from the white Lycoperdon species, you'll be doing okay. It's not so easy from the pictures, is it? :-) For more info, see the entry on puffballs.

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2) You have to make sure that it's not ripe.


As a puffball ripens, its spore mass will change color from a pure, uniform white to yellow. As it turns yellow, it also gets more squishy, and starts to smell like urine. You would think we wouldn't have to warn people not to eat them in this condition. As soon as the spore mass shows the least hint of yellow, it gets (especially in the smaller ones) very, very bitter, and can embitter an entire dish if it is cooked with other things. So you have to make sure that none of the puffballs you use have begun to ripen.

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