In Mother Nature's Garden Mushrooms

Puffballs: My First Wild Mushroom

Photo: swordfangs

What the hell is this thing? It’s not a balloon, it’s on the ground. It’s white, smooth and quite firm…

It’s not a rock, it’s not a plant, it’s not an animal…

Logically, there’s only one option left: it’s a mushroom!

“But no! Mushrooms are mushroom-shaped! A little cap on a stalk…”

Don’t believe me? Wait a few days and it’ll start to turn brown. When it’s ripe, jump on it. A cloud of smoke will billow from it as it pops like a balloon. That’s it: it’s a giant puffball!

My First Edible Mushroom

Even if mushrooms aren’t plants, you may already have some knowledge on the subject. Have you ever had a mushroom in your houseplant potting soil? Do you add mycorrhizae to your garden? Do you like button mushrooms?

I too was at this stage of my life when I decided to take up wild mushroom picking. I see dozens of unfamiliar mushrooms in the forest, then go to the grocery store and sigh at the dried chanterelles at $12 a small bag… before resigning myself to the button mushrooms, at $2 a tub.

If shopkeepers can boast of selling “wild mushrooms”, why not try to find them yourself?

Add to that the fact that everyone loves to save money! My mac’n cheese with oyster mushrooms was very good, but I would NEVER have bought $30 or $40 worth of mushrooms at the grocery store to make it… savings or epicurean life: it’s up to you!

And so began my life as a wild mushroom picker.

It’s hard to know where to start… Where to look? What to look for? What’s dangerous?

If you want to get started in mushroom picking, I suggest you start by looking for two or three species that are easy to identify. So here’s what I think is one of the easiest mushrooms to find and identify: the giant wolf vetch.

(It was my very first wild mushroom… I’m almost nostalgic about it!)

Why Is It a Good “First” Mushroom?

For several reasons!

  • It can’t be mistaken for ANY other mushroom;
  • It’s BIG, so it’s easy to spot from a distance;
  • It grows in open, easy-to-find fields and lawns;
  • It is present for a long period of the summer;
  • There is no risk of poisoning;
  • It’s easy to tell whether it’s ripe or too old;
  • I’ve never seen one parasitized by insects.

Doesn’t it look easy?

Photo: dawuba

If you start your picking career looking for morels in the undergrowth, there’s a good chance you’ll get discouraged. There are many parameters to consider: the period, the rain, the environment, the fact that they’re often well camouflaged… The risk that you won’t find any, or even that you’ll mistake them for something else potentially dangerous, is there and, frankly, starting with frustration is never a good idea in any activity.

So here goes: hear my words (read them a few times if you can’t hear me screaming all the way home):

Start SIMPLE. Start EASY. Start SAFE.

How to recognize puffballs?

It’s easy to see: it’s a big white ball, more or less spherical. When you pull it out of the ground, you’ll see that the place where it anchors is narrower and has a pleated texture. In fact, it looks like a bag with a drawstring (but no drawstring).

Photo: smsergey

It can be the size of your fist or the size of a beach ball (!). Yes, some of the larger specimens weigh as much as 40 or 50 pounds!

Next step, after you’ve screamed your joy, cut your puffball in half. The inside should be firm (like a button mushroom) and, above all, immaculately white. If it’s yellow or brown, your mushroom is unfortunately too old. If it’s purple with yellow dots, you’ve probably eaten a different kind of mushroom (and this may not be the time to try and identify what’s edible, hihi!).

Very old puffball whose “skin” has been removed. At this stage, jump on it to spread the spores in a beautiful cloud! Photo: biotop98

Many mushrooms are devoured from the inside by insect larvae. They look fine, but when you cut the stem, you realize that the mushroom is riddled with holes… and therefore probably full of insects and… their droppings! Wolf vetch doesn’t have this problem. It’s sometimes nibbled on the surface by slugs, but if it’s still white inside, there’s no reason not to share.

Photo: brutledge

Cooking Puffballs

When I started out, although I was comfortable in the kitchen, I was a bit worried about my recipes. How do you cook wild mushrooms? I want them to taste good, and I also want to avoid poisoning myself! I’ve spent hours looking for recipes with this or that mushroom… So I’m going to save you some time:

  1. All wild mushrooms must be COOKED until all their water has been released. It shrinks a lot, yes, I know! It’s disappointing to see our beautiful mushroom become so tiny. But good news for you: wolfsbane is the mushroom that shrinks the least in the pan (according to my observations, nothing scientific here)!
  2. Please don’t throw objects at me, confirmed mycologists, but… actually, no, skip to the third point. Right away, come on! Still reading? Final warning…

OK, it’s your choice, but don’t complain!

In my opinion, the differences between mushrooms in taste and texture are minimal. I probably couldn’t identify the taste of half the mushrooms I pick (just like that, on their own, maybe, but not in a recipe). So, make your favorite recipe and replace the button mushrooms with your harvest… THAT’S IT!

A Mushroom Is a Mushroom!

When you make apple pie, you’ve got your favorite varieties. But, frankly, with another kind, you’ll get a slightly crunchier or less sweet result… but you’ll still get an apple pie! So there you have it: a mushroom is a mushroom! You’re going to be disappointed if you’re hoping to discover a whole new world of flavor. Stop looking for THE mushroom with four forks in your book: you’ll be DISAPPOINTED!

  1. Hello again, mycologists! How’s it going? Cool, let’s get on with it!

The puffball has a certain peculiarity in the kitchen: when I pick one up that’s a bit old (but still white in the middle), I sometimes peel it. Nothing dangerous, but the outside becomes tougher with age and I find it unpleasant.

  1. Another peculiarity the puffball: I find it has a “fatty” taste. It’s hard to explain, but I cooked it as a soup once and it tasted like mashed potatoes with chicken fat. It was very good, but very particular. I haven’t found this meaty-fatty aspect in any other mushroom.

An Edible Little Brother, But…

The common puffball is also edible, BUT…

I actually have three “buts”!

“But” number one. There’s one species of puffball that’s not universally accepted as edible: the peeling puffball. Although not dangerous, it has been reported to cause auditory hallucinations!

It has little spikes all over. Makes it look like a sea urchin.

Photo: rmoran45

“But” number two. There’s a look-alike to these little white pearls: scleroderma, whose young specimen is also a white ball. This one is not edible. How do you tell it apart? Nothing could be easier! Cut your mushroom in half. If it’s black, it’s the evil doppelganger.

Scléroderme vulgaire. Photo: lucapilia

“But” number three. The size of two-dollar coins on average, it’ll take a lot of them to get an interesting quantity!

Why Does It Puff?

In Quebec, we call them “pet-de-loup », or wolf farts. When puffballs are old, their beautiful, immaculate insides turn into spores. These are tiny and very light, so the wind can disperse them. So, when the vesses are quite “ripe”, a gust of wind or a kick can burst the outer layer (which has thickened) and release the inner powder in a volatile cloud. Puff! Or rather: fart!

The spores aren’t dangerous, but you should still avoid taking a whiff… Like any small dust, it can be irritating to your bronchial tubes.

(Well, after that, it’s up to you, isn’t it? If you like to take sniffs of flour while cooking your mushroom pizza, I won’t stop you!)

By the way, mushrooms are just reproductive organs. Picking it doesn’t harm the individual underground, and the fact that the spores from the mushrooms you pick don’t spread doesn’t harm the species. So hurry up, pick that mushroom before a squirrel does!

Caution when eating wild mushrooms

You are 100% responsible for what you ingest. Try only one new variety every three days, to spot any allergy or reaction to a particular species. We recommend that you eat no more than 250 g (before cooking) of wild mushrooms per week. In Quebec, no mushroom is dangerous to the touch. You can also smell and taste them raw (by spitting them out) without any risk, whatever the species. Don’t pick from lawns treated with chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides), as mushrooms accumulate toxins. MUSHROOM IDENTIFICATION APPLICATIONS ARE NOT RELIABLE!

Happy picking!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

2 comments on “Puffballs: My First Wild Mushroom

  1. I don’t know anything about Quebec but I know that this article is incredibly dangerous for any new mushroom hunter in the United States.. You should Never taste any mushroom raw no matter how small the amount or if it’s swallowed nor should you be putting it in your mouth if you still trying to determine identity period. If your not 100% sure and have done a spore print to verify then your taking a huge risk with something that can easily kill you or cause multiple organ failure. Foraging should be taken very seriously and the “a mushroom is a mushroom” is frankly one of the most uninspired and lazy concepts I’ve ever heard! Only made worse by the apple pie example trying to back it up.. Recipes call for certain ingredients because of what each one brings individually, like a cocktail. You don’t just pour liquor into a glass and call it a long island or put a bunch of plant clippings in a pot and call if tea?? Mushrooms are extremely complex (as are apples for that matter )and can vary heavily in flavor by location alone and should not be taken lightly in any aspect least of all consumption. The built in disclaimer about mycologists commenting is no good either, just shows you already know it’s not great information and just want people to read it anyway ?? I’m no expert but i know they would comment and like I said so do you that’s why you put these in there. It’s cool if you don’t have to take mushrooms seriously but very small minded and dangerous to potentially mislead those who should. Just my opinion that no one asked for..

  2. Bryanna Keseloff

    It might be prudent to mention the other potential look alikes for the small ones that are potentially deadly….the button form of the group of amanitas otherwise known as the Destroying Angels.. Please always make sure to cut all of your puffballs longitudinally (up and down through the middle), to check for any immature gill structures, of which puffballs should have none. Please also learn what both the insides of a puffball, and the insides of a button Destroying Angel look like so you know the difference. Remember, If In Doubt, Throw It Out.

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