Meet the Mushrooms, Episode Two: Giant Puffballs

While lots of fungi are very small, in some cases too small to see, today’s spotlight mushroom is hard to miss when you come across it. Often mistaken for a volleyball lost in a field, the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is aptly named—it’s a large, usually round, all-white fruiting body often found in fields, meadows, yards, and woodland areas. I found my first Giant Puffballs this year in early November, which is a littler later than what most guides would suggest (September-October). They were located in a kind of border area between a wooded zone and a landscaped yard. One of them was being choked by vinca—this one was too mature to be eaten (see my tip guide below for how I knew that).

Luckily, the disappointment didn’t last long as I soon spotted two other perfect volleyballs nearby! It isn’t uncommon to find Puffballs living in communities like this. 

Tips for Safely Harvesting Giant Puffballs

  • It is safer to harvest volleyball-size Puffballs than smaller ones. Some smaller ones are fine, but there is a higher chance of misidentification in those cases.
  • They are always found on the ground.
  • The texture of the Puffball should be smooth, perhaps leather-like, and perhaps with small “craters.”
  • There should be NO STEM and NO GILLS.
  • When you cut open the mushroom, the color should be solid white all the way through. The texture should be something like tofu. If you see any colors besides white (like yellow or brown or green), don’t eat it. If the texture is mushy, don’t eat it. If it smells really funky, don’t eat it!

It isn’t exactly known whether this mushroom is mycorrhizal (in a complex relationship with plant roots) or can simply spread its spores anywhere to reproduce, but what we do know is that it isn’t easy to cultivate like some other mushrooms. I would suggest simply noting where you found a Puffball and returning there the following year to harvest again.

Eating Puffballs: A Recipe for Pizza!

There are as many ways to prepare Puffballs as there are ways to prepare meat or tofu. One idea I’ve heard about from forager friends that I decided to try this time is Puffball Pizza. It turned out great! I’ll share with you my basic recipe below.

The next time you find the spectacular lost volleyball fungi poking out from the ground, go ahead and get excited! You really can make a feast with this mushroom, and food security and deliciousness are definitely things to get excited about. For me, there’s a thrill and feeling of connectedness when I am able to forage for wild food. Luckily, puffballs can have trillions of reproductive spores, so as long as one of them is left on the ground to reach maturity, the spores will ensure future mushroom friends, fruiting bodies, and hopefully plenty of Puffball pizzas to come.

Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.

Meet the Mushrooms, Episode One: Chicken of the Woods

A beautiful rosette of Chicken. All photos in this article are from members of the Philadelphia Mycology Club, specifically Bethany Teigen, Dan Schimmel, and myself.

Ahh, autumn! The leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp and chilly morning air, the pumpkin-everything-everywhere, and—what’s that huge cluster of orange cascading down that oak tree? Mushrooms, you say?

Yes, that’s delicious “Chicken of the Woods!” Laetiporus sulphureus, to be more technical, also commonly called Sulfur Shelf. Laetiporus cincinnatus is another edible similar-looking species, but not as delicious, so I’m focusing on sulphureus. It’s relatively easy to identify (David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified lists it as one of the “foolproof four”) and, as its name would imply, can have a quite chicken-like texture and flavor when prepared properly and if the specimen is young and from a good tree. Below I cover some key identification and harvesting tips as well as some ideas for culinary use.

Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.

WHERE TO LOOK FOR IT 

  • Sulphur Shelf grows exclusively on trees. It grows on living (mature and already dying) as well as dead trees (as it is both parasitic as well as saprotrophic). This includes logs, so double check those logs and piles of wood to see if a Chicken might be lurking on the other side! 
  • You will find it anywhere on the tree, from the base up through the height of the tree. You might also find it on stumps.
  • Only harvest from hardwood trees such as oak or beech. Oak is often a safe bet. Do not harvest from any conifers or locust or eucalyptus trees (these are the ones that might make you sick).
  • Be on the lookout during August through October, possibly even later, for that beautiful pop of orange as you walk through the woods. These mushrooms tend to grow fast and in large quantities. Make a meal to share with friends!

HOW TO IDENTIFY IT

  • The color can range from orange to salmon to orange-yellow to yellow. The color fades or becomes more white with age. You can use these photos for reference as well as any mushroom book, other websites, or online mushroom groups. 
  • The underside has bright sulphur yellow pores (it’s a polypore, literally it will look like many pores, rather than gills).
  • The brackets are somewhat fan-shaped and can be smooth to wrinkled to lumpy; caps are usually overlapping or in bunches, though occasionally solitary.
  • There is no obvious stem.

OTHER COOL FACTS 

  • Unlike some more rare mushrooms, there aren’t major sustainability issues around the ethics of harvesting this mushroom.
  • For the ambitious folks, it is possible to cultivate your own C.O.W. —but this is beyond the scope of this current article.
  • As for nutrients, Sulphur Shelf is high in protein as well as an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • These mushrooms may also have medicinal aspects such as antimicrobial and cancer-inhibiting compounds.
  • Sulphur mushrooms can also be used to make natural dye.

HOW TO EAT IT 

  • Harvest only young and tender caps. If you do want to use the older specimens, you can try to just cut off and use the more tender outer edges.
  • If possible just clean with a damp cloth. The mushrooms are very absorbent and you don’t want them to become spongy.
  • Make sure to cook very thoroughly. This breaks down the cell walls, making the mushroom more digestible and nutrients more available. This also kills potential toxins or pathogens. And little bugs if you didn’t clean them well 🙂
  • Substitute the same amount of this mushroom in any recipe that calls for chicken.
  • Super easy way to cook: just slice it thin and fry it in oil or butter, with some salt and pepper. Use as little oil as possible, again because of their absorbency.
  • Easy: slice thin and add it to your next omelet or scrambled eggs dish.
  • Foraging meets fast food: Try making breaded “Chicken” nuggets or “Chicken” fingers with a side of homemade honey mustard.

Stay tuned for more episodes of “Meet the Mushrooms.” For those of you new to mushrooming, I really can’t say enough about the joy of relating to fungi. Mycelial networks are all around us, giant organisms largely invisible to our own eyes, yet engaging in all sorts of ecological functions that often transcend human categorization. Learning to identify and eat the fruiting bodies of some of these species is just one simple way of developing a relationship, albeit a very useful and nourishing one! While my articles will tend to focus on visible and edible species, I encourage the intrigued reader to embark on their own mycological research. It is a pursuit sure to inspire, or at the very least, boggle your mind.