Several years ago, we found some Giant Puffball mushrooms growing on my daughter's farm in Pennsylvania. They were the size of small beachballs, and I was very excited to find them ... but disappointed when, upon slicing them open, we discovered that they had gone to spore. They were a disgusting, yellow-green, custardy consistency on the inside, instead of the firm white meat of a Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea, or "huge head") in its early, edible stage.
But my appetite was whet. I've been reading up on Giant Puffballs, and how to prepare them, and this year when we returned to Pennsylvania in late October, I had my eyes open.
We were rewarded by a beautiful find in the Shawnee State Park near Bedford. It was right there, in the grass near a playground. It was approximately the shape of a human brain, only larger.
These puffballs have a smooth, leathery outer shell, and when you slice into them, if they are in edible stage, they are firm and white. This one was perfect. So I proceeded to do what I had long dreamt of doing ... grilling and eating it.
There are several ways to prepare a puffball, but we chose to grill it as steaks, about 3/4 of an inch thick. Normally I would do this on a char griller, but it was raining so hard outside we decided to prepare it indoors. After slicing and cutting away the skin, I rubbed olive oil on both sides of the steaks then seasoned them with Himalayan salt, garlic, and coarse ground pepper. Then, onto a hot flatiron they went. I gave each side a few minutes to brown, then removed my treasure and served it up.
The truly unusual thing about these puffball steaks was the odor, which was a little off-putting at first. But the taste was completely different than the smell. My best comparison is chicken, although the puffball itself has a consistency closer to that of tofu.
I've written about preparing puffballs before. Here in the Northwest we typically only find the smaller, golfball-sized variety, which are much more challenging to prepare. The flavor of the giant puffball was similar, but the reward was greater because of the size of the steaks and the ease of preparation.
I couldn't eat the entire meal in one sitting, so I let the remainder sit overnight (covered) in the refrigerator, and pulled them out for lunch the next day. This was a mistake, as they had grown somewhat soggy sitting in the refrigerator, and liquid was oozing out. Much less appetizing that way. In fact, my main complaint with the puffballs, at least with the way I prepared them, was that the consistency wasn't as crisp as I would have liked.
I've read that many people use puffball slices in place of dough when making pizza. I can see how this might be good, although I think the consistency would be much less firm than baked pizza dough.
I've also read many people chop up sauteed puffball and use it in soups. I think this would also be tasty. Or perhaps you could use it in many Asian recipes, just as you would use fried tofu.
The health benefits of consuming C. gigantea are well known. They contain (in very small quantities) a tumor-fighting mucoprotein called Calvacin. Moreover, Puffball was frequently harvested in advance of Civil War battles to be used as a styptic (a substance which helps stem blood flow and loss) to be applied to wounds, either as a powder or in slices.
The Calvatia gigantea is safe eating and has few lookalikes. Exercise caution if you are picking them small, as some highly toxic Amanitas can assume a similar spherical shape. In addition, the toxic earthstar is of similar appearance. But the test is to cut them open: The contents of an edible puffball are smooth and white; an early Amanita would show gill structure within the sphere, and an earthstar would be moving toward its adult black interior.
Have you ever found (and consumed) a puffball? How large was it? How did you prepare it?