Once in awhile a really good puffball year comes along in Southeast Alaska. Puffballs may carpet the forest floor or bubble out of old logging roads.
Southeast Alaskan puffballs are small things, rarely getting bigger than a golf ball. Most are the size of grapes. It usually takes a whole bunch of them to make a side dish.
While the big puffball mushrooms that grow down south are noted as edible in mushroom books, our Alaskan varieties are often noted as "presumably edible" and other vague comments. "Common Mushrooms of Alaska" by Judy Hall Jacobson notes that they are "Edible as are all puffballs as long as you make sure it is not an Amanita button." She also notes that puffballs for the table need to be firm and solid white inside. If they have even started to turn yellow inside, or if they are spongy, then they are not good to eat.
As with all wild mushrooms, puffballs should be thoroughly cooked.
That said, please do your own research on the edibility of puffball mushrooms in Alaska. Here it comes...disclaimer! I am not a mushroom expert! There are great books out there, so please refer to them and determine which mushrooms are edible for yourself. Book list at the end of this post.
Now getting back to the Amanita buttons for a minute... When Amanitas first pop out of the ground they can be round and firm and mistaken for a puffball. The way to tell is to cut every puffball or button in half from top to bottom. Sure, it is tedious with our little puffball guys around here, but it sure beats dying, or getting really sick and wondering if you should. If you see the outline of a mushroom inside then it is not a puffball and is likely to be poisonous. Amanita buttons are usually larger than our little Alaskan puffballs, but really, is it worth being careless about?
That rough coating on the top of the Amanita button above looks like a dead giveaway (harhar, I just had to do it. Boo the pun all you want), but in dim forest light it might just be mistaken for a gem studded puffball.
I have found both gem studded and pear shaped puffballs singly and in groups. Sometimes they are tucked close to the ground like in the logging road photo above, and sometimes they are standing up on stalks up to two inches tall.
When puffballs mature they form a hole at the top. Raindrops or footsteps make the spores puff out of the hole like smoke.
Puffballs in Alaska are not noted for spectacular flavor. I find that gently sauteing them for ten or fifteen minutes brings out some good flavor (more than just the butter), but would easily be overpowered by a zesty sauce. I defer to greater cooks for real recipes.
This is not the first mushroom to go into my basket if boletes, chanterelles, or hedgehogs are available, but then it is pretty difficult to refuse the forest's generous offering at times. Plus, puffballs are a nice addition to meals in season. I have tried freezing them, but they became rubbery and tough. I have not tried drying them yet.
If the puffballs are young and prime then I can snap the the caps off with my fingertips. If a puffball is mushy or bends over when I try to pick it then I give it a pass.
Wishing you natural bounty,
Some helpful mushroom books:
- "Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest" by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati
- "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora
- "All That the Rain Promises, and More..." by David Arora
- "Common Mushrooms of Alaska" by Judy Hall Jacobson
More mushroomy posts: