One might not expect to find anything called a “Giant Puffball” in the produce aisle. But it’s not a cartoon character, or something dusty hiding under the bed—the Giant Puffball is an edible mushroom, common in Europe and North America during the late summer and fall.
As its name suggests, the puffball is round and enormous: easily the size of one’s head, often as big as a beach ball. Like other mushrooms, it’s light and fibrous, with very little moisture. As time goes on, the mature puffball will soften and turn yellowish-green as it prepares to release innumerable spores into the air. But puffballs are best eaten when young—when the flesh is dry and entirely white, almost like a marshmallow.
These puffballs require careful handling; puffballs should never be washed or soaked, and the tough skin should be removed. But when cooked, they become mild and hearty, with the texture of a soft cheese. Like other mushrooms, they can be sautéed, fried, or broiled, and with mild, earthy tones, they take well to a number of flavors. When sliced thickly, they can be breaded and fried in olive oil, as if for an eggplant parmigiana; when cut into rough chunks, they can stand in for tofu, adding substance and texture to a vegetarian dish. A quick sauté, deglazed with white wine, tomato, garlic, and oregano becomes a tasty fall stew. Grilling works well, as does pan-searing, when topped with a flavorful sauce or relish. And if hollowed out, puffballs can be stuffed like pumpkin or squash, and oven-roasted for an impressive-looking dish.
Of course, one should only eat wild fungi after careful examination; puffballs are easily confused with other, poisonous varieties of mushroom. When slicing the puffball for cooking, one should make sure there are no signs of caps, gills, or discoloration within; edible puffballs should be white and uniform all the way through. But when correctly identified and properly prepared, the mushroom flesh is tender and flavorful—and offers the rare chance to pluck a full meal from the forest floor.