I had just wrapped up a 6 mile hike near Wrightwood this afternoon, traversing from Vincent’s Gulch past Big Horn Mine and back, when I decided I want to investigate another path near the trailhead leading down to Mine Gulch Flat, only to be greeted by the sight of this beauty a few minutes into the descent. Calvatia gigantea, the giant puffball!
About the size and appearance of a large unbaked sourdough loaf, I initially mistook this fungal growth for a large rock just off the side of the trail. But once I picked it up, the distinct mushroom smell told me it was likely a Calvatia gigantea, a mushroom commonly found in meadows near forests. I actually ended up hiding it in a small shaded area, since I had just started hiking down into Mine Gulch Flat with the intention of previewing the trail for a return visit (I knew I had 1-2 more miles in me this afternoon at the most; at 7000+ feet elevation, the ole ticker was telling me to take it easy), and returned for it about half an hour later, excited about the hidden treasure awaiting my rescue.
Once back home, I needed to verify two things: 1) that this was indeed a puffball mushroom, and 2) it was still in an edible state. At this size it’s safe to assume these are more than likely puffballs and not the poisonous Amanita species, which are much smaller. The true test required closer inspection…
Giant puffballs are considered one of the easiest mushrooms to identify for safe consumption, thanks to two distinctive indicators. Besides their near gargantuan size, the proof is in the distinctive all-white, solid interior of these mushrooms. If it’s pure white and solid without any of the distinct shapes of a typical mushroom, you’ve got a puffball. But just because you’ve got a puffball doesn’t mean it’s edible. Unlike most other mushrooms, puffballs develop their spores internally; when the fruit is fully matured, the puffball will explode at the slightest touch, releasing trillions of spores into the air (an interesting side note: native Americans used the spores as a blood clotting agent). You don’t want to eat a puffball that has reached this state, which is easily avoided since they look rotten, discoloured and slightly ooze like an extra from The Walking Dead.
Another thing you want to do is to carefully investigate the whole fruit of the puffball for yellow or brown areas. Edible mushrooms are coveted not only by greedy humans like me, but also creepy crawlers and winged insects drawn to their distinctive scent. See this small discoloured section I cut off from the main body? Note the tiny rice grain shapes…yup, those are maggots. Nobody wants to eat maggots, not even Lost Boys. Fortunately, this section was small and contained to a part easily distinguished from the otherwise untouched puffball.
Even so, I played it conservative and trimmed not only the outer cuticle (which is harder and also prone to cause gastro-intestinal issues), but any section that looked remotely less than perfect. After all was trimmed and done, I was left with three still hefty pieces of mushroom goodness to batter up with some egg wash and flour.
Since I was running on empty upon returning from the hike, I kept it simple: five test pieces, bathed in egg and coated lightly in flour, ready to panfry in some butter and avocado oil, with just a little salt and pepper to taste.
Not much to look at compared to this, but the results were satisfying, the taste similar to fried tofu, while also sharing the textural attributes of extra firm soy. Of course, frying anything in butter is going to taste good. But how often do I get to fry up something I foraged myself out of a forest while hiking? That there is the taste of success, my friend.