How can you tell if a puffball mushroom is edible?

Puffball mushrooms are a type of fungus that can be found growing in fields, forests, and grasslands worldwide. While some varieties are edible and quite tasty, others can cause severe illness if consumed. So how do you know if a puffball mushroom is safe to eat?

What are puffball mushrooms?

Puffball mushrooms belong to the division Basidiomycota and get their name from their round, puffy appearance. Unlike gilled mushrooms which produce spores along gill-like structures under their caps, puffballs generate spores internally. As the puffball matures, its flesh changes from white and firm to yellowish and powdery as the spores develop.

When the puffball reaches maturity, the outer skin splits open and the powdery brown spores are released. This gives puffballs a “puff” of smoke when touched or compressed, hence their name.

There are over 100 species of puffball mushrooms worldwide. Some common edible varieties include:

  • Giant puffballs – These are the largest puffball species, growing up to over 1 foot (30 cm) wide.
  • Pear-shaped puffballs – Shaped like pears and grow up to 5 inches (13 cm) tall.
  • Gem-studded puffballs – Small white puffballs with thick warty skin.
  • Calvatia gigantea – Large white puffballs with a thick leathery skin.

On the other hand, poisonous puffball species to avoid include:

  • Scleroderma – Hard puffballs with thick, leathery skin.
  • Earthballs – Purplish-brown puffballs that grow underground.
  • Immature puffballs – White unripe puffballs before spores develop.

Identifying Features of Edible Puffballs

So when you come across a puffball mushroom, how can you determine if it’s safe to eat? Here are some key identification features of edible puffballs:


Edible puffballs tend to grow very large, typically reaching 5-12 inches (12-30 cm) in diameter. Any very small puffballs should be avoided.


Look for round or pear shapes. Flattened, irregular, or mushroom-capped puffballs are likely poisonous.


The flesh inside should be firm and white. If the flesh is yellow, brown, or purple, do not eat it.

Skin Texture

The skin should be thin and papery, not thick or leathery. Avoid puffballs with hard, woody skin.

Growing Conditions

Edible puffballs typically grow on the ground in meadows, fields, or grasslands. They do not grow on trees or decaying wood.


Safe puffballs will have white, firm flesh when young. As they mature, the flesh changes to yellowish or brownish and full of powdery olive-brown spores. Do not eat immature all-white puffballs.


Edible puffballs have a mild mushroom scent. If it has a foul, chemical-like odor, do not eat it.

Rules for Puffball Identification

Here is a summary of rules to follow when identifying edible puffballs:

  • Harvest only very large, round puffballs, at least 5 inches wide.
  • The skin should be thin and papery.
  • The interior flesh should be white and firm when young, turning yellowish-brown when mature.
  • It should have a mild mushroom smell.
  • Do not eat any puffball growing on wood, with a thick leathery skin, purple-brown color, or foul odor.

How to Prepare and Eat Puffballs

Once you’ve positively identified an edible puffball mushroom, it can be prepared and enjoyed in many tasty ways. Here are some tips:

  • Cleaning – Wipe off any dirt gently with a damp cloth. Don’t wash in water as they will absorb it.
  • Slicing – Cut off the base and top skin, then slice into 0.5-1 inch rounds.
  • Cooking – Puffballs have a mild flavor and work well sautéed in butter, grilled, roasted, breaded/fried, or in soups and stews.
  • Storage – Refrigerate promptly after harvesting, and cook within 2-4 days.
  • Drying – You can preserve puffballs by drying thin slices in a food dehydrator or low oven.

Some popular recipes for cooked puffballs include:

  • Breaded and fried puffballs
  • Puffball “steaks” grilled with olive oil
  • Puffball mushroom soup or stew
  • Sautéed puffballs with garlic and herbs
  • Scrambled eggs with puffballs

When prepared correctly, puffball mushrooms have a texture like tofu or bread and absorb surrounding flavors nicely. Enjoy them in place of meat in vegetarian and vegan dishes too!

Special Considerations

Keep these precautions in mind when collecting and eating puffball mushrooms:

  • Never eat any wild mushroom unless you are 100% certain of its identification.
  • Some people may have allergies or sensitivities to puffballs, so eat only a small amount first.
  • Eat only young, fresh puffballs. Older specimens may cause gastrointestinal upset.
  • Do not consume raw puffballs or any mushroom raw.
  • Avoid puffballs growing in potentially contaminated areas.

If you have any doubts about the edibility of a puffball mushroom, do not eat it. Only an experienced mushroom forager should determine which puffballs are safe to consume.

Poisonous Lookalikes to Avoid

Some deadly poisonous mushrooms can closely resemble puffballs. Avoid the following lookalikes:

Young Amanitas

Young, button-stage Amanita mushrooms look similar to immature all-white puffballs. However, they have key differences:

  • Amanitas will have whitish gills, flakes, and a stem beginning to form underneath.
  • They do not grow as large and round as giant puffballs.
  • Amanitas have a distinctive sac-like cup called the volva at the base.

Consuming an Amanita mushroom can be fatal. Always cut young puffballs open to confirm lack of internal gills, stem, and volva before eating.


These small, round mushrooms have a thick, leathery skin and grow on decaying wood. Do not confuse them with edible puffballs growing in grasslands.


Immature stinkhorn mushrooms resemble white puffballs but have a foul odor. Inside, they are gelatinous rather than powdery.

Bird’s Nest Fungi

Nest-like cups growing on wood contain orange “eggs” rather than olive-brown puffball spores. Do not confuse with true puffballs.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

Wild mushroom identification takes extensive knowledge and experience. If you have any hesitation about the safety of a puffball mushroom:

  • Do not eat it!
  • Take detailed photos and consult an expert mycologist.
  • Stick to purchasing commercially grown varieties until you gain more experience.

It’s simply not worth the risk of eating a toxic mushroom. Follow the identification rules carefully, and only consume puffballs you’re 100% certain are edible.


With their meaty texture and mild flavor, puffball mushrooms can be a tasty wild edible if identified correctly. Look for large size, round shape, thin skin, white flesh turning yellowish-brown, growing on the ground, and mild smell. Avoid anything hard, woody, purplish, small, growing on wood, or with gills, caps, stems, foul odor, or mushrooms inside. Apply identification rules cautiously, never eat anything you’re unsure about, and enjoy foraged puffballs safely!

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