Gem-studded puffball mushrooms grow in a wide variety of areas throughout Santa Barbara County. The specimens pictured here were growing trailside at the edge of dense stands of chaparral. Unlike the sort of giant puffballs I have found in Oregon, which can reach the size of a soccer ball, this particular variety remains much smaller, tending to be no larger than one to two inches in diameter.
In The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, these puffballs are rated as a choice edible. In my experience, however, they tend to have a mild, unremarkable flavor if they can be said to have any taste at all. They don’t serve well as the main focus of a meal or as a stand alone side dish like other more flavorful mushrooms. But they are still worth harvesting to supplement homemade fare and are certainly a good find when backpacking.
Beware of poisonous lookalikes such as the young Amanita phalloides, which can resemble a puffball to the untrained eye. It is commonly called the Death Cap, because if eaten it will likely kill you!
Puffballs have to be harvested before they go to spore. This is easily ascertained by simply slicing the mushroom in half to examine its core. Eat only those puffballs that are a bright, solid white inside and whose flesh is undifferentiated or homogeneous. For preparation I typically slice them in thick sections and saute them in butter.