What Are Truffles?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Black truffles and slices

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Truffles are one of the most legendary and luxurious ingredients in the culinary arts, owing to both their sublime flavor and their rarity. The fact that they're super expensive also adds to their renown. They are available seasonally and are typically used in fine dining in dishes like pasta and risotto and can be added to fresh cheese.

Fast Facts

  • Varieties: black, white, Burgundy, pine, whitish, garlic
  • Flavor: Earthy, pungent, and musky
  • Shelf Life: Extremely perishable

What Are Truffles?

Truffles are the spore-producing parts of an edible fungus in the family Tuberaceae which lives underground, especially around the roots of trees in damp forests. Botanically, they are a species of mushroom and range from about the size of a walnut to the size of a fist. Because they occur naturally around the roots of trees, truffle hunters once used pigs to find and dig up wild truffles. Today, specially trained dogs are used, in large part because pigs typically eat most of the truffles they locate, while dogs can be more specially trained.

Prized for their flavor and aroma, truffles are rare, difficult to source, and once harvested, they quickly lose their potency, all of which combine to make them one of the world's most expensive foods. Some varieties of truffles can sell for as much as $2,000 per pound.

Increasingly, truffles can be cultivated. The method involves inoculating young trees with spores of the truffle fungus then planting those trees in orchards. Today, up to 80 percent of French truffles come from truffle orchards like these.

Truffles vs. Truffle Oil

Some cooks use truffle oil, which is made by infusing oil with one of the flavor compounds found in truffles. But truffle oil isn't made with truffles, even the kind with bits of truffle in the bottle, and the flavor of truffle oil is quite different than the flavor of true fresh truffles. It is, however, a flavorful ingredient that is much more affordable than actual truffles.

Varieties

The black truffle, also known as the Perigord truffle after the region in southwestern France, and the white truffle, which comes from the northern Italian region of Piedmont, are among the most popular. The summer truffle, or Burgundy truffle, is also highly prized. Other edible truffles include the pine truffle, the whitish truffle, and the garlic truffle. 

How to Cook With Truffles

The flavor compounds in truffles are extremely volatile, which means that when heated they evaporate and quickly disappear. For this reason, it's rare to actually cook truffles. Instead, it's typical to shave them thinly over the top of hot, cooked food before serving, letting the warmth of the food activate the flavors and aromas. This is especially true of white truffles. 

To highlight the truffle's unique flavor, it's usually best to serve them with foods with otherwise simple flavors, like eggs or pasta. They can also be grated into wine- or cream-based sauces. Thin shavings can be placed under the skin of poultry before roasting or shaved onto cooked meats like beef, pork, boar, or venison before serving. 

With black truffles, the conventional wisdom is that their flavor can be enhanced by very gentle cooking, such as stirring them into a sauce and heating at the end of cooking. Because their pungent aroma and distinctive flavor can overwhelm if used too heavily, as well as their cost, truffles are used sparingly.

Black truffles
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Pasta with shaved truffles
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Chef grating truffles
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Black truffle with ravioli
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White truffles
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What Do They Taste Like?

Although their flavor and aroma differ according to variety, overall truffles have a mushroomy, musky, oaky, nutty, earthy flavor. Black truffles are associated with chocolatey notes, while white truffles are slightly more pungent, with flavor and aroma that can resemble garlic or shallots. They have a firm, compact, spongey texture.

Moreover, truffles from different parts of the world will feature subtly different flavors and aromas due to the unique environment that each one is grown in, including the specific properties of the soil, the types of trees they're associated with, and the season in which they're harvested.  

Truffle Recipes

If you can obtain a fresh truffle, try shaving it over pasta, eggs, or risotto to let the flavor really shine. Truffles should not be used in place of regular mushrooms in a dish.

Where to Buy Truffles

It can be difficult to purchase fresh truffles, both because they are inherently rare and also because they are so perishable. The best way to obtain fresh truffles is to forage them yourself or to obtain them from someone who forages them. A handful of companies sell fresh truffles online, by the ounce. But their availability is limited and seasonal, and ordering from them will generally require springing for overnight or two-day shipping, which adds to the already significant expense.

Some specialty food merchants offer preserved truffles, usually packed in brine, although there is really no way to preserve the flavor of truffles, so what you're getting is more of a salty mushroom than a truffle. Frozen truffles are also available, but again, with a significant loss of flavor and aroma.

Storage

Fresh truffles are extremely perishable. They begin losing their flavor and aroma from the moment they're dug up out of the ground, and within five days they will have spoiled completely. It's best to use a fresh truffle within days; in the meantime, store it in the fridge in an airtight container along with some dry rice, which prevents the surface from becoming soggy from moisture loss. The container is mainly for the sake of the other items in your fridge, since the truffle will emit its aroma continuously until it's gone, whether it's in a container or not.