Truffles are the most elusive mushroom, sought after by famous chefs and foodies for their incredible flavor and rare availability in the kitchen. Truffles were even nicknamed the “diamond of the kitchen” by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century epicurean. Not surprisingly, this nickname has stuck for centuries.
Truffles are highly regarded for their uncanny ability to make almost anything taste delicious. It seems like it should be the stuff of legends and myths, that a fungus found under the ground that looks like, well, something you would find in the ground, could be so ridiculously yummy.
Lucky for us the truffle is something that can be enjoyed by all, either freshly shaved over pasta or risotto, dried and added to salt to toss in your popcorn, or added to your breakfast omelet. The applications are numerous, but for diehard truffle fans, you can indeed never get enough.
Edible truffles are typically found around the roots of trees such as beech, poplar, hazel, pine, birch, and hornbeam. The spores travel and multiply thanks to the aid of fungivore animals.
Because of their subterranean home, the only way to track and find where the truffles are is through the help of domestic pigs called truffle hogs or sometimes truffle dogs. The pigs in particular have a sense of smell that allows them to sniff out the delicious truffles up to 3 feet underground! It’s believed that the truffles emit a smell that is similar to a sex hormone known as androstenol found in the male saliva of pigs.
Recent developments have lead to the cultivation and farming of truffles, although the process of finding and growing the seed has been arduous, complicated, and often unfruitful. It can take up to a decade to grow one truffle. Recently, truffle farmers have found that pairing what they deemed the seed with acorns of the trees they tend to grow near was enough to mimic the natural environment, and they have since successfully cultivated some truffles.
However, the traditional method of foraging for them in nature is still the preferred method (and in some ways the easier one).
The Different Types of Truffles
All truffles are small sort of nobby mushrooms that don’t have a distinct stem, traditional cap, or even the conventional mushroom gills. They look more like rocks or stones than mushrooms. Truffles can grow to be 1-inch wide to over a pound, although it’s rare to find a truffle of that size.
There are several types of edible truffles that include white, black, summer, or burgundy truffles, and garlic truffles. While there are several other fungi species named truffle, they are not the same.
The black truffle and white truffle are the most popular, however, and the most common to find. They both come with hefty price tags. In some cases, Europeans have purchased truffles priced between $1,000 and $2,000 per pound.
In the culinary world, truffles are one of the most popular ingredients, particularly for high-end restaurants, leaving chefs clamoring to get a few for their dinner service. They are used sparingly both due to their expensive price tag and because of their robust and potent flavor!
White truffles tend to be more pungent and are commonly served raw, shaved over fresh pasta, risotto, pizza, or salads. They’re also some of the most expensive at about $300 per fist-sized mushroom. They are only available and harvested between October and December, making them even more desired due to the short “season.” White truffles tend to be the “preferred” of the two because of their indescribable garlicky, savory taste. And because they can only really be eaten fresh.
It is not advised to cook white truffles as doing so will break down their delicate texture and they may lose their flavor altogether.
Black truffles have a more specific, refined flavor. They are earthy, musty, and savory. Black truffles are preferred to make salt and honey and to infuse truffle oil. (Truffle oil does not contain any truffles but is typically flavored olive oil.) It’s recommended to eat black truffles raw as well, although they can be cooked quickly to bring out some more of their flavor. Black truffles are known to make regular appearances on pizzas or tossed in pasta.
Where Do Truffles Grow?
For thousands of years, Italians have become the master truffle foragers, with many super secret locations passed down through generations. The Piedmont region in the north of Italy is one of the only places in the world where the prized white truffle can be found. They can also be found in a few areas of Central Italy (including Tuscany, Marche, and Umbria) and some very select areas of Istria and Slovenia. White truffles have not been found anywhere else in the world, however.
Black truffles are a bit more spread out over the world, and you can find them in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Turkey. New Zealand and North Africa have a few areas where black truffles have been found.
A bit surprisingly, in the heart of America, there are areas in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range where truffles have been successfully cultivated. There are also some farms located in California and Oregon, although they are all relatively new and somewhat experimental.
Cooking with Truffles
It is extremely rare to find fresh truffles in your local specialty store and even more so in standard supermarkets. They may never make it to your local farmers market either. The best way to track down fresh truffles is to hit the Internet and try to find a local truffle distributor who may be open to selling you a small batch of truffles, or perhaps market salts, oils, or other truffle treats for you to experiment with. If you’re able to find a truffle cheese, do not pass up your opportunity to try it! It’s sure to be amazing and unlike anything you’ve ever had.
If you’re lucky enough to acquire a fresh, raw truffle, eat it as quickly as you can. It will stay fresh for up to about three days in the refrigerator. You can maximize the flavor experience by wrapping your fresh truffle in a paper towel and storing it buried in dry rice in a sealed glass container like a mason jar. The truffle scent will infuse the rice, perfect for future risottos!
If you have a black truffle, gently brush the surface grit with a soft toothbrush under cold running water. You can peel these and save the peelings for a soup or vegetable broth in the future. White truffles should never be peeled, however.
As we’ve mentioned, anytime you get your hands on a fresh truffle it’s an excellent idea to try and store them with foods that can absorb the truffle’s unique flavors. For example, storing your black truffle with a few eggs and some cheese to make into an omelet. Or wrapping your truffle and keeping it with fresh pasta for a yummy wild mushroom pasta with cream sauce.
Truffles and their many different iterations, including salts and oils, are best paired with warm, comforting foods such as polenta, risotto, sauces, asparagus, or other mild vegetables, and can even be sprinkled over beef carpaccio! Less is more with truffles, which is great for you so you can extend the experience of your pricey culinary adventure.