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 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 tree roots of beech, poplar, hazelnut, pine, birch, hornbeam, and oak trees. The spores travel and multiply thanks to the aid of fungivore animals. Truffle hunters depend on truffle dogs and female pigs to sniff out 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 saliva of male 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 truffle hunting in nature is still preferred (and in some ways easier).
The Different Species of Truffles
Of the hundreds of truffle species, only a few are edible. All truffles are small sort of nobby mushrooms that don’t have a distinct stem, traditional cap, or even 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, but the black truffle and white truffle are the most popular, and the most common. 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 coveted 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 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 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.
Tuber melanosporum vitt., the winter black truffle or the Périgord truffle, is so called because it hails from the Périgord region of France. Harvested in late autumn and winter, black truffles have a more specific, refined flavor.
The burgundy truffle (Tuber uncinatum), harvested September through December, has a chocolatey brown flesh with earthy notes of caramel that work best in pasta, cheese, and soup dishes. The related summer black truffle (Tuber aestivum), harvested May through September, has a more delicate flavor and crunchy, firm texture.
Each of these types of black truffles associate with various trees and shrubs and are earthy, musty, and savory. These are the truffles of choice to make salt and honey and to infuse truffle oil. (Truffle oil rarely contains real 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, along with the countrysides of Alba and Asti, 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 globally, and you can find them in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Turkey. New Zealand and North Africa have a few regions where black truffles grow.
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, as well as in the Pacific Northwest, where truffle varieties such as Oregon black truffle, Oregon spring white truffle, and Oregon winter white truffle grow. There are also some truffle 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, truffle butter, 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 3 days in the refrigerator. You can maximize the flavor 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.