What Are Truffles? (No, Not the Chocolate Kind!)

Updated on March 21, 2018
Whole Black Truffles
Whole Black Truffles

Truffles Are No Trifles

What is a truffle? There's no doubt that you've seen truffles on restaurant menus or have recipes that call for shaved truffles, truffle salt, or truffle oil. Maybe you have even cooked with truffles, but you aren't entirely sure of the origins of this funny-looking yet gourmet food.

Truffles are fungi similar to mushrooms, but they grow entirely underground. You can typically find them on the roots of various plants, usually trees. They are most famously associated with French and Italian haute cuisine. Referred to as "diamonds of the kitchen," truffles are, pound-for-pound, one of the highest-priced foods on earth. A few years back, a 3.3-pound white truffle sold at auction for $330,000 U.S. dollars!

The most prized quality of the truffle is its aroma. The more pungent the smell, the more flavorful and valuable the truffle is likely to be.

There are many different types of truffles:

  • black,
  • white,
  • summer,
  • winter,
  • imported,
  • and cultivated.

Only a few of these are considered supreme delicacies. Learn about how they're valued and their origins below!

Black Truffles Versus White Truffles

Black Truffles
White Truffles
Chinese Black Truffles
Product of France
Product of Italy
Product of China
Grow from oak trees
Grow from beech, poplar, and oak trees
Grow from pine and other conifer trees
Coal-black outside and marbled with black, gray, and white inside
Brown/orange-brown outside and marbled with white and gray inside
Black outside with veining
Strong aroma
Strong aroma
Mild aroma
Hard to find
Rarest
Common
Grape-to-grapefruit sized
Golf-ball sized, 1-5" diameter
Walnut-sized

What are the differences between the truffles?

Black and White Truffles

Black truffles come primarily from the central and southeastern parts of France. They also grow in other areas including Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, and North America. White truffles are more commonly associated with Italy. The White Winter Italian truffle is usually the rarest and most expensive variety available.

Traditionally, neither the French nor the Italians cultivate truffles. To them, this would be likened to using synthetic cork to bottle fine wine—it is simply not done. Here in North America, the Pacific Northwest has recently become recognized for producing quality black and white truffles. With the volume of European truffles declining in the last century, Oregon's bountiful supply of truffles provides a more affordable option for the truffle connoisseur. The state's climate, soil, and trees are naturally conducive to truffle growth.

  • Both native Oregonian truffle species and cultivated European varieties are harvested fall, winter, and spring.
  • While very different in aroma and taste from their European cousins, native truffles from the Pacific Northwest can be a fragrant and delicious addition to your recipes.

Chinese Black Truffle

The Chinese black truffle is very similar in aroma and flavor to the European black truffle, although it has a milder taste. The primary reason for the dramatic price difference between the Chinese and French black truffle is that the former is far less rare and famous than its French counterpart. Chinese truffles are a great option if you want to experiment with truffles in your cooking but don't want to spend a fortune doing so.

A Black Diamond: This is a black winter truffle from Tuscani.
A Black Diamond: This is a black winter truffle from Tuscani.

The Scoop on Choosing Truffles*

Type of Truffle
Average cost per ounce **
Size
Aroma/ Flavor
Discription
Season harvested
European Winter White (Tuber Maganatum)***
$205
1/2 to 5 inches
strong, garlic, nutmeg, musk, floral
cream, brown or orange-brown outside, white inside
fall, early winter
European Winter Black (Tuber Melanosporum)****
$100
1/2 to 3 inches
earthy, musk, mint, fruit
black outside, marbled black and gray inside
fall, winter, early spring
European Summer Black (Tuber aestivum)
$20
1-4 inches
intense hazelnut, aged cheese
black or brown outside, brown inside
spring, summer
Oregon White (Tuber oregonense/Tuber Gibbosum)
$20
1-3 inches
garlic, butter, morels, roasted hazelnuts
golden to orange-brown outside, white to golden inside
fall, winter, spring
Oregon Black (Leucangium carthusianum)
$20
1/2 to 3 inches
earthy, chocolate, pinapple, tropical fruit
black outside, marbled white and gray inside
winter, spring
Chinese Black (Tuber indicum, Tuber sinensis)
$50
1-3 inches
mild musk, garlic
black to brown outside, black and gray marbled inside
fall, winter
**Prices can vary seasonally and according to quality, availability, etc. *** Usually Italian **** Usually French

*I've found that truffle information online is incomplete and confusing. It is very difficult to find anything to help you compare types, costs, and availabilities. I have knowledgeable purveyors for my restaurants, and they've shared tons of great information with me. I compiled this chart to make it a little easier for us all.

Beneficial Truffles
Beneficial Truffles

The Super-Symbiotic Truffle

Truffles are mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they grow on the roots of plants (usually trees) and are beneficial to the host plant. This symbiotic relationship between fungus and host is an important part of the overall health of many forested areas. Mycorrhizas such as truffles help collect water and minerals in the soil for the tree—in return, the truffles are able to get nutrients that only a plant capable of photosynthesis can provide.

Truffles also have a symbiotic relationship with many forest-dwellers, specifically mammals. Mammals such as squirrels, deer, bears, and raccoons are drawn to the strong odor of a mature truffle. The animal digs up and consumes the truffle. The truffle benefits because, being an underground fungus, this is the only way to spread spores and reproduce.

Truffle Pigs vs. Truffle Dogs

It is very important to harvest truffles at their peak maturity, as this is when they are the most fragrant. For us humans, finding these delectable diamonds, ripe or not, can prove to be a daunting task. Truffles grow several inches underground and can be on any part of the tree roots. Also, they do not all ripen at the same time. Fortunately, we can get help from our four-legged friends.

Traditionally, female pigs were used to find truffles. A ripe truffle gives off an odor similar to the pheromones of male pigs. That's why a sow is the ultimate truffle-finding machine. The drawback is that she is likely to consume them just as quickly and efficiently as she can find them. It is very difficult to train a sow not to eat the treasures that she locates. Also, a pig is not the easiest animal to transport, especially when you compare it to a dog.

Dogs have just as keen a sense of smell as pigs, but they are not as interested in eating them. Unlike pigs, dogs must be trained to locate truffles. However, once they have mastered this skill, they can prove to be very efficient and effective in the art of finding them.

The Seductive Aroma of the Truffle

A truffle's allure lies in the aroma. Described as sensual, earthy, and musky, the smell of truffles has long been considered an aphrodisiac. Eating truffles while fresh (less than a week old) is imperative, as it is very difficult to preserve that all-essential bouquet.

For this reason, truffles are best eaten uncooked. Cooking a truffle destroys the aroma and almost negates the purpose of using them in your cooking. Without their aroma, truffles have very little flavor. Most often, I use a little grated fresh truffle on top of food or add it to sauces just before serving.

What's this got to do with chocolate truffles?

The chocolate truffle is named after the fungus purely because of the resemblance. Both truffles are usually round, dark, and approximately the size of a golf ball—the similarities end there. Chocolate truffles don't contain any truffle or truffle oil. You could try making such a thing yourself, but personally, I like to keep my sweet chocolate and my pungent fungi separate.

Questions & Answers

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      • Abdul Haadi profile image

        Abdul Haadi 

        7 months ago from Lahore, Pakistan.

        Great hub!

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        5 years ago from The Zoo

        Thank you!!

      • Letitialicious profile image

        Letitialicious 

        5 years ago from Paris via San Diego

        Wonderfully thorough article. Just linked to it. Thanks.

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        6 years ago from The Zoo

        Thank you Dia Jacobs...much appreciated!

      • Dia Jacobs profile image

        Dia Jacobs 

        6 years ago

        Hi Mrs. Menagerie, you wrote a very detailed hub. It is very informative with valuable guidelines that could be made into a reference for truffles! Great job!

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        Thanks RTalloni!!

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        7 years ago from the short journey

        Thanks much for this informative hub. Glad I found your work!

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        Hi Sunshine! Farmville? Thanks for the vote!

        Hey Jedidiah Strong! I can't believe you chose that name (I'm assuming it's not your real name--cool if it is), I know exactly who the original Jedidiah Strong was and I have a family member named after him! (the 4 legged type)

        I'm quite recovered from my ordeal and doing great. Thanks!!!

      • profile image

        Jedidiah strong 

        7 years ago

        Great hub Mrs. M! Sorry to hear of your swine flu. Hope it doesn't slow you down on great hub writing!

      • Sunshine625 profile image

        Linda Bilyeu 

        7 years ago from Orlando, FL

        I honestly found the title intriguing because I thought this was going to be a hub on the truffles seen on Farmville which are gross looking! Thanks for setting the record straight! Voted UP!!!

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        Hi Golfgal

        I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. I love coconut ANYTHING...Yummm.

      • Golfgal profile image

        Golfgal 

        7 years ago from McKinney, Texas

        I was so intrigued with the sight of these fabulous fungi: i.e. truffles. I love coconut truffles, but these look nothing of the like. I think I may have found a turffle once while digging up a tree, but I did not reallt know what one looked like so I threw it out. Shucks, I might have had a $200 nugget!!! Sorry you got the swine flu, you really take research very seriously I see. :) Nice job and congrats on your achievement.

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        Thank you to KoffeKlatch Gals, Les trois Chenes, Jane Bovary, Peggy W., ripplemaker, amymarie, and THAT Mary Ann. I really appreciate you reading my hub and leaving your kind comments. Les Trois Chenes: get that Molly trained:) haha

      • profile image

        THAT Mary Ann 

        7 years ago

        Interesting and useful (voted up!) - Mostly, thanks for the photo of the sniffing Beagle...like my beloved "Joachim" whom we loved for 16 years!

      • amymarie_5 profile image

        amymarie_5 

        7 years ago from Chicago IL

        Interesting hub! I never really knew what truffles were and now I want to try them! Voted up!!

      • ripplemaker profile image

        Michelle Simtoco 

        7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

        Now you made me want to try and eat truffles! LOL Congrats for being the best hub! Yay, wonderful hub! :)

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        7 years ago from Houston, Texas

        My husband and I once went to a dinner where there were truffles in every course. Amazing flavors! That being said, we don't often cook with them because of the price. I was unaware that there were truffles from Oregon and China. Will have to look for them. Congratulations on this well deserved win. Sending this hub to others who like to cook and who will be interested in reading this. Thanks! Up and useful!

      • Jane Bovary profile image

        Jane Bovary 

        7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

        This is a terrific hub and congrats on your win. Eating truffles is on my list of "things to do before I die".

        Cheers

      • Les Trois Chenes profile image

        Les Trois Chenes 

        7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

        Great hub on a fascinating fungus. Our guest house, Les Trois Chenes, is situated just north of the Dordogne, in S W France, which is great truffle country. Last year we splashed out 2 euros on truffles (well, you can see from your chart how much we bought - a walnut sized truffle), and came home, much excited, with exact instructions on how to prepare it with butter to spread on toast. It was fragrant and very nice indeed. Must get our dog Molly trained up to sniff out more.

      • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

        Susan Hazelton 

        7 years ago from Sunny Florida

        I enjoyed this very much. i had heard about truffles but never actually knew anything about them. Great information.

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        It's OK Ruth...I'm laughing too, now that it's over.

        Stephhicks, thanks so much!

        Jacqui...yes, they are very odd looking:)

      • jacqui2011 profile image

        jacqui2011 

        7 years ago from Norfolk, UK

        Very interesting hub. I never really knew much about truffles before. They dont look very appealing though! Congratulations on winning. Very informative.

      • stephhicks68 profile image

        Stephanie Hicks 

        7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Amazing - I didn't know much about truffles except that they are hard to find. LOL! Really informative hub with lots of great photos. Voted up and good luck on the contest

      • Charlie David profile image

        Charlie David 

        7 years ago

        Yes, nice article on a widely talked about but seldom seen food item, fungus or tuber they are definitely delicious, one of my favorite flavours for sure. I have not had the Chinese variety but Oregons truffles are quite nice. I travelled New Zealand while packing a bottle of white truffle oil, used it on everything. Awesome, only guy in the hostel with one for sure! I have heard but not confirmed that white truffle oil is flavoured with a natural gas product or byproduct. Regardless I still love it. From Perigord, to Yunnan and the forests of Portland, Truffles I love your earthy goodness.

      • profile image

        Ruth Lanham 

        7 years ago

        I had to laugh at the "Swine Flu" comment...but I'm sorry, I know it's not fun. I love your article and voted it up.

      • PierAllegro profile image

        PierAllegro 

        7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

        I rarely cook with truffles. Mostly, I add slivers of a fresh truffle on my carpaccio, and sometimes I grate it into mushroom risotto. This I do when the risotto is ready and just before I plate. This seems to work for me. I add truffle oil to pasta, last minute on the plate. This will work pretty much with all pastas except seafood pastas. The belief in Italy, where I learned about truffles, is that you should do very little to it in the way of cooking. Otherwise some of the wonderful aroma may be lost. Having said that, I thank you for your most enlightening article.I read it with pleasure and vote up.

      • viryabo profile image

        viryabo 

        7 years ago

        Mrs M, congratulations on your staff pick win.

        I particularly find this hub informative because i never really knew much about THIS type of truffles. I knew pigs dug something called truffles out from the ground, but had never seen one.

        And i though chocolate truffles were made from them LOL!!!

        Great article, deserves the win.

      • WannaB Writer profile image

        Barbara Radisavljevic 

        7 years ago from Templeton, CA

        I've never eaten a truffle, but found your article quite interesting. Congrats on your win!

      • Green Lotus profile image

        Hillary 

        7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

        Congratulations on one cool hub! I'm with Paul, I put truffle salt on everything. You can buy black summer truffle salt from Italy online....still relatively reasonable and to die for!

      • akirchner profile image

        Audrey Kirchner 

        7 years ago from Washington

        Interesting hub and a great subject! Congrats on your win!

      • Tamila Roberts profile image

        Tamila Roberts 

        7 years ago from Canada

        Nice truffles!

        Congratulation on being first!

      • miss_jkim profile image

        miss_jkim 

        7 years ago

        I love mushrooms, but truffles are a little too strong for my taste buds. Great hub, one of the better articles I've seen on the subject. Congratulations on your staff pick.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 years ago from United States

        Congratulations on your well deserved win. This is a very interesting hub as I didn't know much about truffles.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This is an interesting and very informative hub! I've never eaten truffles, but I'm eager to try. Congratulations on your staff pick win.

      • Miss Lil' Atlanta profile image

        Miss Lil' Atlanta 

        7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

        Wow, really interesting article and creative topic as well. Honestly, I wouldn't have thought to write about something like this.

        Oh ya, and congrats on winning too!

      • K9keystrokes profile image

        India Arnold 

        7 years ago from Northern, California

        I often use truffle oil, (white and black) with acceptable results. You have put together one of the best truffle articles I have read. The chart comparing prices and the lot, is outstanding! I have learned much here.

        Congrats on a VERY well deserved staff pick win today!

        K9

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        7 years ago from San Francisco

        Whoah. Truffle salt sounds kind of amazing. And congrats, Mrs. Menagerie! This Hub won the Day 21 Staff Pick prize in the So You Think You Can Write Online contest!

      • kashmir56 profile image

        Thomas Silvia 

        7 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Mrs. Menagerie, thank you for this great information on truffles, i did not know much about them, great read !

      • Paul Edmondson profile image

        Paul Edmondson 

        7 years ago from Burlingame, CA

        My favorite seasoning is truffle salt. I put it on everything from eggs to beef tenderloin.

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        7 years ago from San Francisco

        Truffles have always fascinated me, though I have never tasted one before. This was quite an enjoyable read!

      • Gordon Hamilton profile image

        Gordon Hamilton 

        7 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

        I love truffles (not that they are a regular part of my diet, at those prices!!) and your Hub more than does them justice. I remember once watching a full documentary on the benefits of pigs v dogs and it was fascinating.

        Have you ever tried truffle infused olive oil? It is considerably more expensive than regular olive oil but many times less expensive than the actual truffles. Some of them are poor in quality but there are a couple out there at affordable prices that do give that distinctive taste without costing a month's salary... :)

      • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

        Mrs. Menagerie 

        7 years ago from The Zoo

        Thanks for reading L.L. Woodard...I hope you give truffles a try!

      • L.L. Woodard profile image

        L.L. Woodard 

        7 years ago from Oklahoma City

        Thanks for compiling and sharing the truffle chart. Blue-collar me has never even smelled a truffle, but perhaps that will change in the near future. Interesting hub.

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