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:
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
Hard to find
Golf-ball sized, 1-5" diameter
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.
Read More From Delishably
The Scoop on Choosing Truffles*
|Type of Truffle||Average cost per ounce **||Size||Aroma/ Flavor||Discription||Season harvested|
European Winter White (Tuber Maganatum)***
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)****
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)
intense hazelnut, aged cheese
black or brown outside, brown inside
Oregon White (Tuber oregonense/Tuber Gibbosum)
garlic, butter, morels, roasted hazelnuts
golden to orange-brown outside, white to golden inside
fall, winter, spring
Oregon Black (Leucangium carthusianum)
1/2 to 3 inches
earthy, chocolate, pinapple, tropical fruit
black outside, marbled white and gray inside
Chinese Black (Tuber indicum, Tuber sinensis)
mild musk, garlic
black to brown outside, black and gray marbled inside
*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.
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.