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

I love informing others about tasty food that may not be very well known.

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
  • 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 TrufflesWhite TrufflesChinese 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 TruffleAverage cost per ounce **SizeAroma/ FlavorDiscriptionSeason 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

*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.

what-are-truffles-not-the-chocolate-kind

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-are-truffles-not-the-chocolate-kind

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.

Comments

Abdul Haadi from Lahore, Pakistan. on November 27, 2017:

Great hub!

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on September 24, 2012:

Thank you!!

Letitialicious from Paris via San Diego on September 10, 2012:

Wonderfully thorough article. Just linked to it. Thanks.

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on April 08, 2012:

Thank you Dia Jacobs...much appreciated!

Dia Jacobs on April 08, 2012:

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 (author) from The Zoo on June 03, 2011:

Thanks RTalloni!!

RTalloni on May 13, 2011:

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

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on May 08, 2011:

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!!!

Jedidiah strong on May 07, 2011:

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

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on May 05, 2011:

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 (author) from The Zoo on May 04, 2011:

Hi Golfgal

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

Golfgal from McKinney, Texas on May 02, 2011:

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 (author) from The Zoo on April 29, 2011:

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

THAT Mary Ann on April 29, 2011:

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

Amy DeMarco from Chicago on April 28, 2011:

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

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on April 26, 2011:

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

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 26, 2011:

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 from The Fatal Shore on April 25, 2011:

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 from Videix, Limousin, South West France on April 25, 2011:

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.

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on April 25, 2011:

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

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on April 25, 2011:

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 from Norfolk, UK on April 25, 2011:

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

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on April 24, 2011:

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 on April 23, 2011:

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.

Ruth Lanham on April 23, 2011:

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 from Toronto, Canada on April 23, 2011:

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 on April 22, 2011:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on April 22, 2011:

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

Hillary from Atlanta, GA on April 22, 2011:

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!

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on April 22, 2011:

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

Tamila Roberts from Canada on April 22, 2011:

Nice truffles!

Congratulation on being first!

miss_jkim on April 22, 2011:

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.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 22, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 21, 2011:

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 from Atlanta, GA on April 21, 2011:

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!

India Arnold from Northern, California on April 21, 2011:

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 Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 21, 2011:

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!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on April 21, 2011:

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

Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on April 21, 2011:

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

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 21, 2011:

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

Gordon Hamilton from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on April 21, 2011:

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 (author) from The Zoo on April 20, 2011:

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

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on April 20, 2011:

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.