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

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.

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Read More From Delishably

The Scoop on Choosing Truffles*

**Prices can vary seasonally and according to quality, availability, etc.
*** Usually Italian
**** Usually French

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.

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