Truffles: What are They, and Why are They So Expensive?

What are truffles?

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Truffles are an edible fungus that are considered a delicacy. They will often be served in small amounts at expensive restaurants, where the umami taste enhances a dish. Truffles are small and lumpy, with either a dark skin or lighter coloring.

If you’re thinking of trying truffle for the first time, it’s incredibly important to know how different they are to chocolate truffles. Chocolate truffles are named because of their physical resemblance to the mushroom, but that’s where the similarity stops. In terms of flavor, they are nothing alike.

Unlike other types of edible mushrooms, truffles grow underground. They’re found near tree roots, and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree. Truffles enjoy very specific growing conditions, preferring well-drained alkaline soil.

There are two main types of truffle: white truffle and black truffle. Black truffles are slightly more pungent, and are cooked into dishes. White truffles are highly aromatic, and can be eaten raw.

Truffles have a short shelf life, so they can’t be kept in storage for long. Many choose to cook with truffle oil, which infuses the truffle flavor without the high cost of truffle. (Although truffle oil can still be expensive).

What is the taste of truffle?

The flavor of truffle is entirely unique, and for many it’s completely worth the expense. Umami and earthy, with hints of garlic and an underlying nuttiness, truffle is a flavor experience like no other. As a fungus, they have the same deep earth taste of mushroom, but this can’t begin to cover what makes truffle so delectable.

One of the greatest dimensions of a truffle is the aroma. The scent of freshly shaved truffle lifts off the plate, creating a rounded sensory experience. Encompassed in the smell is rich earth and oak. Truffles smell like a damp fall day, but in the best way possible.

On the tongue, truffle has a gamy, meaty richness. There is a sweetness that’s offset by the savory edge, that combines with the deep umami flavoring for a rounded taste. They can be cooked for a subtler flavor, or eaten raw for a more intense hit.

Of course, not everyone will like the taste of truffle. They’re undoubtedly a mushroom, and the fungus taste is one of the clearest notes. The strong aroma puts many off as well, although for some it’s the greatest part.

Why are truffles expensive? (and are they worth the cost?)

Pound for pound, truffles are one of the most expensive foods in the world. This is due to how difficult they are to grow, how complex they are to find, and the difficulties involved in storage. Harvesting truffles isn’t an easy task, which is part of the reason they cost so much.

Looking at a truffle, it’s difficult to see what makes them desirable. They’re not the most attractive of mushrooms, Truffles come from underground, and they look like it. However, the appearance is one of the reasons they’re so expensive.

Because they’re so well hidden, truffles are very difficult to find. The naked human eye is unlikely to spot a truffle. For this reason, they need to be sniffed out. Traditionally, pigs are used to smell and locate truffles underground.

Unfortunately, this comes with a major downfall: the pigs are liable to eat the truffles. Nowadays, dogs are often trained to pick up the scent, and they won’t eat the goods. Once truffles have been located, they need to be carefully dug up, to avoid being damaged. This is all a time-consuming process.

Finding truffles is especially difficult because they’re hard to grow. Truffles are choosy about their conditions, preferring mild weather and well drained soil.

They also have preferred trees to grow under, typically oak, pine, and hazel, and can take up to 7 years to be ready for harvest. Even then, the harvesting season is short.

Once the truffles have been located and removed, they need to be sold quickly. They have an incredibly short shelf life, only lasting around 1 to 2 weeks when kept in optimal conditions.

Farmers are trying to cultivate truffles, but due to their temperamental nature it can prove tricky.

All this leads to the incredibly high price that truffles can fetch. Difficult to find and impossible to store, truffles are only good for a short period of time.

For those who love the flavor, the expense is definitely worth it. This demand is what drives the cost up. If you don’t enjoy the taste, then you may never understand why people pay so much for something so smelly.

What is the difference between white truffles and black truffles?

There are two distinct types of truffles: white truffles and black truffles. Black truffles have a lighter, earthy taste that mixes well in sauces. White truffles are more aromatic, and are often enjoyed raw.

White truffles are the most desired truffle, and they have a price tag to match. The very best white truffles are found in Italy, generally in the Piedmont region. In La Marche, in North Eastern Italy, the fungus is so widely celebrated they hold an annual truffle festival. They grow elsewhere in Central Italy, and have also been found growing in nearby Croatia.

White truffles are aromatic, and this is what makes them prized. Unfortunately, the harvest season is very short, only running from December to the end of January.

Black truffles, while still expensive, are the cheaper of the two. The very best black truffles are found in France, particularly in the South West region. They’re particularly fond of the oak trees in Perigord. Black truffles have a slightly longer harvest season, from September to December, and a longer shelf life.

However, they still need very specific conditions to grow. Black truffles have a subtler taste, which makes them especially good when cooked into sauces.

Other varieties of truffle exist, but the white truffles of Italy and the black truffles of France are the most popular. These have the richest flavoring, which is why they’re so loved despite the difficult growing conditions.

Truffle Oil

While for many of us truffles are prohibitively expensive, truffle oil is a more affordable way to add truffle flavoring to food. This is a food-grade oil which is infused with truffle for the luxurious umami taste.

Truffle oil is made by placing shaved pieces of truffle into oil, traditionally olive, and leaving it to infuse. The truffle flavors will seep into the oil, leaving you with an easier way to add a punch of truffle into a dish.

While truffle oil is still an expensive purchase, it’s much cheaper than sourcing and buying fresh truffles. It also has a significantly longer shelf life, allowing you to regularly add truffle to a meal.

However, you have to be careful when buying. Some truffle oil doesn’t contain truffles at all, and is instead chemically enhanced to mimic the flavor of truffle. Although it does on the surface taste like truffle, it can’t accurately recreate the same layers of richness as the real thing.

With truffle oil, a high price really does indicate quality. Always check the ingredients before purchasing to be sure they contain real truffle. A small bottle may seem expensive, but it does go a long way.

What is truffle salt?

Similar in use to truffle oil, truffle salt is coarse salt infused with small flakes of truffle. Truffle has a strong natural aroma, which permeates the salt when the two are sealed together.

As with truffle oil, be careful to avoid fake truffle salt. This is made using chemicals to taste similar to truffle, but without the true fragrance. Proper truffle salt comes with flakes of real truffle.

How do you buy truffles?

If you’re interested in purchasing truffles, the first step is to look for harvesting seasons. Truffles taste their best right after harvesting, and they begin to lose flavor quickly. To buy the very best truffles, start looking in December. They’re best purchased from high-quality restaurants or specialty stores.

If you are given the opportunity to buy whole truffles, then pick carefully. Truffles are generally sold by the ounce, with the heaviest truffles being the most expensive. If you think you’re getting a bargain by buying a large sized truffle for cheap, then it’s likely been nibbled at by an insect.

Carefully inspect any truffle before purchasing. Particularly fresh ones may still have dirt clinging to the crevasses, giving them an inaccurate weight. Most importantly, give the truffle a sniff. It should still have a rich aroma, and smell mouthwatering.

Truffle oil and salt are easier to purchase, and available year round. Always seek out quality stores, to ensure you’re getting the real thing. Before purchase, carefully look over the ingredients list. If they don’t contain real truffle, then look elsewhere.

How do you cook truffles?

The best way to use truffle is incredibly simply. This is an ingredient that shines on its own, so everything else needs to be a supporting character. Try fresh truffles on a simple pasta dish, and let the truffles do all the work.

If you’ve got your hands on some fresh white truffles, pair them with a basic pasta meal. Just because you’re going for simplicity doesn’t mean you should settle for poor quality with the other ingredients.

Buy, or make, fresh pasta, and toss it in lashings of butter with a splash of cooking water. Add a heavy grating of Parmesan, a light drizzle of truffle oil, and shave some white truffle on top. This allows the truffle to sing, and you can enjoy the rich flavoring.

Black truffle is best lightly cooked, so gently heat it alongside a mushroom risotto. The life of a truffle can be prolonged by storing it in rice, and this also imparts some flavor. Put your truffle in with a jar of risotto rice, and when you go to cook the flavoring will be amplified.

Alternatively, mince the black truffle and serve it with scrambled eggs. This elevates a basic dish to luxury.

Can you eat truffles raw?

Yes, you can eat truffles raw. In fact, this is the best way to enjoy white truffles. Shave them on at the end of the dish, and the natural heat from the other food is all that’s needed. Even black truffles only need to be gently heated. Too much cooking will destroy the flavoring, so it’s better to play safe.

How do you cook with truffle oil?

As a flavored oil, truffle oil is best used right at the very end of the dish. Add a small amount before serving for a hit of umami goodness.

Truffle oil can work with many types of meal, including pastas, risottos, polenta, steak, eggs, lobster, vegetables such as asparagus, soups, stews, even fries and pizzas. Once you’ve tried it, you’re sure to be looking for new ways to experiment.

If it’s your first time eating truffles, look for a high quality oil and start adding it to pasta. This way you can get a feel for the flavoring, without breaking the bank. Otherwise, check for fresh truffle on the menu at a good restaurant. 

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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