What Are Truffles? Why They’re a Prized Ingredient
- Truffles are one the world’s most expensive foods because they’re rare and challenging to grow.
- Truffles are earthy and pungent, and a little goes a long way.
- Truffle-infused products typically don’t contain real truffles, but make the renowned flavor accessible.
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You’ll be hard-pressed to find an ingredient that excites gastronomes like truffles. Acclaimed as diamonds in the culinary world, just a few shavings gives a dish a luxurious upgrade.
But why are truffles considered such a prized culinary ingredient? What makes them so special? The most sought-after varieties can cost upwards of $5,000 a pound. Are they really worth the whopping price tag?
The world of truffles is one of environmental sustainability, rarity, scarcity, and the always-changing taste of the eating public. But the more you learn about truffles, the easier it is to appreciate them — even if their earthy, pungent flavor isn’t exactly your thing.
What are truffles?
Truffles are edible fungi that grow underground among the roots of certain trees. It’s a complementary relationship in that truffle fungi help the tree absorb water and nutrients, and in return, the tree’s roots provide sugars needed for the fungi to thrive.
So truffles are not just a luxury food, they’re vital to the ecosystems they inhabit.
But truffles have a long history as a delicacy. In Ancient Greece and Rome, they were believed to have mythical healing properties, and by the time the Renaissance arrived, truffles were associated with the upper class. Truffle cultivation declined dramatically during World War I and World War II to reemerge again in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, truffles can be found in temperate climates, including regions of Italy, France, Australia, and the US.
Truffles vary in appearance depending on the species. Some have a smoother surface and solid interior, while others have a bumpy texture and marbled interior, and they range in color from ivory to rich burgundy and muted black.
The region where the truffle is harvested plays a major role in the taste. But one thing is clear: truffles are rich in umami, and they taste as they smell. Truffles can be described as earthy, musky, oaky, and nutty.
Types of truffles
Edible truffles are typically categorized by their color and their growing season. The most prevalent truffles include black, white, and burgundy.
Black truffle (Tuber melanosporum): Also known as Perigord truffles or French black truffles, black truffles are popular because they’re more common (and therefore less pricey), and have a less pungent flavor than other truffles.
Growing mainly in France, Italy and Spain, a typical black truffle looks similar to a solidified clump of soil. It’s flavor profile can be described as woody, musky, and even chocolatey. Bonnie Shuman, executive chef at Weavers Way in Philadelphia, says the buttery nuance of a black truffle pairs well with beef and game meats, as well as creamy roasted vegetable risottos.
White truffle (Tuber magnatum pico): Contrary to their name, white truffles have a pale, yellowish exterior — reminiscent to a rough-skinned, lumpy new potato. Most white truffles are found in Alba, a town in Italy’s Piedmont region, and they tend to be more expensive.
Jasmon Smith, a chef at Hungry, says white truffles are known for a pungent flavor and aroma that’s often compared to shallots. The garlicky flavor of white truffles is well-suited to pasta, salads, potatoes, fish, and flatbreads — or Shuman’s favorite, shaved over poached or scrambled eggs.
Burgundy truffle (Tuber aestivum): These are also known as autumn truffles due to their harvesting months, and they’re usually less pricey than their white and black counterparts due to their lighter taste. Burgundy truffles mainly grow in France and Italy, and are characterized by their unmistakable reddish dark brown color.
The distinctive but delicate taste of burgundy truffles is often described as a fusion of mushrooms and hazelnuts. Because of their softer flavor, they are well-suited to a wide variety of dishes, from polenta to poultry and game meats.
How truffles are used
You’ve probably seen truffles in the fine-dining setting — shaved thinly over fresh pasta, for example — but it’s not impossible to procure fresh truffles from reputable specialty shops like Urbani, Eataly, and D’Artagnan.
The way you can use truffles depends largely on which kind you can get. The good news is the easiest way to incorporate fresh truffles to any dish is by using them raw. According to Smith, a few classic ways to use fresh truffles is to shave them over pasta, pizza, or risotto.
Black and burgundy truffles can last for one to two weeks if properly stored, while white truffles should be enjoyed within five days. To preserve their delicate flavor and aroma, Smith advises wrapping them in a paper towel, placing them inside a jar with a lid, and storing them in the coolest part of your fridge. Since moisture is a truffle’s enemy, it’s a good idea to change the paper towel daily to keep it dry.
What about truffle-based products?
If you’re not willing to splurge on fresh truffles, there’s also truffle oil. But a word of warning: The vast majority of truffle oils sold today are not made from real truffles. The main ingredient of these imitation oils is a chemical (2,4-Dithiapentane) designed to mimic the aroma and flavor of truffles.
Quality truffle oil can be found at the same specialty shops that sell fresh truffles, and they can be used to elevate sauces, spreads, and dips. Always check to make sure truffles are listed in the first few ingredients, and keep in mind that a little truffle oil goes a long way, says Shuman.
Since truffles can only grow in very specific conditions, they’re hard to come by, making them a pricey ingredient reserved for luxurious dishes and special occasions. If you’re lucky enough to procure fresh truffles, chefs recommend starting simple by adding them to scrambled eggs, pizza, or in pasta dishes with plenty of butter and cheese. Keep in mind that you only need a very small amount of fresh truffles or truffle oil to enhance the flavor of the dish.