The Ultimate Guide to Truffles
Welcome to truffles 101, where you’ll learn what is a truffle, what truffles taste like, how they grow, price, why they are so expensive, different types, and how to cook with them. This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you shop through them.
I’ve been completely obsessed with black and white truffles ever since living in Tuscany many years ago and enjoying them each time I return. While they are easy to find in Tuscany in many forms, from fresh to jarred carpaccio in every supermarket in Tuscany, they’re a bit more mysterious here in the U.S.
Today we are going to break down what exactly is a truffle, where they grow, white vs. black truffles, price, what they taste like, how to use them, and more. Don’t miss the best recipes and tips for cooking with this fabulous fungi.
What is a Truffle?
Truffles are a sack of spores, edible fungi, like mushrooms. Unlike mushrooms, truffles are subterranean – they grow underground. While some people refer to truffles as mushrooms, they are more like a cousin.
An elusive delicacy, truffles are served freshly shaved or grated in some high-end restaurants, and even more often as an infused oil or salt.
While truffles are prized today, and only just beginning to be cultivated in the U.S., they are not new. In fact, the oldest known truffle recipes were written around 400 A.D.
Where do Truffles Grow?
Truffles grow in symbiosis with a host tree, attached by microscopic mycelium (fungal rootlets) to the tree’s roots. This is most commonly an oak or hazelnut tree.
Originating in Italy and France, truffles are now cultivated all over the world, including the west coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.
Types: White Truffle vs. Black Truffle
There are more than 200 truffle varieties, yet only a handful are cherished for culinary purposes. Though they can be used interchangeably, there are nuances in seasonality, price, and how to use them.
Black Truffle (Tuber Melanosporum)
Black truffles, tuber melanosporum, are probably the most common type and also known as French Black, Black Gold, or Périgord. They are in season from mid-November through mid-March and at their peak after Christmas.
White Truffle (Tuber Borchii)
Also known as the bianchetto, or whitish truffle, the white truffle is available from mid-January through the end of April. Its flavor profile is garlicky, like the more expensive T. magnatum. As it’s available in spring, it paris nicely with spring vegetables and greens.
Black Summer Truffle (Tuber Aestivum)
The black summer truffle goes best with other seasonal summer ingredients like pizza, pasta, and Caprese. This variety is typically available from May through August.
Burgundy Truffle (Tuber Uncinatum)
An autumn truffle, the Burgundy has a reddish-black outer layer and ripens from September through December. Naturally, it works well paired with other autumn ingredients like squash and pasta. It would be lovely shaved over a pumpkin soup.
Italian White/Alba Truffle (Tuber Magnatum)
This autumn white truffle is available from September through December and is perfect with other holiday dishes and autumn ingredients. It’s also wonderful with simple egg and cream dishes, like the other varieties mentioned. This is a very expensive truffle, but it has a stronger flavor, so less is needed.
What do Truffles Taste Like?
If your only experience with truffles is in the form of oil or salt, you might be surprised by how mild yet complex they are fresh. Each has its own unique flavor depending on ripeness and terroir, a bit like wine.
Unsurprisingly, these subterranean fungi taste earthy, musky, floral, and exotic. Fresh truffles retain more mustiness than processed versions like oil and salt.
Black truffles taste earthy, musky, sweet, oaky, and nutty. Use just a little warmth to bring out the flavor. Pair with deep red wines such as an Italian Barolo or French Bordeaux.
White truffles also taste earthy, pungent, and musky, but are a bit spicier and more intense with notes of garlic. Never cook white truffles, as heat will destroy the flavor. Instead shave over the dish at the last moment. Pair with white wines such as Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay.
Truffles can be found priced anywhere between $500 and $5,000 per pound. In 2005, a 1.2 kilo white truffle was sold at an Italian auction for 90,000 Euros!
The black truffle in the picture above was 1.8 oz. (51 grams) and cost $100 at my local Italian gourmet restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA.
Why are Truffles so Expensive?
While truffles may seem outrageously expensive and certainly are a luxury, there is good reason. Truffle cultivation is part science, part art, and part treasure hunt.
One can’t simply grow truffles in the backyard. In fact, a truffle orchard can take around a decade before truffles are ready. And when they are, a trained dog or pig is needed to sniff out the ripe truffles. Then, they need to be quickly shipped to a restaurant or store before spoiling, which happens in about 10 days.
Where to Buy
- Local Italian Grocery or Gourmet Shop
- Online. Whole fresh truffles can be ordered online and shipped quickly within the U.S. I’ve purchased good quality truffles on Etsy and Gourmetfoodstore.com.
Truffle Oil and Salt
For many, truffle oil and salt is the first and possibly only experience they’ve had with this ingredient. It does provide a delicious flavor to many dishes and is less expensive easier to find.
Unfortunately, it’s often not a true truffle experience. You see, most commercially available truffle oils are not made with truffles at all, as the product would not be shelf-stable or flavorful enough. Instead, they are made with olive oil and a synthetic truffle flavoring, often 2,4-dithiapentane, the primary flavor compound in real truffles.
There are some truffle oils and salts that are in fact made with real truffles, and they both have a place in the kitchen. Try a tiny drizzle of truffle oil over pasta or soup, or a pinch of truffle salt over your potatoes.
To find the best product, always read the ingredients list. The following are some high-quality truffle products that make using truffles more convenient.
How to Store
Fresh truffles will keep in the refrigerator for 1-3 weeks with proper care. Wrap gently in a paper towel and then store in a glass jar of food storage container in the fridge. Change the paper towel every few days to prevent molding.
Though it’s often recommended to store them in a covered dish of rice, and that is how I find them locally, according to the cookbook Cooking with Truffles: A Chef’s Guide by Susi Gott Seguret, you should not store it in rice, as it will draw out too much of the moisture and flavor.
Remove the truffle from the fridge and bring it to room temperature before using it.
How to Eat Truffles
It’s very simple, but there is a bit of an art to cooking with and eating white or black truffles. The trick is to keep it very simple. Save your complex recipes for another day. If you find yourself with something as special as a fresh truffle, let it be the star of the dish. Here are some important tips for using fresh truffles.
- Cleaning. Like mushrooms, brush any dirt off truffles rather than rinsing with water.
- Cutting. Use a truffle slicer or mandolin to make the thinnest shavings possible.
- Fat. Fat brings out the flavor of fresh truffles, so pair them with something creamy like butter, cheese, cream, mascarpone, or avocado.
- Heat. Warm black truffles just slightly to bring out their flavor, never cook them at high heat or the flavor will disappear. White truffles should be served raw. It’s best to add shaved or grated truffles to warm dishes as a garnish rather than cooking them together. The residual heat from the dish will bring out the flavors just enough.
- Simple Ingredients. Let the flavor of fresh truffles be enjoyed by pairing them with simple flavors. Pasta, rice (risotto!), bread, creamy sauces, potato, gnocchi, root vegetables, cauliflower, and eggs are all good pairing options.
- Limit Acid. Avoid pairing truffles with acidic and spicy ingredients as they will overpower the truffle. This is why truffle pizzas are most often white pizzas rather than tomato sauce-based.
- Don’t Overcook. A little bit of warmth will bring out the flavor of black truffles, but cooking can kill it. Add shaved or grated truffles at the very end of your dish’s preparation.
- Amount. Plan on about 1/3 of an ounce (10 grams) of fresh truffle per person. Much more fresh truffle is needed than you may be accustomed to adding when using truffle oil.
“If the truffle isn’t coming through in the dish, you shouldn’t amp up the truffle, you should lower the ambient noise around it.” – Chef Jason Bond.
Fresh Truffle Recipes
Black Truffle Pizza
- 1 prepared pizza dough (room temperature)
- 1/3 cup fresh mozzarella
- 1/4 cup fresh grated fontina
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 oz. fresh black truffle (room temperature)
- 1 stick butter (4 oz.)
- 1/2 oz. truffle, freshly grated
- 1/2 cup mild olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly shaved truffle
- 1 recipe Musroom Risotto
- 1 oz fresh truffle, freshly shaved
- For the pizza, preheat the oven to 550°F with a pizza stone for 1 hour. I use my Ooni pizza oven. Stretch the dough out on a floured surface until it's as thin as possible. Top with cheeses, thyme, and pepper flakes. Cook until the crust is perfectly golden brown. Remove from the oven and immediately shave the truffle over the top so that the warmth of the melted cheese brings out its flavor. Sometimes I add a little drizzle of good olive oil or truffle oil over the top.
- For the truffle butter, stir together softened butter with about 1/2 oz. freshly grated truffle. Store in a jar in the refrigerator for up to a month and use on toast and vegetables.
- For homemade truffle oil, shave or grate fresh truffles into 1/2 cup of mild olive oil and let infuse overnight. Use within about 3 days.
- For the risotto, prepare the risotto according to the recipe. Grate the truffle over the top.
What is a Truffle?
Truffles are fungi that are grown on the mycelium (microscopic roots) of trees such as hazelnut and oak. They are elusive and therefore highly prized and cherished in the kitchen. Only use them with mild ingredients so that they can star, and use them with some fat to bring out their flavor.
What do Truffles taste like?
Black and white truffles both taste earthy and musty. Fresh truffle is much milder than truffle oil or truffle salt, so you'll want to use lots of fresh shavings. White truffles are spicier and a bit garlicky. It's important not to cook fresh truffles with much heat or the flavor will disappear. Instead, warm black truffles gently to release the flavor and only use white truffles raw, grating over the finished dish at the last moment.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1 bowl risotto
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 444