What Are Truffles?Written by Tristen Guevara February 07, 2022
There’s almost nothing that sets a dish apart quite like seeing paper thin slices of truffle grated right on top. Known throughout the food world as one of the greatest delicacies - with a price to match - every chef scrambles to get their hands on fresh truffles. The best truffles are very hard to come by, and are sought after for their earthy aroma and subtle flavor. The incredible demand for this rare little fungus has made truffles one of the most expensive foods in the world.
What exactly are Truffles?
Truffles are the fruiting body of an ascomycete fungus. They range in size from a pea to an orange, and grow underground, around the roots of specific species of trees. Truffles form a symbiotic relationship with the trees they grow under, providing the tree with additional water and nutrient absorption, while the tree provides the truffle with energy, in the form of sugar.
Because they’re found underground, these fungi don’t spread their spores through the air like most mushrooms. Truffles instead put off a scent that can be detected by mammals with strong senses of smell, inviting them to dig up the truffles and eat them to spread the spores. It’s this subtle scent that gives humans a way to find them too, using trained pigs or dogs to sniff them out for us.
Although truffles can be found all over the world, true gourmet truffles are mostly found in Italy and France, and around the Mediterranean region. Over the past few decades, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have also started truffle farms, with some success. This is no easy feat, since truffles require a very specific environment to grow, as well as years of time to produce their first spores.
Truffles have been consumed for over 4000 years, dating back to some of the earliest civilizations in the world. They were enjoyed by the Amorites as far back as the 20th century BCE, and revered by ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt as a delicacy. Around the 15th century CE, French Périgord, or black winter truffles, came into popularity in France, and today remain the most sought after truffles in French cuisine.
Périgord truffles are considered part of a selection of gourmet species found in the Mediterranean region, which also includes white truffles, burgundy truffles, and black summer truffles. In the United States, Oregon is also home to native species of gourmet truffles that are growing in popularity. Each truffle has a particular season when they are at the peak of their aroma and flavor.
Gourmet truffle species
Périgord Black Winter Truffles
Native to France and southern Europe, the Périgord, or French black truffle, is a dark, round truffle with small, rough pyramidal cusps covering the skin. On average, they have a size of 10cm (3.9 in) and produce a powerful aroma that is a combination of strawberries, dried fruit, and hints of cocoa. Their peppery and slightly bitter taste completely develops once they have been lightly heated. Their harvesting season is between December-March and hits peak ripeness from January-February. Périgord truffles are also successfully being grown in parts of Australia and New Zealand.
White truffles are perhaps the rarest truffle of all. Their peak season spans only three months, from October to December. They can have a color that ranges from creamy white to yellow with a marbled inside. Not only is this the rarest species, but it is also one of the largest types of truffles. The aroma they release is a combination of garlic, mushroom, and honey. White truffles in general are more subtle in aroma and taste than black truffles, and are best when used only as garnish. White truffles are most commonly found in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
Burgundy truffles have dark, rough skin and a coffee-colored interior with veined white flesh. While still high in price, people often use these truffles as substitutes for the more expensive périgord. They emit a hazel-like aroma and hold a wonderful earthy, chocolatey flavor. They are harvested from May to August.
Black summer truffles
Black summer truffles are very similar to burgundy truffles, in fact, molecular analysis has shown they are the same species. The unique characteristics come from environmental factors. They are almost identical in size, color, and flavor to the burgundy truffle, but they have a less intense aroma and a slightly lighter flesh color.
The Pacific Northwest is home to Oregon truffles, the most commonly found gourmet truffle in the United States. Found in this region are the Oregon Winter White Truffle, the Oregon Spring White Truffle, the Oregon Black Truffle, and the Oregon Brown Truffle. Though not as well known as the gourmet truffles of Europe, Oregon truffles are nevertheless a delicacy, with a similar but lighter earthy aroma, and an almost sweet flavor.
How are truffles harvested?
When a truffle has reached its peak during its growing season, it will emit a pungent aroma. This scent is key to finding where they are hidden beneath the ground. People can sometimes train their own noses to pick up the scent of truffles, but expert truffle hunters usually rely on trained animals.
Both pigs and dogs have strong noses that are perfect to find clusters of ripe truffles. Pigs were used for many centuries as the premiere truffle hunting animal because of their uncanny ability to locate the scent of fresh truffles. However, iIn the modern world of truffle hunting, dogs have become the most widely used animal for locating truffles, as the dogs don’t eat the truffles like pigs do.
What environment do truffles grow in?
A few decades ago, the only place you could find truffles was in the Mediterranean Region. This is because truffles require soft, moist soils that are well-draining and high in limestone, as well as a temperate climate that never sees harsh summers or winters. That type of climate is almost exclusive to the Mediterranean region. However, farms in the US, Australia, and New Zealand have found some success producing their own truffles.
It takes a long time for the first truffle spores to appear, usually from four to six years. In the past few decades, the change in climate has caused truffle growth patterns to change as well. They have now been found much further north than ever before, while their old hotspots are providing less.
How To Cook Truffles
Truffles require a lot of care when handling them. They quickly will lose their aroma the longer they are out of their ideal holding temperature. Truffles can be frozen for up to six months, but can only last 1 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator, and unrefrigerated truffles will only last 3 to 7 days.
Once you’re ready to use them, don’t rinse them, since that will turn the truffles mushy. Instead, use a truffle brush (or any brush with soft bristles) to clean them off. Wrap the truffles individually in a paper towel, then store them in a glass jar that has a lid. Be sure not to cut them until you are ready to use them or their aroma will start to deteriorate.
White Truffles are best used raw, and impart their deliciously unctuous flavor perfectly when shaved thinly onto risotto, fresh pasta, or scrambled eggs. When using black truffles, it’s best to bring them to a gentle heat to maximize their aroma. Truffles add incredible flavor no matter how you use them, and once you taste a fresh truffle, you’ll understand why they’re the world’s most valuable fungi.