If you have yet to experience the exquisite taste of a fresh truffle, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. But there’s more to these bumpy little sacks of spores than meets the eye, making that expensive price tag worth every penny.
Truffles–What They Are and What They Aren’t
Truffles are a type of edible fungus and a rare delicacy. Often described as having an earthy taste and a meaty mouthfeel, truffles carry a whole lot of umami. They are also known for their alluring aroma.
It is a common misconception that truffles are a type of mushroom–they’re more like a cousin. But unlike mushrooms, truffles grow underground. Truffles are also sometimes confused with the type of chocolate –but the chocolates are unrelated to the fungi and are named solely for their shape. So now that we’ve established what truffles aren’t, it’s time to dig deeper into what they are.
A truffle is the fruiting body of the ascomycete family (a.k.a., sac fungi). They grow underground among the tree roots (usually hazel, oak, and pine), where the roots provide them with the necessary sugars to survive. In turn, the truffles help the tree absorb water and nutrients, making them an important part of their ecosystem. While there are about 200 truffle varieties, only a few are suitable for consumption.
A Fickle Fungus
Wild truffles originated in Italy and France, but today can be cultivated in a number of temperate climates, including Israel, Australia, Canada, Chile, Morocco, and New Zealand, with Spain being a particularly major producer. The United States is a more recent producer of truffles.
But in order for truffles to grow, the environment has to be just right. They require well-drained alkaline soil and a year-round temperature range between 8.6 and 14.8 Celsius. As you can imagine, this type of environment is difficult to come by, and climate change hasn’t helped. They can also take up to a decade or more to cultivate. This combined with their extremely short shelf-life (a few days to a few weeks, depending on the variety), along with their high demand are what make truffles so pricey.
Hunting: Hog or Hound?
The naked human eye is not usually able to spot truffles, which is why pigs were once commonly used to track them down. While hogs may be good at finding truffles, they are also inclined to eat them. Dogs have since been trained for truffle hunting, and seem to be much better suited for the job since they aren’t as likely to devour the product.
Once located, the truffles need to be carefully dug up to avoid damage, as they are extremely delicate. The truffles must then be immediately shipped out for use, as they spoil in about a week or two, making for a short selling window.
Types of Truffles
Although there are a handful of variations, truffles are usually categorized as either white or black. Similar to black truffles, burgundy truffles are also quite popular.
White truffles, sometimes referred to as “whitish truffles” or “bianchetti,” are actually more of a pale yellow in color, resembling a potato.
As for taste, they are pungent in a way that is not unlike garlic or shallots. Because of this, they go great on pastas, potatoes, and even pizza! For a lighter meal, you can pair white truffles with fish, salad, spring veggies, and poached or scrambled eggs.
White truffles come primarily from the Piedmont region of Italy, but can also be found in other areas of Italy as well as Croatia. Part of their rarity is due to the fact that the harvesting season only lasts from December through January. Because of this, white truffles are considered even more of a delicacy than other varieties, and are therefore significantly more expensive.
While white truffles may be harder to find for purchase, Kolikof Caviar & Gourmet carries white winter truffles by the ounce, always freshly sourced after each order.
Black truffles, also known as “French black truffles,” “Black gold,” or “Périgord,” are the most common type of truffle, and are famously found in the South West region of France. Black truffles can also be sourced from other parts of France as well as Spain and Italy. Their harvest season runs from September to December.
They also have a longer shelf life than their white counterparts, and can hold up for a couple of weeks under the right circumstances.
Black truffles can easily be mistaken for clumps of soil due to their appearance. In contrast to white truffles, black truffles have more of a woodsy, slightly sweet flavor to them. While more subtle than the pungent white truffle, black truffles work best when cooking sauces, meats, and creamy dishes.
Black truffles are less expensive than white truffles, but will still cost you a pretty penny. Kolikof is known for their high-quality black winter truffles, delivered right to your door.
Burgundy truffles are another great option to try, especially if you’re looking for a more subtle flavor profile. Although burgundy truffles lack the pungency of their black and white counterparts, they have a taste that is both divine and distinct. Think of a mushroom with pleasant hints of hazelnut.
These reddish-brown fungi grow mainly in France and Italy. Harvested from September through December, they are often referred to as the “autumn truffle,” and are best paired with fall ingredients such as pumpkin and poultry. They also work well shaved over squashes and soups.
Kolikof carries the same burgundy truffles that are often used by five-star restaurants.
How to Prep Truffles
As with mushrooms, there is no need to rinse truffles to clean them. Simply wipe away any visible dirt before use.
There are two methods to cutting truffles: shaving and grating.
A Close Shave
The recommended method of serving truffles is by shaving thin pieces and scattering them across your dish. The shaved pieces will immediately elevate any dish with their wonderfully aromatic and visual appeal. Your guests are certain to be impressed by the hypnotic display of the inner truffle, exposing its beautiful layers of marble patterns.
Truffle shavings also aid in creating “the perfect bite,” with a single piece atop a bitesize portion balancing the flavors of the meal.
When shaving your truffle, make your slices as thin as possible. There’s no need for thick slices, since a little bit really does go a long way, and you want to be sure to get the most bang for your buck. And, if a recipe calls for a peeled truffle, never toss the peels! Save them and use them for something else–they are just as valuable.
The best way to create those perfectly shaved pieces is by using a truffle slicer. These tools are designed to give you the grip you need and a precise cut every time. Kolikof carries a quality truffle slicer that’s easy to use, and preferred by Michelin-star chefs!
A Grate Option
The grating method can be a wonderful way to utilize each bit of your truffle. This technique is best used when preparing exquisite dishes in which the truffle is not your main luxury ingredient (for example, when cooking wagyu beef). These tiny bits can also make a great addition to sauces and dressings.
This technique exposes more of the truffle to the air, thereby releasing a more powerful aroma around the food. It’s also an excellent way to shred some of those more bumpy exterior portions of the truffle that could be difficult to shave.
Use a microplane for grating, but be sure to handle it with care!
Cooking with Truffles
You may be surprised to learn that for such a high-quality ingredient, truffles are surprisingly easy to cook with. In fact, they don’t need to be cooked at all! The heat from the dish itself is enough to bring out the powerful flavor and aroma of the truffles, and anything more can actually ruin them. While black truffles may be lightly tossed over the stove to bring out their maximum flavor, be sure to use a low flame and remove them from the pan as soon as possible. White truffles, on the other hand, should never be cooked–they are best when consumed raw.
Saving and Storing
If you aren’t able to use all of your truffle at once, proper storage is essential. White truffles only have five days to survive, while black and burgundy truffles can make it a week or two, or sometimes even up to three weeks. To maximize freshness, wrap your truffles in paper towel and close them inside a glass jar. Change the paper towel daily to minimize moisture.
Some people store their truffles over rice or risotto in a covered container, to varying results. This trick may help preserve your truffles longer, but can also draw out a lot of the flavor.