Why Truffles Are So Elusive and Expensive—Plus, the Best Ways to Cook With Them

Find out if fresh truffles are worth the hefty price tag—plus, the best way to use them at home.

Some of the most prized and pricey dishes on restaurant menus feature truffles. Not only are truffles expensive and highly sought-after, they're also very perishable and hard to categorize. Even if you've enjoyed them as part of a special dinner, you might not be clear on what exactly truffles are. If you haven't sampled them before, you may wonder what all the fuss is about.

What Are Truffles?

Truffles are in the same family as mushrooms, but while mushrooms grow above ground, truffles grow below ground in and amongst the roots of certain kinds of trees. Technically, they are the edible spore-producing part of Tuberaceae, in the fungi family. That might not sound very appetizing, but read on to learn what makes truffles such a luxury food.

Why Truffles Cost So Much

Truffles grow underground in wild forests—you can't plant them in your garden—and only during a few months of the year. Truffles are now being cultivated, but they are extremely high-maintenance and require a complex combination of conditions to grow. First, they have symbiotic relationships with particular types of trees and grow near their roots. This is known as mycorrhizae. They also need cool winters and damp springs followed by hot summers with moderate rain. They grow slowly (it can take six to seven years to get a harvest) and have a short season.

Because truffles live underground, they have a strong aroma that attracts animals who dig them up and disperse them, allowing them to proliferate. Humans can't smell them when they are underground, so truffle hunters train dogs to hunt for them in forests, often at night.

Fresh truffles, oil in bowl and thyme on light grey table

Types of Truffles

You may have heard of black and white truffles, the two best-known and most sought-after varieties, but there are many, many other kinds of truffles. Just as there are thousands of different mushrooms, there are thousands of different truffles, says Robert Chang, managing director and chief truffle officer of the American Truffle Company, which helps to cultivate truffles, sells them, and also leads the Napa Truffle Festival. Not all truffles are edible, however, and not all as attractive to humans.

raviolo with egg yolk and black truffle recipe
Bryan Gardner

Black Truffles

Black truffles have notes of chocolate, and deep musk, earthy, oaky, nutty aromas. Chang notes that there are over 300 flavor compounds in real truffles, which makes the complexity of their flavor impossible to truly reproduce artificially.

There are several different kinds of edible black truffles, and because they are very expensive (over $100 an ounce), it's important to know which you are getting when you buy them. The most prized is the Tuber melanosporum, also known as the Périgord truffle or winter truffle. It is found in Italy and France and now cultivated around the world.

Another black truffle, the Tuber aestivum, or summer truffle, is generally less expensive and less potent, but can also be cultivated and is currently growing around the world. According to Chang, about 95 percent of the black truffles in France are now cultivated. Once considered a different black truffle, the Burgundy truffle, or Tuber uncinatum, is the same species as the Tuber aestivum. The two truffles grow in slightly different climates.

White Truffles

While black truffles can be cultivated, white truffles cannot, making them the rarest and most precious of all, available only from September to December. The Tuber magnatum pico, also known as the tartufo d'Alba, Piedmont, or white truffle, is found primarily in Italy. It has a scent reminiscent of oak, nuts, and sweet soil, and because it is so elusive and delicate, is up to five times as expensive as black truffles' selling for as much as $4,000 a pound.

There is also a white truffle found in Oregon, the Tuber oregonese. It has a different aroma than European truffles, often described as more herbal and floral.

The Best Way to Enjoy Fresh Truffles

If you're lucky enough to get your hands on fresh truffles, use them carefully and quickly. Chang says that using truffles as soon as you can is most important because their aroma disappears so quickly. "When you get truffles, you can take advantage of the aroma by putting them in a sealed box with some fresh eggs," he says. "The aroma will penetrate and infuse the yolks in 48 hours. Then you can make omelets or scrambled eggs from the truffle-infused eggs."

Black truffles are generally used to finish a dish. If they are used in cooking, they might be placed on top of fish or under the skin of chicken, says Jason McKinney, a chef who worked at The French Laundry and is currently the CEO and co-founder of Truffle Shuffle, a company that teaches cooking classes and sells both truffles and truffle products.

Because they are so rare, white truffles are not used for cooking; they are generally used fresh as a finishing touch. "We make a white truffle butter once a year in small batches, just to preserve them," says McKinney.

McKinney and Chang both recommend using a microplane or truffle shaver to release the flavor of raw truffles and serving them as a finishing touch over warm dishes. Oddly, truffles have very little flavor if eaten raw and cold. Since their aroma compounds are oil soluble, it's best to serve them with dishes that contain eggs, butter, cream, or cheese.

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