Truffles – the savory kind (not the rich, decadent chocolate treat) – aren’t exactly a staple in the average kitchen. Indeed, one of the most well-known facts about truffles is that they’re incredibly expensive. But why are they so expensive, and what’s so special about them? This guide will answer those questions and more.
1. What are truffles?
Truffles are an edible fungus. They’re often thought to be a fancy mushroom, though some argue that they’re not the same thing because truffles grow underground while mushrooms grow above ground. However, both truffles and mushrooms are described as the “fruiting bodies” of fungi. So, going by this definition, you can say that truffles as, indeed, a type of mushroom. (By comparison, other fungi, such as yeast and mildew, don’t create mushroom-like fruit.)
Beyond being “fruiting bodies,” truffles and common mushrooms do have a slightly similar taste. However, the comparison between the two stops there. For one, you’d be hard-pressed to get a pizza delivered with truffles on it, and you won’t see them for sale in the produce aisle of your typical grocery store. That’s because truffles are hard to come by and, as mentioned, they come at a premium.
2. How much do truffles cost?
The price of this elite fungus varies based on the type of truffle and where you buy it. Mid-range truffles can set you back $10 for an ounce, while the most expensive black truffles have a price tag of $35 – $40 per ounce.
To put the price of truffles into perspective, mid-range truffles cost about $160 per pound, while you can buy a pound of bananas for about $0.57. Suffice to say, the price of truffles is not a trifle.
3. Why are truffles so expensive?
Truffles are expensive for a few reasons. Number one, they’re very difficult to find in the wild, and two, they’re difficult to grow. Then, once you harvest them, they don’t stay fresh for very long.
While mushrooms grow above ground and are fairly easy to spot, truffles sit at about 2 – 4 inches (5 – 10 cm) below the ground, where they grow on tree roots. A metal-detector-like truffle machine has yet to be invented. (That is, if you don’t count pigs and dogs, which I’ll get to in a minute.)
The good news is, if you locate a truffle, it doesn’t take much to pull off a gastronomic feat that will impress most chefs. You only need a tenth of a teaspoon (or a half of gram) to give a dish a spectacular flavor.
4. Where are truffles grown?
While truffles are not easy to find, there are many varieties of them – over 100 in fact. White truffles are typically found in Italy. And other varieties can be found in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, England, and Australia. Black truffles are found in France. The French call them diamants noirs – black diamonds.
Even through they’re hard to grow, some farmers have ventured into truffle farming. In France, 25 percent of truffles harvested are grown on farms. But the largest truffle plantation is in Abejar, Spain, which is about 2.5 hours from Madrid. The truffles are grown on the roots of some 150,000 oak trees.
5. How can I find truffles?
Truffles grow in moist soil, so the best time to find them is after it has rained. Certain trees, including oaks, beech trees, and fir trees, form a symbiotic relationship with certain fungi, including truffles. So, these kinds of trees are your best bet for finding truffles attached to their roots.
Truffles will inhibit the growth of vegetation around the tree, so look for darker areas in the soil at the tree’s base, which the French refer to as brûlée.
Chipmunks, squirrels, and rodents all disperse truffle spores, so searching in areas where these animals can be found can be a sign that truffles are growing on a specific tree.
While we humans can’t smell truffles, dogs and pigs are well-equipped to sniff them out. Of course, the dog or pig needs to be trained. You can read more about this in the section on whether truffles are vegan or not.
6. Where can I buy truffles?
As a gourmet food, truffles are not likely to be a regular feature at your local grocery store. However, you might find truffle oil in the cooking oils section. But thanks to the internet, with a little bit of research, you can find truffles distributors, usually at gourmet shops. Not to mention, Amazon also sells some truffle products. It’s always a good idea to do your research and read reviews to make sure you’re getting the real thing.
7. Are truffles vegan?
As a fungus, truffles are technically vegan. But if you happen to be in Paris at a traditional French restaurant, and you order a dish with truffles, you should assume it is not vegan unless you ask!
While on their own truffles are vegan, these elusive fruiting bodies are not without some controversy. To begin, pigs were traditionally used to hunt for truffles. And anytime a human being is using an animal in some kind of financial enterprise, the vegan red alert beacons should start flashing in your head.
Like dogs, pigs have an acute sense of smell. And truffles contain androstanol, which is a sex hormone that is found in the saliva of male pigs. Hence, female pigs were used to fund truffles. Androstanol is also found in the sweat glands of people. Thus, truffles are known to have an aphrodisiac effect in people. (That, or their Ferrari-like price tag.)
For truffle hunters, using pigs had some drawbacks. For one, the pigs would eat the truffles they found. In addition, the pigs would wreak havoc on the terrain when they did discover truffles in their zeal to get at them. (This caused pigs to be outlawed for use in truffle hunting in Italy.)
But even more salient, many truffle hunters found it difficult to fit over-sized pigs into their little European cars. Besides, if anyone saw them walking a pig in the woods, they would know without a doubt what they were up to, and the truffle-hunter would give away their previously secret truffle spot.
This left dogs, who are used most often in truffle hunting today. Once a dog is trained, just as they can find drugs at the airport, they can reliably find truffles in the forest. For truffle-hunting hobbyists, this can be a fun outing with your dog. And believe it or not, there are outfits that will help you do this. The Truffle Dog Company will train you dogs to find truffles, plus they organize truffle outings.
Problems can arise, however, when dogs are used by people who are hunting for truffles to make money. Truffle farms can create a safer, contained environment for dogs. However, the LA Times reported a story about professional truffle hunters leaving poison in the forest to poison competitors’ dogs.
While the scope of the problem is still unknown, one dog dying is enough. I have yet to find a verified, vegan-safe source for truffles, so I recommend researching and even contacting the source of your truffles before you buy them. Another alternative is to seek out truffle oils that do not contain actual truffles, but instead have truffle-like flavoring.
8. What do truffles taste like?
What makes truffles a culinary delight is their powerful aroma, which creates their taste. The flavor has been described as mushroom-like, as well as Earthy.
However, the real magic of truffles may be the same reason female pigs are interested in them. The same chemical compounds that create an aphrodisiac effect in pigs have an effect on us. Then once they’re paired with a big plate of pasta and a glass of red wine, the rest is history.
9. Do black truffles taste like white truffles?
To truffle aficionados, white and black truffles do have different tastes. White truffles, which are the most expensive, are known to have a pungent, musky, and even nutty taste. While black truffles are known to have an Earthier taste. For this reason, black truffle dishes are often paired with chocolate and red wine.
10. Are truffles healthy?
The health benefits of truffles are impressive. One serving – which is a mere 0.5 grams – contains 10 calories, 2 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fiber. And all varieties are a great source of vitamins A, B, C, D and K, as well as amino acids and minerals like copper, selenium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.
Along with being vitamin- and mineral-rich, these strange-looking little fungi are also packed with natural compounds that provide protection against toxins. They have the ability to reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, protect the liver, and help to fight bacterial infections. Plus, they have cancer-fighting properties.
Of course, people generally don’t eat large amounts of truffles at a time. But the nutritional benefits certainly add to their allure.
11. Do chocolate truffles have real truffles in them?
Despite their name, no, chocolate truffles do not actually have truffles in them. Their name, however, was inspired by the real thing.
Chocolate truffles were first created in France in 1895. The original chocolate truffles were a ball of chocolate ganache that was dusted with cocoa powder. These delicacies looked somewhat like the real dark, bumpy, mushroom-style fungi truffles, hence, this is how chocolate truffles got their name.
12. What can you make with truffles?
While it can be difficult to get your hands on whole truffles, it’s not difficult to find truffle oil. You’ll find that many recipes with “truffle” in the title actually call for truffle oil. You can add it to soups, risottos, pastas, or vegetable dishes whenever you want an Earthy flavor.
Bear in mind though that truffle oil is often just olive oil with truffle infusions. And some truffle oils do not contain any real truffle at all. Instead, they have artificial flavors. So, be sure to read ingredient labels and go with trusted brands.
If you can get your hands on real black or white truffles, one of the easiest ways to enjoy their unique flavor is to grate them and sprinkle them on top of your dish.
Here are a few truffle recipes:
Celeriac, Hazelnut, and Truffle Soup
Vegan Garlic and Truffle Pasta
Vegan Truffle Fettuccine Alfredo
Black Truffle Pizza
This recipe is not vegan, but you can easily substitute a vegan mozzarella, such as Miyoko’s.
If you’re still not sure if you want to run out and spend a lot of money on real truffles and to cook up a delectable vegan feast, you do have alternatives. You could cook something with truffles’ less-fancy cousin: the common mushroom. Or you could go get a box of chocolate truffles to make yourself feel better.