What are Truffles? (Not the Chocolate Kind)

Truffles Are No Trifles

What is a truffle? No doubt you have seen truffles on restaurant menus or you have truffle recipes which call for shaved truffles, truffle salt or truffle oil. Maybe you have even cooked with truffles but are still not entirely sure of the origins of this funny-looking, yet ultra gourmet food. Truffles are fungi which are similar to mushrooms but grow entirely underground. They grow from the roots of various plants, usually trees.

Truffles are most famously associated with French and Italian haute cuisine. Referred to as "diamonds of the kitchen," truffles are, pound-for-pound, one of the highest priced foods on earth. A few years back, a 3.3 pound white truffle sold in auction for $330,000 U.S. dollars!

The most prized quality of the truffle is its aroma. The more pungent the smell, the more flavorful and valuable the truffle is likely to be. There are many different types of truffles: black, white, summer, winter, imported and cultivated; only a few of these are considered supreme delicacies.

What Are Truffles?

Whole Black Truffles
Whole Black Truffles

Black Truffles, White Truffles, Which are the Right Truffles?

Black truffles are best known as a product of France. Black truffles come primarily from the central and southeastern parts of France and grow from the roots of Oak trees. Coal black on the outside and marbled with black, gray and white inside, the black truffle can range from grape to grapefruit size. Black truffles also grow in other areas including Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia and North America.

White truffles are more commonly associated with Italy. White truffles prefer the Beech, Poplar and Oak trees in Northern and Central Italy and are brown to orange-brown on the outside and pure white or marbled gray and white inside. White truffles can be anywhere from 1 to 5 inches in diameter, however, they are usually roughly the size of a golf ball. The White Winter Italian truffle is usually the most rare and expensive truffle available.

Traditionally, neither the French nor the Italians cultivate truffles. To them this would be likened to using synthetic cork to bottle fine wine...it is simply not done.

Here in North America, the Pacific Northwest has recently become recognized for producing quality black and white truffles. With the volume of European truffles declining in the last century, Oregon's bountiful supply of truffles provides another, more affordable option for the truffle connoisseur. Oregon's climate, soil and trees are naturally conducive to truffle growth. Both native Oregonian truffle species as well as cultivated European varieties are harvested fall, winter and spring. While very different in aroma and taste from their European cousins, native truffles from the Pacific Northwest can be a fragrant and delicious addition to your recipes.

Another worthy but less expensive option is the Chinese black truffle. The Chinese black truffle is very similar in aroma and flavor to the European black truffle, although slightly more mild. The primary reason for the dramatic price difference between the Chinese and French black truffle is that the Chinese truffles are far less rare and less famous than their French counterparts. Chinese truffles are a great option if you want to experiment with truffles in your cooking but don't want to spend a fortune doing so.

A Black Diamond

This is a  Black Winter Truffle from Tuscani
This is a Black Winter Truffle from Tuscani

The Scoop on Choosing Truffles*

Type of Truffle
Average cost per ounce **
Size
Aroma/ Flavor
Discription
Season harvested
European Winter White (Tuber Maganatum)***
$205
1/2 to 5 inches
strong, garlic, nutmeg, musk, floral
cream, brown or orange-brown outside, white inside
fall and early winter
European Winter Black (Tuber Melanosporum)****
$100
1/2 to 3 inches
earthy, musk, mint, fruit
black outside, marbled black and gray inside
fall, winter and early spring
European Summer Black (Tuber aestivum)
$20
1-4 inches
intense hazelnut, aged cheese
black or brown outside, brown inside
spring, summer
Oregon White (Tuber oregonense/Tuber Gibbosum)
$20
1-3 inches
garlic, butter, morels, roasted hazelnuts
golden to orange-brown outside, white to golden inside
fall, winter, spring
Oregon Black (Leucangium carthusianum)
$20
1/2 to 3 inches
earthy, chocolate, pineapple, tropical fruit
black outside, marbled white and gray inside
winter, spring
Chinese Black (Tuber indicum, Tuber sinensis)
$50
1-3 inches
mild musk, garlic
black to brown outside, black and gray marbled inside
fall, winter
**Prices can vary seasonally and according to quality, availability, etc. *** Usually Italian **** Usually French

*I have found that on-line information about truffles is incomplete and confusing. It is very difficult to find anything to help you compare types, costs and availability of truffles. I am fortunate enough to have knowledgeable purveyors for my restaurants, and they have shared tons of great information with me. So, I have compiled this chart to make it a little easier for us all.

Beneficial Truffles

The Super Symbiotic Truffle

Truffles are mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they grow on the roots of plants, usually trees, and are beneficial to the host plant. This symbiotic relationship between fungus and host is an important part of the overall health of many forested areas. Mycorrhizas such as truffles help collect water and minerals in the soil for the tree, in return the truffles are able to get nutrients that only a plant capable of photosynthesis could provide.

Truffles also have a symbiotic relationship with many forest dwelling animals, specifically mammals. Mammals such as squirrel, deer, bear and raccoon are drawn to the strong odor of a mature truffle. The animal digs up and consumes the truffle and the truffle benefits because, being underground fungi, this is the only way to spread spores and reproduce.

Truffle Pigs vs. Truffle Dogs

It is very important to harvest truffles at their peak maturity as this is when they are the most fragrant. But for us humans, finding these delectable diamonds, ripe or not, can be a daunting task. Truffles grow several inches underground and can be on any part of the tree roots. Also, they do not all ripen at exactly the same time. Fortunately, we humans can get help from our four legged friends.

Traditionally, pigs were used to find truffles, female pigs to be precise. A ripe truffle gives off an odor which is similar to the pheromones of male pigs. Therefore, the sow is the ultimate, natural truffle finding machine. The drawback is that she is likely to consume the truffles just as quickly and efficiently as she can find them. It is very difficult to train a sow not to eat the treasures that she has located. Also, a pig is not the easiest animal to transport, especially when compared to a dog.

Dogs have just as keen a sense of smell as pigs but are not as interested in eating them (usually.) Unlike the pigs, dogs must be trained to locate truffles. However, once they have mastered this skill they can prove to be very efficient and effective in the art of truffle location.

The Seductive Aroma of the Truffle

As mentioned earlier, the allure of truffles lies in the aroma. Described as sensual, earthy and musky, the smell of truffles has long been considered an aphrodisiac. Eating truffles while fresh (less than a week old) is imperative as it is very difficult to preserve that all-essential bouquet.

For the same reason, truffles are best eaten uncooked. Cooking a truffle destroys the aroma and almost negates the purpose of using them in your cooking. Without their aroma, truffles have very little flavor. Most often, I use a little grated fresh truffle on top of food or add it to sauces just before serving.

What's This Got To Do With Chocolate Truffles?

Just as a quick note, the chocolate truffle is named after the fungus truffle purely because of the resemblance. Both truffles are usually round, dark, and approximately the size of a golf ball: and there ends the similarities. Chocolate truffles do not contain any truffle or truffle oil, unless of course, you should decide to try making such a thing yourself. Personally, I like to keep my sweet chocolate and my pungent fungi, separate.

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Comments 42 comments

L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

Thanks for compiling and sharing the truffle chart. Blue-collar me has never even smelled a truffle, but perhaps that will change in the near future. Interesting hub.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks for reading L.L. Woodard...I hope you give truffles a try!


Gordon Hamilton profile image

Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

I love truffles (not that they are a regular part of my diet, at those prices!!) and your Hub more than does them justice. I remember once watching a full documentary on the benefits of pigs v dogs and it was fascinating.

Have you ever tried truffle infused olive oil? It is considerably more expensive than regular olive oil but many times less expensive than the actual truffles. Some of them are poor in quality but there are a couple out there at affordable prices that do give that distinctive taste without costing a month's salary... :)


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Truffles have always fascinated me, though I have never tasted one before. This was quite an enjoyable read!


Paul Edmondson profile image

Paul Edmondson 5 years ago from Burlingame, CA

My favorite seasoning is truffle salt. I put it on everything from eggs to beef tenderloin.


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Mrs. Menagerie, thank you for this great information on truffles, i did not know much about them, great read !


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Whoah. Truffle salt sounds kind of amazing. And congrats, Mrs. Menagerie! This Hub won the Day 21 Staff Pick prize in the So You Think You Can Write Online contest!


K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 5 years ago from Northern, California

I often use truffle oil, (white and black) with acceptable results. You have put together one of the best truffle articles I have read. The chart comparing prices and the lot, is outstanding! I have learned much here.

Congrats on a VERY well deserved staff pick win today!

K9


Miss Lil' Atlanta profile image

Miss Lil' Atlanta 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Wow, really interesting article and creative topic as well. Honestly, I wouldn't have thought to write about something like this.

Oh ya, and congrats on winning too!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is an interesting and very informative hub! I've never eaten truffles, but I'm eager to try. Congratulations on your staff pick win.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

Congratulations on your well deserved win. This is a very interesting hub as I didn't know much about truffles.


miss_jkim profile image

miss_jkim 5 years ago

I love mushrooms, but truffles are a little too strong for my taste buds. Great hub, one of the better articles I've seen on the subject. Congratulations on your staff pick.


Tamila Roberts profile image

Tamila Roberts 5 years ago from Canada

Nice truffles!

Congratulation on being first!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

Interesting hub and a great subject! Congrats on your win!


Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Congratulations on one cool hub! I'm with Paul, I put truffle salt on everything. You can buy black summer truffle salt from Italy online....still relatively reasonable and to die for!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

I've never eaten a truffle, but found your article quite interesting. Congrats on your win!


viryabo profile image

viryabo 5 years ago

Mrs M, congratulations on your staff pick win.

I particularly find this hub informative because i never really knew much about THIS type of truffles. I knew pigs dug something called truffles out from the ground, but had never seen one.

And i though chocolate truffles were made from them LOL!!!

Great article, deserves the win.


PierAllegro profile image

PierAllegro 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

I rarely cook with truffles. Mostly, I add slivers of a fresh truffle on my carpaccio, and sometimes I grate it into mushroom risotto. This I do when the risotto is ready and just before I plate. This seems to work for me. I add truffle oil to pasta, last minute on the plate. This will work pretty much with all pastas except seafood pastas. The belief in Italy, where I learned about truffles, is that you should do very little to it in the way of cooking. Otherwise some of the wonderful aroma may be lost. Having said that, I thank you for your most enlightening article.I read it with pleasure and vote up.


Ruth Lanham 5 years ago

I had to laugh at the "Swine Flu" comment...but I'm sorry, I know it's not fun. I love your article and voted it up.


Charlie David profile image

Charlie David 5 years ago

Yes, nice article on a widely talked about but seldom seen food item, fungus or tuber they are definitely delicious, one of my favorite flavours for sure. I have not had the Chinese variety but Oregons truffles are quite nice. I travelled New Zealand while packing a bottle of white truffle oil, used it on everything. Awesome, only guy in the hostel with one for sure! I have heard but not confirmed that white truffle oil is flavoured with a natural gas product or byproduct. Regardless I still love it. From Perigord, to Yunnan and the forests of Portland, Truffles I love your earthy goodness.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Amazing - I didn't know much about truffles except that they are hard to find. LOL! Really informative hub with lots of great photos. Voted up and good luck on the contest


jacqui2011 profile image

jacqui2011 5 years ago from Leicester, United Kingdom

Very interesting hub. I never really knew much about truffles before. They dont look very appealing though! Congratulations on winning. Very informative.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

It's OK Ruth...I'm laughing too, now that it's over.

Stephhicks, thanks so much!

Jacqui...yes, they are very odd looking:)


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

I enjoyed this very much. i had heard about truffles but never actually knew anything about them. Great information.


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 5 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

Great hub on a fascinating fungus. Our guest house, Les Trois Chenes, is situated just north of the Dordogne, in S W France, which is great truffle country. Last year we splashed out 2 euros on truffles (well, you can see from your chart how much we bought - a walnut sized truffle), and came home, much excited, with exact instructions on how to prepare it with butter to spread on toast. It was fragrant and very nice indeed. Must get our dog Molly trained up to sniff out more.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore

This is a terrific hub and congrats on your win. Eating truffles is on my list of "things to do before I die".

Cheers


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

My husband and I once went to a dinner where there were truffles in every course. Amazing flavors! That being said, we don't often cook with them because of the price. I was unaware that there were truffles from Oregon and China. Will have to look for them. Congratulations on this well deserved win. Sending this hub to others who like to cook and who will be interested in reading this. Thanks! Up and useful!


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Now you made me want to try and eat truffles! LOL Congrats for being the best hub! Yay, wonderful hub! :)


amymarie_5 profile image

amymarie_5 5 years ago from Chicago IL

Interesting hub! I never really knew what truffles were and now I want to try them! Voted up!!


THAT Mary Ann 5 years ago

Interesting and useful (voted up!) - Mostly, thanks for the photo of the sniffing Beagle...like my beloved "Joachim" whom we loved for 16 years!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thank you to KoffeKlatch Gals, Les trois Chenes, Jane Bovary, Peggy W., ripplemaker, amymarie, and THAT Mary Ann. I really appreciate you reading my hub and leaving your kind comments. Les Trois Chenes: get that Molly trained:) haha


Golfgal profile image

Golfgal 5 years ago from McKinney, Texas

I was so intrigued with the sight of these fabulous fungi: i.e. truffles. I love coconut truffles, but these look nothing of the like. I think I may have found a turffle once while digging up a tree, but I did not reallt know what one looked like so I threw it out. Shucks, I might have had a $200 nugget!!! Sorry you got the swine flu, you really take research very seriously I see. :) Nice job and congrats on your achievement.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Hi Golfgal

I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. I love coconut ANYTHING...Yummm.


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

I honestly found the title intriguing because I thought this was going to be a hub on the truffles seen on Farmville which are gross looking! Thanks for setting the record straight! Voted UP!!!


Jedidiah strong 5 years ago

Great hub Mrs. M! Sorry to hear of your swine flu. Hope it doesn't slow you down on great hub writing!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Hi Sunshine! Farmville? Thanks for the vote!

Hey Jedidiah Strong! I can't believe you chose that name (I'm assuming it's not your real name--cool if it is), I know exactly who the original Jedidiah Strong was and I have a family member named after him! (the 4 legged type)

I'm quite recovered from my ordeal and doing great. Thanks!!!


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

Thanks much for this informative hub. Glad I found your work!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thanks RTalloni!!


Dia Jacobs profile image

Dia Jacobs 4 years ago

Hi Mrs. Menagerie, you wrote a very detailed hub. It is very informative with valuable guidelines that could be made into a reference for truffles! Great job!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 4 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thank you Dia Jacobs...much appreciated!


Letitialicious profile image

Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

Wonderfully thorough article. Just linked to it. Thanks.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 4 years ago from The Zoo Author

Thank you!!

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