Everything You Need to Know About Truffles

Learn about one of the most expensive ingredients in the world.

Both white and black truffles are highly prized for the earthy, funky luxury they lend to dishes like risotto, pasta, and scrambled eggs. But how did an underground fungus hunted by pigs and dogs become one of the most sought-after and expensive ingredients in the world? Read on for everything you need to know about these delicacies, including our favorite ways to cook with them. 

Black truffles with ravioli and sage leaves

Florian Löbermann / Getty Images

What is a truffle?

Truffles are an edible fungus that grows underground. Truffles are usually small, round or irregularly shaped, with a rough, bumpy exterior. They range in color from black to white; some species have a marbled appearance. A lot of people confuse truffles with mushrooms, but while they are both delicious types of fungi, truffles are distinctly more intense and flavorful.

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How are truffles sourced?

Truffles are carefully removed from the underground out of the soil and harvested with the help of trained female pigs or dogs, which are able to detect the strong smell of the truffles underneath the surface of the ground. The use of pigs is risky, because of their natural tendency to eat any remotely edible thing in front of them. For that reason, dogs have been trained to detect their presence too and willingly exchange their truffles with a piece of dog biscuit. 

“I heard of some truffle hunters digging for their prizes themselves when they see truffle flies around the base of a tree,” says Oliver Lange, corporate executive chef for the Zuma Restaurants

What is the difference between black and white truffles? 

White truffles, also known as Alba Truffles, are a type of subterranean fungus that grows in the soil of oak, beech, and poplar trees in the forests near Alba, in northern Italy. They have a white to light-brown exterior and a strong, musky aroma. White truffle harvest season typically begins in September, peaks in October and November, and then wanes in December.

Black truffles, also known as Périgord Truffles, are a type of subterranean fungus that grows in the soil of oak and hazelnut trees. They are most often found in France and Spain but have been cultivated in Australia and the United States. They have a dark brown to black exterior and a pungent aroma. Black truffles are commonly harvested in the winter. 

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What do truffles taste like?

Lange incorporates truffles into various menu items to bring a strong flavor of rich umami. 

“White truffles have a strong aroma with a delicate nutty flavor with hints of shallots and garlic,” he says. “Black winter truffles are earthier and their aroma is reminiscent of cocoa, port, licorice and sometimes a bit musty.”    

How do you cook with truffles?

Typically, truffles are thinly shaved on top of a cooked meal but if you grate them on a Microplane instead, the fine shavings incorporate better with the dish. Truffles are commonly used in pasta dishes, risotto, sauces, or grated over seafood or meat. Black truffles go well with juicy steaks such as our Dry-Aged Rib Eyes with Burgundy-Truffle Sauce.

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Lange serves chu-toro tartare with soy and quail egg served with miso brioche and white truffle. He recommends using truffles to finish a dish, rather than cooking them for a long time, noting, “If you have a cooked meal, truffles should be consumed right after it’s shaved, you don’t want to cook truffles really long, or else they will lose their freshness.”  

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