What Exactly Is a Truffle? Plus, How to Cook with Them

published Apr 16, 2022
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Truffles might just be one of the most interesting ingredients you’ll ever cook with. No, I don’t mean the kind of truffles you get in a box of chocolate on Valentine’s Day. I mean the unique-looking “mushrooms” often associated with fancy dishes and elevated cooking. Whether it’s a shaving of fresh truffles atop a pasta dish, white truffle butter swirled into mashed potatoes (one of many tricks we learned from Ina Garten), or (artificially-flavored) truffle oil drizzled over french fries, the flavor and fragrance of these tubers instantly bring a dish to the next level.

Truffles have a super-recognizable look — these bumpy lumps don’t necessarily scream “food” unless you know what you are looking at. And their flavor is quite particular. Considering that they are part of the edible fungus family, it’s no surprise that they taste somewhat similar to some of the types of mushrooms you’re used to cooking with. However, certain varieties they have a somewhat garlicky and even meaty aroma and flavor. Whole truffles are often shaved over cooked food as a garnish. Their essence can also be preserved in compound butter and salt. While it is possible to infuse oil with truffles, most truffle oil contains synthetic flavors and little to no truffle at all.

What Exactly Is a Truffle?

A truffle is a variety of edible fungus which grows underground around the roots of several different kinds of oak trees, such as English and French oak trees. Truffles are found in more temperate climates, and they are perhaps most famously harvested in Italy and France. They can be the size of a tiny pebble or grow larger than an apple. On the outside, most truffles are either dark brown to black or beige-white in color, and have a rough-looking exterior, though they’re generally considered to be either “white” or “black.” Good truffles are firm to the touch but not so hard that they are difficult to shave or grate with a microplane or grater.

Truffles are particularly common in the cuisines of both France and Italy. In the United States, popular dishes like truffle fries, are usually flavored with truffle oil which, despite its name, doesn’t always contain any trace of actual truffles.

What’s the Difference Between White and Black Truffles?

You can tell major differences between white and black truffles by simply looking at them. Aside from being two different colors, white and black truffles have different textures. White truffles have a smoother, rounded surface compared to the rough and bumpy texture of a black truffle. The inside of white and black truffles is different, too. They both have marbling patterns inside, but white truffles are usually light to dark brown with subtle marbling. Black truffles tend to have very dark interiors with white marbling. Additionally, white truffles have a more powerful flavor compared to black truffles.

Types of Truffles

Black Périgord Truffle

This truffle, as its name suggests, is black in color and is named after the region in France where it’s harvested. Native to Europe, this truffle is has a robust earthy flavor. When sliced into or grated, the inside of the Périgord truffle is marbled with black and white lines. Black Périgord truffles are typically used as a garnish, being shaved or grated onto a dish rather than cooked into it.

Winter Truffle

This variety is also known as the “black winter truffle” or the “brumale truffle.” Like other varieties of black truffles, this truffle has a bumpy outer texture and is very dark in color. Similar to the Périgord, the winter truffle has a dark marbled white and brown interior. These truffles are also known to have a very strong smell and flavor.

Summer Truffle 

Summer truffles are typically dark brown in color on the outside. They have a skin slightly thicker than that of a périgord truffle and have small bumps, or “worts,” on the surface. The inside of the summer truffle has a tan or dark beige color with subtle marbling throughout. As its name implies, this truffle is usually sought out during the summer months until around August. 

Burgundy Truffle

The Burgundy truffle has a dark brown or black exterior with small bumps. It has a dark brown interior with intricate marbling throughout. It is considered to have a more powerful flavor than a summer truffle, though the two do have some visual similarities. Like with most truffles, the Burgundy truffle thrives when it’s growing beneath the surface of soil.

Bianchetto Truffle

Though the color of the bianchetto truffle (also known as a spring white truffle) can change, it is most commonly a tan to medium brown shade with some dark spots throughout the surface. Different from many black truffles, the bianchetto doesn’t have the same bumpy surface and can resemble a russet potato. On the inside, the bianchetto is medium brown with white marbling. They are somewhat related to white alba truffles and both are used similarly in dishes.

White Alba Truffles

White alba truffles are one of the most beloved types of white truffles, mainly for their strong and distinctive flavor. They are lighter in color compared to bianchetto truffles and are much more revered. This truffle is often found in the Piemonte and Marche regions of Northern Italy. If you’re preparing to purchase some of these truffles, however, remember that these are some of the most expensive varieties of truffles available, as shown on the price tags of products from purveyors like Urbani.

Why Are Truffles So Expensive?

There’s a reason truffles are associated with the fancier things in life. Truffle mushrooms are super pricey because the process to collect them is quite labor intensive. Most truffles are found using pigs or hunting dogs that sniff out the particular aromas in forests — since they grow underground, they are difficult to find. The availability of truffles is also dependent upon both the climate and season. Additionally, truffles can spoil easily if stored improperly, which further ups their price tag.

What Do Truffles Taste Like?

While it might depend on who you ask, the flavor of truffles is generally described by many as nutty and “earthy.” Some truffles are also somewhat bitter — in the same way dark chocolate tastes both bitter and rich. Many people, such as Kitchn senior food editor Megan O. Steintrager, find that truffles have a garlicky flavor to them as well. Kitchn editor-at-large, Christine Gallary, described the aroma of truffles as being reminiscent of “a damp forest, but in a good way.” Given where truffles are typically found, this makes sense.

Is a Truffle a Mushroom?

Truffles are often considered a type of mushroom since they are a part of a family of fungi, though they differ from traditional edible mushrooms in a number of ways. Truffles are found in heavily wooded areas underground near the roots of trees and thus require more effort to find. Mushrooms, such as cremini, portobellos, and shiitakes, grow above ground (in the soil or on logs).

How to Cook with Truffles

You might find that truffles are often served in some sort of pasta dish right along with cheese — there’s a good reason for this. “Truffle flavor really blooms in fat,” says Gallary. This explains why you’ll likely see truffles grated into a cream or butter-based sauce or mixed into something like scrambled eggs. (Hot tip from Gallary: Store your truffles alongside your eggs and you’ll get magically truffle-flavored eggs.)

Use a Microplane ($16 from Amazon) or a truffle shaver ($13 from Amazon) to grate or shave fresh truffles over scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables like asparagus, fresh pasta, risotto, and more. Most truffles should not actually be cooked, and especially not for long periods of time — shaving or grating them over a warm dish will allow their flavor to bloom, while the high and prolonged heat from sautéing or roasting will destroy their aroma.

If you are working with truffle oil, you can simply drizzle it over finished dishes like pasta, pizza, or fries, while truffle butter can be cooked with or melted and drizzled onto popcorn, pasta, and more.