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what are truffles

When you think of culinary delicacies, the elusive truffle is likely one of the first things that comes to mind. But just what is the expensive ingredient — and how do you use it at home? Here’s what you need to know about truffles, including what they taste like and where to buy them: 

What Is a Truffle? 

Truffles and truffle shavings

CREDIT: ADOBESTOCK

Truffles are the edible spores that grow on an underground fungus in the family Tuberaceae. They’re often confused with mushrooms, but they’re technically not the same species — mushrooms grow above ground, while truffles grow underneath the surface. 

Considered a gourmet delicacy by many in the culinary world, truffles are extremely hard to source and lose their potency quickly once they’ve been harvested. These factors make them one of the most expensive foods in the world. Depending on the variety (Italian white truffles are generally the priciest), they can sell for as much as $4,000 a pound. 

Truffles, which are now cultivated and harvested worldwide, grow around tree roots in damp areas. 

Female pigs were traditionally used to hunt for truffles for two reasons: They have a refined sense of smell and truffles contain androstenol, a hormone found in the saliva of male pigs. 

Dogs are typically used to find truffles these days. Canines, once trained, are less likely than pigs to eat the truffles once they sniff them out. 

What Is Truffle Oil? 

Truffle oil is truffle-infused olive oil. Since it’s shelf-stable and slightly less expensive than fresh truffles, it’s a simple way to add expensive flair to homemade food. If you’ve ever ordered a truffle dish at a restaurant (truffle fries, for instance) and you don’t see shavings or pieces, it was likely made with truffle oil. 

Some truffle oil is made with real black or white truffles, but modern truffle oil is often made with synthetic ingredients. An aromatic additive called 2,4-dithiapentane is found in many commercial oils. 

Related20 Truffle Oil Recipes That Are Sure to Impress

What Is Truffle Butter?

Truffle butter is simply butter mixed with truffle oil or truffle pieces. This luxurious compound butter — which can be bought at gourmet stores or made at home — is super creamy, spreadable and infused with truffle flavor. You can use truffle butter just like you’d use regular butter: Try it in savory appetizers, side dishes, entrees, and more. However, since it’s much more costly than regular butter, you might want to save it for special occasions. 

What Does a Truffle Taste Like? 

In a word, complex. They have an earthy, musky, umami-rich flavor that’s subtly floral. Of course, how a truffle tastes depends on the variety. 

Black Truffle vs. White Truffle

White truffles in a blue checked cloth

CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

There are more than 200 truffle varieties that vary in flavor, price, and usage. Most truffles fall into one of two categories: black truffles and white truffles. 

Black Truffles

Black truffles are generally less expensive than their white counterparts, so they’re more attainable for the average home cook. Though they’re less aromatic, their flavor stands up better to heat — so they’re often used in sauces, compound butters, risottos, and more. 

Some of the most popular black truffle varieties are found in the Périgord region in France. 

White Truffles

White truffles, which are native to northern Italy, are truly a delicacy. They have a more pungent, aromatic flavor. Since they’re so rare and their flavor is so intense, white truffles are usually enjoyed raw and sparingly. You’ll often find them shaved over elegant dishes (such as pastas and risottos) or used as a garnish. 

Where to Buy Truffles 

Buying truffles is no easy task. Since they are so rare and perishable, it’s easiest to forage for truffles yourself or buy them directly from a forager.

Depending on where you live and seasonality, you may be able to find them at specialty Italian shops and gourmet stores. 

You can also buy truffles online by the ounce, but that can get pretty expensive — because of their delicate nature, you’ll have to pay for overnight shipping on top of the already steep purchase price. 

How to Store Truffles

Truffles are quite perishable, so be sure to use them ASAP. They start losing quality as soon as they’re harvested. You can store fresh truffles for a few days under the following conditions:

  1. Place the truffle in an airtight container. 
  2. Add dry rice to the container to absorb moisture and prevent sogginess. 
  3. Store in the fridge for up to five days. Of course, the sooner you eat the truffle the better it will taste. 

How to Cook With Truffles

Egg pasta dish, typical Italian, with fine white truffle grated

CREDIT: ADOBESTOCK

Truffles, like other delicate ingredients, can be finicky. Here are some tips for working with fresh truffles at home: 

  • Make truffles the star of the show. Add them to mild recipes that let them shine, such as cream sauces and potato-based dishes. 
  • Use a mandoline to get the thinnest slices possible. It may seem excessive, but it’ll help you get the most out of your truffle. 
  • Opt for low or no heat. Cooking fresh truffles too much or too quickly will affect their flavor and aroma, so be as gentle as possible.

What to Do With Truffles

Gourmet ingredients like truffles can be somewhat intimidating due to their complex flavor, short shelf-life, and exclusivity. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself with a truffle, try one of these ideas: 

  • Make your own truffle butter. For step-by-step instructions, check out our comprehensive compound butter guide
  • Shave truffles in paper-thin slices to use as an elegant garnish. 
  • Grate truffles over pastas, risottos, and even scrambled eggs. Remember: Truffles are quite aromatic and flavorful, so a little goes a long way.   

Truffle Recipes

Looking for a quality truffle recipe for home cooks? We’ve got you covered. 

Boudin Blanc

Boudin Blanc

CREDIT: ALLRECIPES

“Boudin blanc is a white French sausage, a specialty from the Champagne Ardenne region of France,” recipe creator stella says of this truffle-spiked sausage dish. “Enjoyed traditionally during Christmas in that region, it is now enjoyed year-round. Good thing, as it’s marvelously delicious!”

Get the recipeBoudin Blanc

Black Truffle Gnocchi

Black Truffle Gnocchi

CREDIT: BANGING MEALS

This exquisite gnocchi dinner features truffle oil, truffle salt, and shaved black truffle in a creamy white wine sauce.

“Truffle oil adds a twist to this Northern Italian favorite and one of my personal favorites,” according to recipe creator Banging Meals.

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