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All About Truffles: Your Questions Answered
Few ingredients in culinary lore beckon to diners like the mysterious truffle. Ethereal in aroma, decadent in taste, and sold for thousands of dollars per pound, truffles have long captured the interest and imagination of diners and cooks alike. Truffles may be things of culinary legend, but they do not have to be mysteries. For insight into the world of truffles, we asked our founding team of Michelin-rated chefs and Dining Room professionals to break down the basics.
Are Truffles Mushrooms?
Contrary to popular belief, truffles are not mushrooms. Members of the genus Tuber, truffles are more akin to potatoes than mushrooms. A truffle is the fruit or spore-bearing organ of a fungal network called Mycelium, which grows underground.
Mushrooms typically release their spores into the wind as a means of reproduction, but truffles depend on animals to spread. Most truffles are devoured by forest animals that dig them up to eat. Given the fact that truffles have evolved to emit aromas that mimic mammalian reproductive pheromones, it is not surprising those who enjoy truffles consider them irresistible. Practically perfumed to seduce, they are considered aphrodisiacs in some circles. Truffle hunters famously used sows to seek out the delicacies because a truffle’s musky scent attracted female pigs. The trouble came when the truffle hunter needed to collect his prize despite the best efforts of a determined (and hungry) barnyard animal.
Are there different types of truffles?
While gourmands may be familiar with the famous White Alba and Winter Perigord truffle, the reality is that there are, in fact, hundreds of varieties of the mysterious tuber in all manner of shapes, colors, sizes, and aromas ranging in taste from the savory to the insipid. The leucangium cartgusianum is charcoal in color and often smooth. It exudes the smell of pineapple and grows in areas of France and the Pacific Northwest, where it is commonly known as the Oregon Black Truffle.
The most common truffles found in dining rooms and used in kitchens are the White Tuber Magnatum, the Black Winter Tuber Melanosporum, and the Summer Tuber Aestivum.
How do we cook with truffles? Rules of thumb
As they relate to cooking, truffles are best expressed when likened to a delicate seasoning, whereas mushrooms are typically used as components of a dish. Hold your nose while enjoying a truffle and ready yourself for disappointment. Because they are so aromatic, the flavor of a truffle is rooted in its smell, and not necessarily its taste alone.
Just as a paint’s color is expressed on canvas, a truffle’s aroma needs a backdrop to express its flavor; generally something rich, starchy, or fatty will highlight a truffle’s natural flavor. Simple dishes like buttered pasta or scrambled eggs are classically employed to spotlight the truffle. The three types of truffles most often used in cooking all have different appearances, aromas, flavor profiles, and each lends itself well to different cooking techniques and applications.
Black Winter “Perigord” Truffles
Tyler Vorce is the Chief Operating Officer at Truffle Shuffle. Before co-founding Truffle Shuffle, Tyler served for eight years as the Expediting Sous Chef at The French Laundry, where truffles are ordered, scrutinized, processed, and consumed en masse. Having been tasked with selecting the very best from plethoras of truffles, he is intimately familiar with the delicacies.
Tyler’s first memory of truffles formed when he was a young cook in Maine, “We used to do a truffle demi glace at Pier 77 restaurant back in Maine on special occasions using Oregon truffles.” Tyler says. It wasn’t until he was cooking in New York City that he encountered fresh black truffles from Perigord, France. He fell in love with the product and its allure. It is rare, he says, that a product so lauded is cloaked in mystery. "Everyone has heard of them, but few have seen or had them,” says Tyler. As a cook, Tyler loves to share the mysterious tuber with guests; “They create an experience in and of themselves,” he says.
What do Black Truffles look like?
Black truffles, Tyler says, should have a deep, rich espresso and dark chocolate aroma. Visually, black truffles are jet black, have a textured exterior, and are covered in tiny semicircular bumps. Bisect them and see swirling white patterns like veins against the truffle’s dark flesh. Those are elements of Mycelium, which expand outwards like rings of a tree as the truffle grows.
How are black truffles used in dishes?
Black truffles can be simply shaved over hot dishes, but also lend themselves well to be incorporated into dishes and cooked with. They can be pureed into soup or finely diced and folded into sauces. Memorably, Tyler recalls cooking in France where black truffles were poached in consommé and baked whole in puff pastry.
White Winter “Alba” Truffle
Sarah McKinney is the Director of Communications and co-founder at Truffle Shuffle. Before founding the company, she was part of the team at The French Laundry, where it was considered an honor to shave truffles over dishes, and only top dining room brass were permitted the privilege--exclusively sommeliers, captains, and matri’ds could shave them. Sarah now delights in the opportunity to share truffles with thousands of guests in her role at Truffle Shuffle.
No matter a diner’s experience with truffles, “size matters” she says; “Size or quantity. They look at a box of truffles and think ‘wow, that must be millions of dollars.” Truffles can fetch hefty prices. Quality white truffles can cost thousands of dollars per pound.
What do white truffles look like?
White truffles are smooth and often beige in color. They can have areas of red or brown throughout their exterior, and legend has it that truffles so marked have grown on the roots of chestnut trees.
What do white truffles taste like?
“White truffles don’t have much of a taste,” Sarah says. “Their impact is all aroma.”
That aroma is pungent but more delicate than that of the black truffle. White truffles have an intense garlicky parmesan cheese aroma that can be at times likened to the smell of petrol.
How are white truffles used in Dishes?
Since white truffles are so aromatic, their flavor translates well into fat. They infuse beautifully into butter and oil. As centerpieces, they are typically shaved raw over hot dishes. Classics like white truffle risotto reign supreme in the culinary arts, but white truffles are also delicious shaved over roasted squash, chestnuts, and greens.
The Summer or “Burgundy” Truffle
Jason McKinney is the CEO of Truffle Shuffle. He has been working with truffles for nine years. Six of those years were spent cooking at The French Laundry, and three of them have been spent selling truffles directly to restaurants.
Chef Jason’s interest in truffles began at the age of 17, where he was working with a chef who cooked a dish of corn, scallops, and black truffles.
“He was one of those chefs that let other people clean up his station,” Jason says.
The chef left a nub of black truffle on his cutting board before he left the kitchen. Jason swiped it and put it in his pocket for safe-keeping. Later, in his room, he held the sliver in his hand.
“The songs of angels came out of the truffle and I thought I was about to enjoy one of the most delicious things in my whole life,” he says. “It literally tasted like dirt, and I was like ‘how does that work?’’ And that is where Jason’s curiosity about truffles began.
Summer truffles (Tuber Aestivum) are found in two varieties: the summer truffle and the Burgundy truffle.. The two are the same species of tuber, but summer truffles grow in summer months and transition into Burgundies for the colder months, continuing to grow in the fall.
What do Summer truffles look like?
Summer truffles “look like little rocks,” says Jason. They have pale interiors and bumpy surfaces like those of black truffles, but the protrusions are much larger in size and differently shaped. If the black truffle is covered in tiny semicircles, the summer and burgundy truffles are covered in larger bumps that are shaped like pyramids. They are dark tan on the outside with pale, fleshy interiors.
Burgundy truffles are darker in color and their interiors can be better likened to a hazelnut or cocoa color. The Burgundies are more prized than summers for their fragrance, which is more pungent than that of the summer truffle.
What do Summer and Burgundy Truffles taste like?
The summer truffles “are like a button mushroom and a hazelnut had a lovechild,” Jason says. Summer and Burgundy truffles are not as aromatic as the blacks and whites and have more savory and mushroom qualities. “I think its closest relative is a hen of the woods mushroom,” Jason says.
How are summer truffles used in cooking?
Summer and burgundy truffles are not as aromatic as the black and white winter truffles. As a result, they are often cooked first to release their aroma before adorning dishes. Try poaching them gently in olive oil before adding them to your favorite risotto. They also pair well with meats, poultry, and game. Most directly, they can be minced and added to savory dishes.
How can I learn more about truffles?
The best way to learn about truffles is to cook with them and eat them! Check out Truffle Shuffle’s online store for your one-stop shop for honest truffles and quality small-batch truffle products.