What Is a Truffle?

And why are truffles so friggin’ expensive?

May 09, 2023
expensive rare black truffle mushroom - gourmet vegetable

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expensive rare black truffle mushroom - gourmet vegetable

Photo by: olgakr/Getty Images

olgakr/Getty Images

By Alice K. Thompson for Food Network Kitchen

Alice is a contributing writer and editor at Food Network.

Truffles are one of the world's most expensive and legendary ingredients. Peak truffle season is heralded with frenzied markets, headlines about exorbitant prices and special restaurant dishes across Europe and beyond that celebrate this rarefied treat. But what exactly is a truffle, what’s so special about its taste and why are they so astronomically priced? We’ve unearthed the answer to these and other truffle-centric questions.

What Is a Truffle?

A truffle is a member of the fungi family prized for its earthy, woodsy flavor and aroma that fans find intoxicating. Truffles grow worldwide, although most of those harvested in the wild come from Europe, notably Italy and France. Truffles grow underground near the roots of “host trees” such as beech, poplar or oak. Truffle hunters work with specially trained dogs or pigs who sniff out and dig up these delicacies. Although truffles can be cultivated, only a small percentage of today’s supply is: The process is labor intensive and takes many years even under ideal conditions. Foraging remains the main harvest method, and the romantic image of the truffle hunter and his or her dog or pig is enshrined in culinary lore.

Different varieties of truffle are harvested year-round, although fall and winter are the most famous truffle seasons. Their arrival is hailed with special truffle dishes offered at restaurants throughout Europe and beyond. The famous truffle markets of Italy and France are legendarily pungent, lively events attracting buyers and onlookers from around the world.

What Do Truffles Look Like?

Truffles grow as asymmetrical balls or ovals. They can be harvested when as small as marbles or as large as baseballs. Although there are many types of truffles, most can be categorized as either white or black.

White truffles grow most famously in Northern Italy and look somewhat like potatoes with a light-brown exterior and ivory or tan interior.

Black truffles have a pebbled brown-black skin and tan or brown interior and are most associated with France, particularly the Périgord region. Wondering how the confections known as chocolate truffles got their name? Yes, it’s because of their resemblance to the tuber-like truffle.

Woman slicing truffle onto spaghetti at wooden table, closeup

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Woman slicing truffle onto spaghetti at wooden table, closeup

Photo by: Liudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Liudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

What Does Truffle Taste Like?

Truffles are known for their earthy, umami-rich flavor and heady, musky aroma. Their flavor is sometimes compared to mushrooms, although truffles are more intense and complex in taste and far more fragrant. The exact profile varies by variety, season and quality, incorporating nutty, garlicky or floral notes. Black truffles are considered milder in flavor and aroma while white truffles are typically more pungent. But both vary considerably, and since truffles begin to lose quality as soon as they’re harvested, their intensity depends on freshness and proper storage.

Is a Truffle a Mushroom?

While truffles and mushrooms are both fungi, a truffle is not a mushroom. Unlike mushrooms, truffles grow entirely underground and belong to the tuberaceae family. You may sometimes see them referred to erroneously as "truffle mushrooms" simply to differentiate them from chocolate truffles.

Truffles in Borough Market, London

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Truffles in Borough Market, London

Photo by: Moonstone Images/Getty Images

Moonstone Images/Getty Images

Why Are Truffles So Expensive?

Truffles are seasonal, labor-intensive to either hunt or cultivate and highly perishable once harvested. Demand for truffles is famously high, so all of these factors make them ounce-for-ounce one of the most expensive foods on the planet. Depending on their size and quality, they can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars a pound. Seasonal truffle markets attract buyers from all over the world, and particularly desirable specimens are auctioned off for jaw-dropping sums.

What Is Truffle Oil?

Olive oil infused with truffle flavor is very popular and much more affordable than fresh truffle. Oils are either infused with real truffle, often with truffle scraps or trimmings, or with a synthetic truffle flavor known as 2,4-dithiapentane. While purists scoff at artificially flavored oil, this product is not uncommonly used by restaurants and home cooks alike to give humble dishes from pizza to popcorn deep, satisfying flavor. Other popular truffle-flavored products include truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey; these can also be either naturally or synthetically flavored, so read labels carefully if you’re searching for true truffle essence.

How Are Truffles Used?

Truffles work most successfully in dishes where they’re the star of the show. They’re often shaved over or mixed into mild dishes like pastas, risotto, eggs, creamy soups, potatoes or chicken or stirred into sauces. Heat is the enemy of truffles' complex flavor and aroma so they’re mostly used raw as a garnish or only briefly heated. Shaving a truffle as thinly as possible, especially in the case of white truffles, is considered key to judiciously (and economically) imparting its flavor to foods. Special truffle shavers are sold specifically for this, although a mandoline can also be used.

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