How much is a black truffle worth
How much is a black truffle worth – Recently I wrote a post about the domestic truffle industry in the US, and in my reading about the new truffle growers, I found that there is a lot of confusion about truffles. On one level you have a good portion of the country that thinks they are round candies. Yes, those are called truffles but they are not actually natural truffles — they are chocolate. Others know it as a fungus, but not much more. And even if you know there are edible truffles for cooking, the different types can be confusing too.
Truffles – an underground mushroom and where to find it in US
Well, the simplest way to understand a truffle is that it is an underground mushroom that grows attached to tree roots. It doesn’t have a stem and its spores are enclosed in a lumpy-roundish sack, but it is still very similar to a mushroom. The fungus is actually not the round truffle that cook’s use — that is the fruit of the fungus, much like the fruit on a tree. The fungus is actually the web of filaments attached to the tree roots. These filaments help collect nutrients for the tree to grow, and the tree in return provides carbohydrates to the filaments, which then become underground truffle masses. Truffles are often found along with oak trees but also with poplar, willow, Douglas-fir, and hazelnut trees among others. And the traditional areas where truffles are found are in France, Spain, and Italy. Here in the US, they are also found in Oregon.
Truffles – sounds tasty, right?
So think of a truffle as an underground sack of spores. That sounds tasty, right? Well, there are over a hundred varieties of truffles but only a dozen or so are kitchen worthy. The reason why we love certain ones in food is because of the aroma and delicate flavor they can pass on to the food. Truffles have dozens of chemicals that create a unique and powerful aroma.
But the reason truffles smell so strongly is because they reside underground. Mushrooms living above ground can rely upon the wind to spread their spores and help them reproduce, but underground truffles need some help. That is where the smell comes in. The aroma attracts deer, raccoon, mice, squirrels and other animals so they can eat it, digest it, and then deposit those spores somewhere else through their excrement. (Yes, I said ‘excrement’ in a cooking blog.)
So the reason a truffle smells so strongly is so it can reproduce, but it needs an animal digestive tract and some little furry legs to help spread its spores.
Truffles – how to find truffles
Traditionally, female pigs have been used to hunt for truffles as the smell of some truffle varieties mimics the male pig sex hormones, but more recently dogs have been trained to locate truffles. Dogs are easier to train, feed, transport and won’t eat the prize. Truffle hunting dogs are trained by putting truffle oil on their mother’s nipples when they are young and then they progress to playing with truffle-oiled rags which will then be buried to complete the training.
But even if you are foraging in the Pacific Northwest for Oregon truffles, you can often identify where truffles are hidden without a dog. You just have to look for the places on the forest floor where mice and other animals have dug up the ground. It may be that they are looking for their truffle dinner.
Truffles – cooking with truffles
So what does a truffle smell like, and why is it attractive to so many chefs? Well, most varieties don’t smell good and even those that do can be an acquired smell or taste. The aroma varies depending upon the soil, moisture, tree roots, climate, the type of fungus and a host of other factors. Common descriptors of truffles include musky, rustic, garlicky and they might compare the aroma to soil, forest floor, cheese, nuts or turnips. But truffle aroma can even vary from tree to tree within the same small area, so there is no one answer. They just smell natural.
Truffle flavor is very delicate and most of its qualities come from passing on aroma and not through taste, though the French black Périgord has better flavor and is used more in the cooking process than other types of truffles. Any truffle cooked too much will lose its flavor. The most expensive type of truffle is from Northern Italy (and Croatia) and is called the white Alba truffle. This truffle is very pungent and not meant to be cooked. Chefs will often just shave the truffle onto some risotto or mix in a dressing or sauce. These are the truffles that are in season right now, and it will cost you about $180-240 per ounce.
But the key with all truffles is that you should eat them quickly and when they are at their freshest. The aroma only become strongest when the spores are ready to release and then it fades quickly. Don’t let them sit for a week in the fridge or you may risk disappointment.
Because of the delicate nature of truffles, they are traditionally used with certain ingredients and in certain dishes. Truffle aroma actually binds well to fat molecules, and that is why you often see them mixed with butter and put into oils. You also see them a lot in egg dishes and with pasta sauces.
Black truffles and dogs
The famous French Chef, Eric Ripert, loves to put truffle slices on buttered country bread, warm it slightly in the oven and sprinkle with coarse salt and fresh ground black pepper. The American truffle grower, Frank Garland, chops truffles into a sour cream mixture and uses it to fill an omelet. You can see his video below from the Martha Stewart show. And on the Piedmont Valley Truffles website there is a list of very tasty sounding recipes that use truffles.