Food & Drink

Cooking with truffles

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hands full of truffles
The delicate, earthy flavor of truffles will add a sophisticated taste to your cooking
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The word truffle comes from the Latin term "tuber" which means, "lump". While it may seem strange that one of the world's greatest culinary delicacies is named as such, the word truly does this edible species of fungi justice. Truffles are warty, irregularly shaped morsels that range in size from that of a walnut to a man's fist. Valuable and highly sought after, truffles are rare and the connoisseur of this delicacy will pay dearly for the delicious experience. Here are a few things to consider when cooking with truffles.

Finding truffles

Truffles are found in the ground, no deeper than 2-15 inches, in small groups often near the base of large trees. In order to find them, truffle harvesters use truffle hogs or more recently, dogs to sniff them out. Grounded truffles give off an odor that mimics a male pig sex hormone and thus, female pigs were traditionally used to sniff them out. However, hogs have a tendency to eat the finds before harvesters can gather them and as a result, more dogs are being used to uncover truffles. Once discovered, truffles can be collected in subsequent years at the same location. Truffle-fields or cultivated truffles are now being grown with some success in areas in Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, North Carolina, Tennessee and the United Kingdom.

Popular kinds of truffles

There are various kinds of truffles including the most popular, the Italian white and French black. There are also Italian and Chinese black truffles as well as a recent addition to the family of truffles, the Oregon white. This cultivated truffle is being accepted by experts as an alternative to the wild white truffles. Oregon white truffles are less expensive and while experts say that nothing in the culinary world rivals the taste of a wild white truffle, the Oregon white is a respected contender.

The cost of truffles

The use of truffles for culinary purposes is held in high esteem in traditional French, Northern Italian cooking and in international "haute cuisine." Their rarity leads to their high prices, with most types of truffles selling for $250-$450 USD per pound.

The world's most famous truffle was a 1.51-kilogram rare white Alba truffle that sold for $160,000 USD. Because of their high price and pungent taste truffles are used sparingly. Most recipes call for a mere shaving of truffle in order to turn the ordinary into extraordinary.

Be careful when you're purchasing

When purchasing black truffles, use caution to avoid being cheated. The Chinese black truffle has a very mild flavor and is less valuable for culinary purposes however, it looks a great deal like the famous Italian Black truffle. While it is difficult to tell them apart, odor may be a hint. The Italian truffles have a very strong scent.

Preparing truffles for cooking

Before truffles can be eaten, they need to be cleaned. Remove any dirt with a soft brush and remember that while hard-shelled truffles can be cleaned with water, it is advisable not to do the same with soft truffles. It is important to remember that when cooking with truffles, fresh, uncooked specimens need to be eaten shortly after they have been harvested. The strength of the flavor decreases rapidly in time and in fact, much of it is lost before many truffles make it to market so time is of the utmost importance.

Pairing truffles with food

The basic rule of thumb to follow when cooking with truffles is similar to choosing wine - certain types of truffles go better with certain foods.
  • Italian whites are best for use in pasta, eggs, with white meats and in risotto. Simply shave raw, never cooked, thin slices over the dish or insert the truffle slices under the skins of birds like quail and chicken and roast. Paper-thin truffle slices of all kinds can also be used in foie gras, pates or in stuffing.

  • Black French, Italian and Chinese truffles go well with dark meat poultry, red meats (not lamb), wild mushrooms, red wine sauces, apples, mellow cheeses, soups and sauces. They do need a long, slow simmering to mellow but can be used fresh when peeled and very thinly sliced.

  • Oregon whites are perhaps the most versatile of the truffles. They go with everything on the Italian white list, as well as with dark meat poultry, pork and beef, mellow cheeses, red wines, soups, bisques, pasta and with wild mushrooms. Unlike other truffles, they go well with tomatoes. They specifically compliment eggs and dairy products and can be simmered into soups or sauces. Do not simmer as long as you would a black truffle.
Cooking with truffles need not be complicated; making a meal go from good to phenomenal is as easy as crumbling truffle into scrambled eggs, slicing truffle over fondue, shaving it over rice dishes or sprinkling it into a wild mushroom sauce and serve it with steak.

Although serving this rare delicacy is not a regular ingredient in most meals, for those of you lucky enough to be cooking with truffles the experience need not be complicated. Simply follow the rules above and enjoy.

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