Admit It, You’ve Always Wondered What the Big Deal Is With Truffles
It all started with truffle queso. Nobody Told Me chef/owner Nick Pfannerstill’s gooey, fragrant high/low snack hooked me, and as I swirled an endive spear around the fragrant, molten pot of gold, I got to thinking: Why don’t I know more about truffles?
It’s probably because they’re hella expensive -- but also because to admit you know nothing (Jon Snow) about truffles is to reveal a certain lack of sophistication. They’re something you order at fancy restaurants, and that’s long given them an unfashionably aspirational reputation. But truffles are back, and I’m seeing them in friendlier contexts, like Pfannerstill’s queso, with integrity and respect for the ingredient.
But still, when you shell out to have a fresh knob grated over your pasta, what are you supposed to be tasting, exactly? How can you tell if it’s... good? What if you tried them and thought they tasted dusty? What are you supposed to be experiencing, exactly?
I decided to learn more on behalf of us all. Pfannerstill was kind enough to invite me over to his restaurant to meet his truffle dealer, Raymond Mizrahi, president of Black Diamond Caviar, to smell a whole table full of truffles. I also tapped Chef Ken Frank of Napa Valley’s La Toque, famous for his all-truffle dinners, Eataly’s VP of Global Partnerships and Piemonte native Dino Borri, and Dr. Charles Lefevre, truffle grower and a co-founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival for their expertise.
The short answer to the question I ask in the headline? Nature gave truffles their perfume so that pigs would dig them up, Chef Frank told me. Their scent mimicks that of a wild pig’s sex phermones. “I’ve yet to experience sexual ecstasy while I’m eating a truffle,” Frank told me. “But it’s a really primal aroma that reaches into you and captures you. The aroma makes a profound connection when you smell it, and it really gets your attention.” But not every type of truffle is going to make that intense connection. The season matters. A lot of factors matter. So the rest of this article will give you the longer, more thorough answer to the question, "what's the big deal about truffles?"
Varieties of Truffle
There are dozens of varieties that grow all over the world. But these are the five main types you’re likely to encounter. Ideally, you want to experience each during their own respective season.
The two “fanciest” kinds of truffle are the black winter, or Perigord, and the white Alba. The Perigord (which can cost around $800 a pound) is valuable because it’s the most versatile and has the most robust, stable flavor. It grows in many places, including Spain, Australia, and recently throughout the West Coast and Tennessee here in the US.
The winter white truffle, also known as Alba or Piemonte, costs a few thousand per pound, depending. It’s valuable because of its intense aroma and because it’s rare, relative to other truffles. It’s the most expensive of them all. The Albas I smelled were garlicky, musky, earthy, and minerally, but each in its own unique, distinct way. Originally from Alba in Piemonte, they also grow in Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, Italy; and in Croatia and Hungary.
Black winters (and to a lesser degree Burgundies/black summers) are good to experiment with because they’re less expensive. Their flavor and aroma are milder, but still very much there.
Summer truffles, or scorzone, (around $200 a pound) are just fine; everyone I spoke with gave them the big “meh.”
And then there are the truffles indigenous to Oregon. Perigord and other European truffles have been cultivated throughout the West Coast, but Oregon has its own wild-grown fungi. “Unlike the European black and white varietals, domestic truffles from the Pacific Northwest have much different flavors, ranging from notes of blueberries to pine sap, depending on which,” says Thrillist Editor-in-chief Helen Hollyman, who happens to be an avid truffle hunter.
There are two dominant varieties in Oregon. Their winter white has a somewhat pine-like aroma, almost like a solvent, says Oregon truffier Dr. Charles Lefevre. “The best way I can describe Oregon’s white truffles is that they add a kind of zing, a kind of electricity,” he says.
The aroma of the Oregon black truffle evolves as it matures. It starts fruity, a little tropical, a bit like strawberry. It combines well with desserts, Lefevre says. As they mature the start to smell a little more like chocolate and cheese, and then at full maturity they get a barnyard scent and then poof, they’re spoiled.
To learn more about how to buy truffles, check out our guide.
By Adriana Velez
Take this guide with you when you're feeling brave enough to buy a truffle. Click here for full story...
When it comes to products like truffle oil, salt, etc. there are two things to keep in mind:
1. 2,4-Dithiapentane (AKA bis(methylthio)methane
2. Fake, fake, fake, and fake
The latter is what Chef Frank said when I brought up truffle products. They’re all fake, folks. And that other long word is the chemical behind the flavor. When you look at the label of any truffle product and see “truffle flavor” or “truffle essence” know that it’s synthetic.
“But this one says ‘natural truffle flavor,’” you say. Still fake. A flavor doesn’t have to derive from the actual ingredient it’s named after in order to be labeled as “natural.” It just has to be derived from something natural, like maybe shitake mushrooms.
Now you know. The thing is, the flavor compounds in truffles are too delicate to withstand commercial processing. And guess what? Salt does not absorb flavors, so no, you can’t infuse it with truffles. Even if your truffle butter has real truffles in it, sometimes the flavor is amped up with flavorings and/or soy sauce. Look at the label.
As for canned or frozen truffles, again, the processing destroys the aroma--plus, it destroys the texture, so you can’t shave them over anything. You can use them for stuffing. They’re very different from fresh.
But hey, we all like our truffle fries anyway. (Fake) Almost everyone I spoke with admitted liking ersatz truffle flavor for what it is. “I look at it as the way I bask in the glory of watermelon bubblegum or the simplest pleasure in BBQ potato chips,” says Hollyman. “I know it’s not the real thing, but that flavor is truly divine.” Pfannerstill compared it with 7-Up versus fresh-squeezed lemonade, and says when he adds it to a vinegarette, the stuff gives the dressing an “earthy, robust undertone.”
Even Borri is all right with a little faux. “The products are neither good nor bad, just different.” He says at Eataly, they try to select the best-tasting truffle products they can find, and they do stock some that are made without fake flavoring. “But those have a less intense smell.”
Chef Frank will have none of it, though. He says truffle oil is dishonest, he says it’s offensive to people who love real truffles, and he compares it to Tang. And the biggest reason he hates truffle flavoring is that it desensitizes the palates of diners and sets them up for unrealistic expectations when they sit down to taste the real deal. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, 37, 38 years,” he says of his famous all truffle menu. “I do think I know what a world class truffle tastes like.” But he has diners come in and complaining that his truffles have no flavor. “My truffle popcorn has more flavor than this,” they tell him. The thing is, that truffle popcorn has slap-you-in-the-face flavor, while fresh truffle has much more genteel manners and will do no such thing. “As magical and powerful as the true flavor of truffle is, it’s dwarfed by fake flavor.”
What do you even do with truffles?
It depends on what you’ve got. If it’s one of those Alba winter whites, you’re just shaving over prepared dishes. Period. Do not try to saute them or throw them into a roast or even make a quesadilla with them because that much heat will destroy their aroma.
If you’ve got Perigord or winter black, on the other hand, you have more flexibility. You could infuse some warm cream with a few shavings or broken pieces. These you could put into a quesadilla. Theoretically, you should be able to cook with Perigord, but get some advice from a chef before you go there.
Nearly every expert I spoke with told me about the egg trick: Store truffles in the same airtight container as a few raw eggs overnight. The perfume will penetrate the porous shells, infusing the eggs. The next morning you can scramble them and enjoy the most trufflicious breakfast without having to sacrifice even the tiniest sliver from your truffles. Just be sure to include the yolks -- no egg white omelets -- because it’s the fat that absorbs the flavor.
Every variety of truffle benefits from a teensy, miniscule bit of heat -- the sort of heat you get from shaving them over a freshly-cooked dish. It helps their flavors bloom.
You want to be thoughtful about what you lavish your bounty on. Think mellow flavors that can act as a canvas for the perfume of something a little funky. But don’t limit yourself to pasta and risotto, either. Perigords are surprisingly great with persimmons, Pfannerstill told me. And the winter truffles shipped here from Australia are amazing with American summer corn.
Store your truffle very carefully--not in rice, contrary to popular advice, Borri tells me. Wrap it in a paper towel, and then in an airtight container. Refrigerate, but make sure it’s at the usual setting and not extra cold--this will destroy it. Definitely do not freeze it.
To clean, use a soft, barely-wet toothbrush, then dry immediately. Water turns truffles mushy, especially the Albas.
How to order truffles
Some of you may have had that experience of getting a tableside truffle experience, where for an additional fee, you have some truffle shaved over your dish. And then you taste your food and you’re like… eh. What am I tasting? This is kind of… dusty. Is this a thing? Did I get bad truffle?
Most chefs want you to have a better experience than this. So if the truffle service is offered to you, it’s perfectly fair to ask a few questions. What variety of truffle are they using? (If it’s a summer truffle you know you’re in for a less-than-stellar experience.) Ask to give the truffle a whiff.
If you go ahead with the service, don’t just tuck into your dish expecting a one-way express trip to Valhallah. Clear your head, get present with the moment, and spend some time simply inhaling the aromas coming from your dish. Then start tasting, but slowly. Slow the eff down. Chew, notice, chew, notice, chew, notice.
As Mizrahi told me, dining on truffles is an experience, a luxury. You’re paying someone to deliver that “wow” effect. And oh, the things chefs like doing with Perigords: shave them on foie gras, roast chickens with slivers tucked under their skins, spike whole racks of veal with “nice fat chunks...” Frank started telling me. I made him stop.
Truffles for the people
In case you’re wondering, I did contemplate tossing $1,500 on a walnut-sized Alba. “What if I just didn’t pay my bills this month?,” I thought, “Would that be so terrible?” But I put it back down. I’d spent an afternoon inhaling my way through an education. And after thanking everyone profusely, I left empty handed, but fully sated.
Things are changing slowly in the truffle world. In about a decade, Frank tells me, we should be producing a steady supply right here in the US, from the Napa Valley and from Oregon, among other places. He’s optimistic because Australia as been so successful in cultivating them.
And then there’s foraging, which we haven’t even gone into, but is a whole other thing. (And maybe we should do that. Thrillist truffle hunting event? Who’s in?) To hear Lefevre tell it, that’s how the deep spell is cast. He spun me this story about the elusive, and quickly dissipating minty quality of freshly-dug Oregon truffles, how it disappears within a half hour, how you have to be ready to plop down and have an impromptu picnic as soon as it’s dug. Because above all else, the appeal of the truffle is its ephemerality.
And maybe this last experience is an example of the kind of cudgel that could drive a wedge between an exalting experience and an exorbitant price tag. Anyone who has ever taken a hike and then laid out on a sun-warmed rock overlooking an exquisite view knows that ecstasy can cost exactly zero dollars and nothing cents. Luxury doesn’t have to be expensive. Quite often, the greatest cost is merely your undivided attention.