What Exactly Is a Truffle and Why Does It Cost So Much?

what is a truffle
Truffles 101: Here's What You Need to KnowLiudmila Chernetska - Getty Images

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Truffles are one of those mysterious ingredients that's often misunderstood. For starters, let's be clear—we're talking about the kind of truffles used to elevate fancy pasta recipes, not the chocolate truffles you eat for dessert. (Although those are delicious, too!) If you’ve ever had the opportunity to try fresh truffles shaved over risotto, you probably already know what a delicacy it can be, but it also happens to cost a pretty penny at that. So, what exactly is a truffle—and why is it so dadgum expensive?!

Truffles are edible fungi that grow underground near the roots of certain oak trees. They have a very distinct look—that sort of resembles a dark, small, lumpy rock or potato—and a flavor that's savory, earthy, and completely unique. But the cool thing about truffles is the way that they're harvested. "Truffle hunters," as they're called, work with trained dogs or even pigs to sniff out truffles buried deep underground. If you thought Ree Drummond's ranch dogs were helpful, just wait until you see a truffle-hunting dog!

Truffles have a long history that dates back to ancient times. According to the North American Truffle Growers Association (NATGA), "Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature all contain references to truffles in one form or another." So, what makes truffles so unique? Read on for everything you need to know about the culinary delicacy!

What is a truffle?

what is a truffle
UliU - Getty Images

Technically, truffles are the "spore-bearing fruit of a fungus," according to the NATGA, and they’re usually found in close connection to tree roots. Many truffles are foraged in the wild, but even those that are grown in orchards can be extremely difficult to harvest. While you can find some truffles all year-round, the truffle season often happens in fall and winter.

There are hundreds of varieties of truffles, including white truffles, black truffles, summer truffles, and burgundy truffles—each with their own unique qualities (and price tags!). But many people often associate truffles as either black or white. Black truffles have a dark exterior and tan interior—and they even look like chocolate truffles (yes, that's where the treat gets its name). They're generally less expensive compared to white truffles, and they're often used in cooking. White truffles are light brown in color and even more rare than black truffles, so they're often served raw and freshly shaved.

Is a truffle a mushroom?

Although often confused as being a type of mushroom, truffles are actually a different species. And unlike growing mushrooms (which you can even do at home), growing truffles happens completely underground.

What do truffles taste like?

The flavor of a truffle can be hard to describe, but truffles are earthy with an intense aroma that adds a punch of flavor to many Italian dishes, truffle-seasoned French fries, and even pizza! Some people even say they taste like mushrooms but more intense and complex.

what is a truffle truffle pasta
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Why are truffles so expensive?

Truffles are often associated with special occasion meals due to their price. But why are they so expensive in the first place? Not only are truffles hard to cultivate or find (remember you need special dogs to find them), but they're also seasonal and they can spoil easily. Because of their scarcity, truffles can sometimes have a hefty price tag and many people will opt to use them sparingly.

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What about truffle oil?

The good news is that many companies now take the essence of truffles to create a less expensive option in the form of truffle oil! At a lower cost, many truffle oils can provide a similar flavor and aroma to truffles, but there's really nothing like the real thing!

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