Contributed by Katy Morris
Now that it’s truffle season you may want to know what all the fuss is about. For sure, it’s best to be educated before you consider finishing a dish with shavings of these precious nuggets. That’s wine connoisseur David Lynch (above) checking out the goods before buying them from a truffle hunter in Alba. To read more about the many options for vegetarian and kosher friendly pasta and fish preparations in Lombardy, stop back on Thursday to read about Liz’ truffle and wine adventures in Northwestern Italy.
But first, here’s the scoop on truffles:
Do I really have to fly to Europe to experience the indulgence of truffles?
No, you don’t…and now that the winter truffle season is starting, chances are your local gourmet shop has already ordered them for their stores. I’d recommend calling up local gourmet places (Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s) and asking them what they have available since many do not showcase them on their websites or regular menus. Some other stores to check out in the NYC area:
Eataly prides themselves on all things Italian so be sure to check here.
Buon Italia offers some of the best foods from Italy, including the precious truffles of the region, and can be found at the Chelsea Market.
SOS Chefs in the East Village is a great supplier to restaurants, gourmet and other retail places but you can also order your truffles directly from them.
You can also try ordering the online from the following reputable sites:
- Earthy Delights sells a variety of wild-harvested, artisanal foods, including fresh truffles, various truffle products and truffle oils.
- Gourmet Food Store has hundreds of truffles available from France, Italy, Spain and more as well as other truffle products for sale (oil, butter, paste, salt).
- Citarella has gourmet markets in both NYC and the Hamptons, and has been selling truffles since 1912.
- Urbani Truffles offers a great variety of fresh truffles, truffled products, as well as other mushrooms. These guys have been at it for generations so really know their stuff.
Is buying some truffles going to break the bank?
Well, truffles are indeed renowned for their hefty price tag and some even say these babies are one of the most expensive foods on the planet (we’re talking anywhere from $700 to $5,000 a pound, depending on the specific variety and the season). The prices do tend to fluctuate and there is quite the range so check the above sources and compare.
Why so pricey??
A few reasons: they are quite difficult to grow and even more difficult to actually find in the wild since they grow underground; and unfortunately, many believe they are becoming scarcer due to the global climate change and the effects in the Mediterranean climate yet are always in demand.
The good news…Most people only purchase about 3-4 oz. of truffles, which provides the perfect amount of flavor for an indulgent meal.
So, a pound can cost thousands of dollars depending on the season. When exactly are truffles in season?
Technically, truffles grow year-round but the availability is dependent on the variety. Most culinary experts use only two kinds for their cooking: the black and the white. The Black Winter Truffle is available starting in November and usually extends to about April, but this kind really reaches its peak at the start of the year. As the Winter Black Truffle season comes to a close, the Black Summer Truffle begins and goes through about September.
What’s the difference between a black and white truffle?
There are some key differences between the black and white truffle. Most importantly, white truffles (from Piedmont, Italy) are typically utilized raw, whereas the black ones (usually from France) are much better cooked. The truffles that are shaved or grated finely into food are likely white truffles as black truffles are much better heated into sauces, creams, and stews.
Whites tend to have a depth of flavor, with hints of garlic and shallot; black truffles have distinct earthy flavors and a pungent aroma. The average price per pound for white truffles are much more, coming in at around $1,000-$3,000 versus black truffles that are more reasonable at around $750-$1,000 (again, depending on specific variety and season).
If I’m going to indulge myself and buy this luxury item, how can I be sure they are of quality and I’m not getting ripped off?
Find a reputable source to get them from. Check out online reviews, call your trusted local gourmet stores, etc. Also, be sure to ask when the truffles you are purchasing were harvested. To get the biggest bang for your buck (and to actually taste why they are so expensive), you have to make sure the truffle is not past its prime and that it is still exuding the intoxicating aroma (from which the flavor is derived) that make truffles so enjoyable. Truffles from Europe start losing flavor after just about four days, so you want to buy them as close to the date they were harvested as possible. When a truffle is in peak condition, it should be firm and compact and not spongy. Softness can sometimes mean inner rot or worms (yuck!).
How much should I buy?
Most people opt to buy about 3-4 ounces, partially due to the price but also because just a little bit of truffles can go a long way for a scrumptious meal. Remember, truffle shavings are usually used as a garnish and provide enough flavor for the whole dish. Any leftover truffles can be used to create truffle oil or a variety of other truffle products (we get more into this later).
OK, I finally scored some beauties. How do I go about cleaning them?
Gently brush with a toothbrush or carefully scrape dirt off with your smallest, sharpest pairing knife. Gently wipe away dirt with a paper towel or soft cloth. Gently, gently, gently….
What is a “microplane” and where can I get one?
A microplane is really nothing more than a quality hand-grater. You can use these instruments to finely shave your truffles and then incorporate them into a delicious cream sauce or tossed in a pasta, for instance. You can easily get one of these at your local Bed, Bath & Beyond. Eataly sells a metal truffle slicer, also.
How can I “stretch” them in recipe?
Many people tend to mix in porcini or other wild mushrooms into a dish, perhaps in a sauce over pasta, in order to “stretch” truffles. You can also create your own truffle oil by using extra virgin olive oil and using the truffle shavings to keep these longer, hence stretching its shelf life.
What about truffle oil?
Even though it should be well known that truffles are most enjoyable eaten fresh within days of their discovery, there are also a few products out there that try to preserve the life of the truffle and still give you that enjoyable culinary experience. The most popular of these is the truffle oil, which is less expensive than fresh truffles.
There are several brands out there and hence are much easier to find on store shelves than fresh truffles, but you should keep in mind that many are flavored with natural or chemical flavoring that just duplicates the flavor of truffles, while others do indeed make them with pure extra virgin olive oil and REAL truffle shavings. My advice is to ask the manufacturer and/or read the ingredient label carefully; if a label says it contains truffle “aroma,” “flavor” or “essence” as an ingredient, it likely means its made of chemicals versus the real stuff.
For pure, untreated truffle oil check any of the sources above plus the trustworthy and exciting olive oil shop, Olivette, in Darien and Norwalk, CT. Olivette encourages customers to taste any oil in their store. You may also order online.
When you find the good stuff, keep in mind that it is best used just before serving your dish. You can simply drizzle it over seared fish, risotto, pasta, or soup or you can actually mix it into a vinaigrette to add a delectable earthy type of flavor. Keep in mind that you need only use it in small amounts! Truffle oil is a finishing oil.
NOTE from Liz:
I’ve just returned from a once in a life-time trip to Northwestern Italy where I explored everything truffles and sipped the magnificent wines of the region with renowned wine expert, David Lynch. Please stop back later this week, to find out more about how truffles are celebrated in the regional cuisine of Lombardy.