When Is a Truffle NOT a Truffle?
Ask a chef at a white tablecloth restaurant to describe a truffle, and he or she will probably wax poetic about the very expensive fungi that grow beneath oak trees. Ask a pastry chef to describe a truffle, and you will hear of a soft-centered confection coated in tempered chocolate.
How did the fungus and the candy end up with the same name? Which came first, the savory truffle or the sweet one?
This post will take a look at truffles. And truffles. A little truffle history, and a recipe or two thrown in for good measure. So, enjoy this exploration of truffles. And truffles.
Truffles – Say What
Truffles From The Ground
What’s In A Name
The name “truffle” comes from the Latin for “lump.” Not a very auspicious name for such an expensive ingredient, but it is descriptive.
Truffles belong to a family of fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with certain trees, most notably oak, but also hazel, beech, and poplar. Since they do grown under the soil, they are difficult to find.
Historically, pigs were used to hunt down truffles. Pigs do not need to be trained to do this; this is an innate ability. Scientists think that it might have to do with the truffles giving off a pheromone that attracts the pigs. The downside of using pigs to find truffles is that, not only are they genetically predisposed to find truffles, but they are also predisposed to eat them once found.
As you can imagine, this trait is not good for the truffle farmer’s pocket book. Most farmers now use dogs specially trained to sniff out truffles, much like dogs are trained to sniff out illegal drugs.
All About Truffles
I interviewed my friend Lola who knows a thing or two about truffles, how and where they are found and why they are so expensive. You can read the entire interview at All About Truffles and here is an excerpt.
Preposterously elusive, harvested with spy-story secrecy, imbued with an otherworldly mix of sublime and naughty fragrances and often confused with the fine chocolate with the same name, the truffle has been prized by peasants and nobles alike for centuries….
The Diamonds of the Kitchen
Truffles are a subterranean fungi that flourish via a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees, e.g., beech, hazel, oak, etc. They are not mushrooms which are a completely different fungi. They are also not to be confused with the chocolate confection that bears the same name. …….. For More of Chef Mark’s comments on Truffles
Black or White Truffles
The Two Main Types of Truffles
There are two main types of truffle used in the culinary world-white truffles and black truffles. However, there are also summer and winter versions of both black and white. (see below)
White truffles are generally much more expensive than their black cousins. The flavor of white truffles is very pungent and earthy. White truffles are very aromatic, but their scent and flavor dulls with cooking. Because of this, white truffles are generally served raw, shaved very thinly over pasta or other dishes.
Black truffles are far less pungent than white truffles, and their flavor holds up well when cooked making them suitable for cooking with meats, fowl and stuffing.
Summer or Winter Truffles
Let Me Totally Confuse You
I already said there are two main types of truffles – black and white. But there are also summer and winter versions of each.
Summer truffles of both colors are considered to be inferior to winter truffles, mainly because they have a subtler flavor and are decidedly less pungent. Of the two colors of truffles, white truffles are best served raw because they lose pungency when cooked. The flavor of black truffles is actually enhanced by cooking.
Winter white truffles are highly prized for their garlic/shallot flavor and fragrance. Rather than dead white, white truffles are a cream to yellowish color on the outside. Unlike black truffles, white truffles have relatively smooth skin.
Summer white truffles are the same variety as winter white truffles and look identical. The only difference between the two is when they are harvested. The summer white truffle is not quite as fragrant as the winter white truffle, but they are still a wonderful option.
The winter black truffle is a gray to brownish-black color on their bumpy exterior. Cutting into one, you will find thin white veins running through the interior. These veins indicate maturity. The most highly prized truffle for cooking, their flavor has been described as both chocolaty and earthy.
The summer black truffle looks very similar to the winter black truffle on the outside. The interior tends to be a bit grayer in color than their winter cousins. While not as highly prized as winter black truffles, the summer variety still has a pleasing pungency, although it is more subtle.
Where To Purchase Fresh Truffles Online?
Only Buy From Reputable Purveyors
If you are near a great specialty market or have a supermarket that carries exotic gourmet items, I would start there. You may or may not get lucky. If not, there are a number of reputable sources online including Amazon.com that includes a number of purveyors who market fresh truffles as well as other truffle products.
What About Truffle Oil?
The next best thing if you don’t have fresh truffles.
Some of you may have heard of or even used truffle oil. Many professional chefs consider truffle oil a reasonable, and more reasonably priced, substitute for truffles. Most commercially produced truffle oils are artificially flavored, however. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just know that, if you are purchasing truffle oil, it most likely is not made with truffles, although its flavor might be very pungent and pleasing.
You will find many varieties of truffle infused oil including Black Truffle Oil, White Truffle Oil, Concentrated Truffle Oil, French, Italian from various producers. The Italian truffles are the best known, but the French Perigord Truffle also called Winter Black Truffle are exquisite.
Truffle oils are generally not used in cooking, as the heat adulterates their flavors. Instead, they are added after a dish is prepared or used in salads and other cold dishes. You can add small amounts to soups, stews or sautes to add an additional layer of flavor.
Where Does The Reluctant Gourmet Buy Truffle Oil? – Again, I look at my local markets but if I can’t find what I want, I grab my mouse and head over to Amazon.com/truffle_products to find what I need.
Truffle Hunting in Siena
Dogs are not as piggy as the pigs who wolf down the truffles
It’s All About Supply & Demand
Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to cultivate truffles. This was done very successfully and on a large scale back in the late 1800s in France. Farmers would plant acorns dropped by oak trees that had truffles at their bases in other fields, and in a few years: voila-truffle fields.
As the life cycle of the symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus is only about 30 years, these fields are no longer productive. World Wars I and II also greatly interfered with truffle production. Today’s farmers are against mass cultivation, as the relative scarcity of truffles keeps the demand-not to mention the price-high.
Truffles are grown in many parts of Europe, but are most notable in France and Italy. China produces a lot of truffles, but they are often considered of inferior quality to European truffles. Believe it or not, there is even domestic production of the black truffle. There are truffle producing groves in the Piedmont areas of North Carolina and Virginia!
The Truffle Shaver
An Inexpensive Gadget For A Very Expensive Ingredient
The truffle shaver was developed to make the most of a very expensive ingredient. The thinner the slices, the longer the truffle will last. And, since truffles are extremely pungent and flavorful, a little goes a long way. Truffle shavers look very similar to a cheese plane. They differ in that you can control the thickness of each slice by turning a nut on the slicer. Slices can range in thickness from almost paper thin to about 1/8″.
On first glance, the truffle shaver might seem like a one trick pony-that all it is good for is shaving truffles. While this is the reason they were developed, you can also use a truffle shaver to shave hard cheese, such as Parmesan and Romano, for thin slicing garlic or shallots and for shaving chocolate.
You can also use a truffle shaver to make thin slices of almost any small, hard vegetable or fruit, such as radishes, mushrooms, new potatoes, strawberries and kiwi. You can even use it to make thin slices of ginger making kimchi!
Truffled Macaroni and Cheese
I’m not sure the kids will eat this Mac & Cheese but you could try
Truffle macaroni and cheese seems to be all the rage right now, and why not? Almost everyone loves a rich and creamy mac and cheese. Add to it the earthy depth that truffles can bring, and you have the perfect upscale side dish for a special meal.
Wild Mushroom Macaroni and Three Cheeses with Truffle Oil
1 cup sliced crimini mushrooms
1 cup sliced shitake mushrooms
2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp dry sherry
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
3 cup whole milk, warmed
4 oz herbed goat cheese, crumbled
4 oz sharp cheddar, shredded
3 oz. fontina cheese, shredded
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2-3 tbsp truffle oil, to taste (you may substitute some shaved black truffle if you are lucky enough to have some)
10 oz elbow pasta or other short pasta shape. Rotini would be nice, too.
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
2 oz Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
How to Prepare at Home
1. Heat a skillet and then add the olive oil.
2. Once the oil is hot, add the mushrooms, sherry and salt and pepper to taste and cook over medium-high heat until for about 3-4 minutes, or until the mushrooms have given up all their liquid and the pan is almost dry.
3. Stir in the fresh thyme. Set the mushrooms aside.
4. In the same pan, heat the butter until bubbly.
5. Add the flour and whisk and cook until golden, about 3 minutes.
6. Add the 3 cups of milk and stir until boiling and thickened. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Off the heat, stir in the goat cheese, cheddar and fontina, a bit at a time. You might need to put the mixture back over low heat, but don’t let it boil.
8. Stir in the truffle oil and the reserved mushrooms.
9. Cook the pasta according to package directions to al dente, drain well and stir into the cheese-mushroom mixture.
10. Taste, and correct seasonings.
11. Put the pasta in a baking dish.
12. Mix the panko and Parmesan and sprinkle evenly over the top of the casserole.
13. Bake the mac and cheese in the upper third of a 400F oven until the cheese is bubbling and the topping is a deep golden brown.
Let’s Not Forget The Famous Truffle Shuffle
From the movie The Goonies
A Little Truffle History
According to legend, the classic chocolate truffle was invented by accident in the 1920s in France. One of Auguste Escoffier’s apprentices poured boiling hot cream over chopped chocolate instead of tempering it into an egg mixture. Not wanting to throw out the expensive mistake, they whisked it together and discovered that, when it cooled, it could be rolled into little balls. They then dusted them with cocoa powder.
The resulting lopsided balls looked very much like the fungus of the same name, and the chocolate truffle was born. This is an apocryphal story, but it often makes us feel better to know that our mistakes can turn out to be real gems!
Nowadays in America, “truffle” refers to almost any chocolate candy filled with some sort of cream. Truffles can contain caramel, nuts, chocolate, fruit creams, liqueurs-almost anything goes. The original, hand-rolled French truffle is always made of a ganache center and rolled in either tempered chocolate, finely chopped nuts or cocoa powder.
At its simplest, the ganache is usually a mixture of 2 parts excellent quality chocolate to 1 part heavy cream. The cream is brought to a boil and then poured over the chopped chocolate. The two ingredients are slowly whisked together to form a deep, dark, glossy emulsion. The ganache is then chilled and scooped and rolled into balls by hand.
While “chocolate truffles” sound very fancy, they are really quite easy to make at home. Make a batch to give away as presents, or as part of a dessert tray. All it takes is a little time, some gloves and a workspace.
Make Your Own Truffles
A simple truffle recipe – makes about 30
This recipe can easily be doubled or even tripled.
Where Does Chocolate Come From?
What makes chocolate taste so good?
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which is in turn grow inside pods on the cocoa tree. The first step in making chocolate is to harvest and open the pods, exposing the beans. The beans are allowed to ferment for about a week and then are dried.
At this point, the beans are roasted. Roasting not only brings out their flavor, it also makes the husks easier to remove. After roasting, the beans are cracked into cocoa nibs (pieces generally no larger than 1/8″), and all the husks are separated. The nibs contain 53% cocoa butter and 47% cocoa solids.
The next steps separate the cocoa butter from the solids. First the nibs are ground until they form a thick paste (cocoa mass or chocolate liquor). Then, the paste is pressed so all the cocoa butter is “squeezed out.” What is left is 100% pure cocoa solids. When finely ground, the solids are sold as cocoa powder.
To make chocolate for eating and cooking, chocolate manufacturers combine unpressed chocolate liquor, extra cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and sometimes milk solids (only in the case of milk chocolate). This mixture is churned together and then refined to break down the different particles and make is very smooth.
To learn more about the difference between dark and white chocolate and why does chocolate taste sweet, you can check out my All About Chocolate article.
Espresso Sea Salt Caramel Truffles
Handmade Caramel, Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate, Espresso Sea Salt
My friend Chef Keem is making some incredible caramel truffles made with both dark and white chocolate and sprinkled with espresso sea salt. Chef Keem describes his truffles way better than I could ever. Here is what he says,
“You bite through the chocolate shell and you notice the texture and flavor of the caramel filling, while the salt crystals tickle your taste buds ever so lightly. But then – the “mingling” begins. The confection starts to melt in your mouth. The caramel blends with the chocolate and it seems like this is the best chocolate you’ve ever tasted.
A few seconds later, light saltiness combined with a gentle touch of coffee creates a flavor explosion in your mouth. The working-together of all components gives you this gorgeous sensation of sweet luxury – the taste of a truly unique and exquisite candy. You are in “truffle heaven”!”