Truffles are highly prized in restaurants and by foodies across the world. We’re not talking about the chocolate kind, but a little dirt-clod-like ball that adds flavor and texture to many savory dishes.
These hard-to-find fungi command some of the highest prices for a food item in the world.
Truffles are a sign of the finer things in life, held in esteem and desired by many, but they don’t need to cost an arm and a leg once you know where to find them in the wild. Read on to learn how to succeed at hunting for truffles.
What Are Truffles
Understanding what truffles are and how they form, spread, and grow will help in locating and harvesting them for the kitchen table.
In basic terms, truffles are fungi that form a mushroom-type growth nestled against tree roots.
They are primarily categorized as part of the Tuber genus, in the Tuberaceae family. The part that we harvest and eat is the fruit or sac of ascomycete fungus. Multiple other genera contain truffles as well, including Choiromyces, Geopora, Leucangium, and Peziza.
There are dozens of species within the Tuber genus, but not all are highly valued for their culinary use.
Truffles are classified as ascomycete fungi that develop a symbiotic relationship (ectomycorrhizas) alongside trees like oak (Quercus spp.), beech (Fagus spp.), poplars (Populus spp.), hickory (Carya spp.), hazelnut (Corylus spp.), birch, and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.).
They can take up to eight years to mature.
So, how do you find this unique and treasured ingredient that nature provides to your dinner table?
Let’s explore how to go about hunting for truffles.
Locating Truffle Growing Sites
In times gone by, pigs were used for hunting for truffles. Today, dogs are used as they have a keen sense of smell and are more easily trained not to eat the truffles that they find. If you have access to a truffle dog, you’re in luck. Otherwise, you’ll have to do the work yourself.
In North America, truffles are predominantly found in the Pacific Northwest, mainly in Washington State and Oregon. A few are also found in the Appalachian mountains, parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
They’re found throughout Europe, with the majority in Italy and France.
Due to their growing requirements, hunting for truffles is hard. You can’t just go on a hike and look around. Hunting for truffles takes a little knowledge. Conditions must be perfect for the spores to spread and for the fungi to form to produce this delicacy.
The time to go on the hunt is when the local species has matured and the weather is cool and wet.
In Italy, truffle hunting season is from November through April. In the Pacific Northwest, people generally head out from January through March. In the east, truffles can be found in fall and spring, depending on where you’re looking.
Begin your search after a few days of rainfall.
Start your search by finding trees that the species of truffle that grows in your area prefers. For example, most truffles in the Pacific Northwest grow under young Douglas firs. Locate these trees and look at the base for an area that looks bare and smooth.
Truffles prevent other vegetation from growing, so the ground is usually bare and has what some hunters call the appearance of creme brulee. Once you spot these areas, look for holes.
Animals such as chipmunks and squirrels dig for truffles, leaving pits. Watch out for these tell-tale signs of truffles. This will help you find the best location to start digging.
Harvest truffles at the peak of their maturity and before sunrise to maximize their flavors. Each variety of truffle has its best harvest periods. It’s crucial when hunting for truffles to know when the ideal harvest period is.
Once you’ve found a likely spot while hunting for truffles, it’s time to start digging.
Remove surface leaves and debris, and gently rake the surface of the ground. Don’t rake too deep or aggressively. You want to just gently remove layer after layer while feeling for any lumps or bumps.
Once you feel a bump or a spot that feels different from the surrounding area, gently dig down using your hands or a trowel. You might have to dig down to about four inches, but truffles are rarely deeper than that.
If you find a truffle, gently dig around it and lift it up from below. Only take the mature truffles once you find a batch. If the truffles are not mature carefully pack them back into the soil and mark the spot to be found again later.
Finally, bury the area again, covering it with dirt and leaf littler.
Common Truffle Species
Globally, there are numerous varieties of truffles. If you’re ready to go hunting for truffles, here are some you could find in your foraging adventures.
Black Perigord Truffle
Black Perigord truffles (Tuber melanosporum) are one of the most expensive and sought-after truffles. More commonly known as the French or black truffle, it’s renowned for its strong flavor compared to the fall and summer-type truffles on the market.
This truffle prefers a damp spring without late frosts and the dry heat of the summer. It’s most commonly found in regions without heavy frosts and intense cold.
The best time to search and harvest is January to March. It grows wild in Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia.
This is one of the most versatile truffles in terms of growing environments, which is why it’s cultivated throughout North America. When you’re hunting for truffles, finding one of these is like hitting the jackpot.
This truffle’s (Tuber aestivum) preferred growing environment is the roots of oaks. However, it has been found among chestnut, pine, cedar, and pecan trees.
It is a lighter shade than the black Perigord and has a marbled effect running throughout.
Summer truffles have wart-like nodules on the surface, making them a bit less appealing to the eye. Tuck in, however, and you’ll be treated to a flavor of blended hazel and earth with an added crunch.
This truffle refers cold regions and organic soils. It is one of the most affordable species of truffle on the market and is cultivated throughout North America.
The best harvest time is June to August, but you can find them as late as January. It grows throughout Europe.
The Burgundy truffle was once classified as a separate species, but it’s now recognized as the same species that varies in appearance and flavor depending on its growing environment. It’s somewhat sweeter in aroma, still embodying the earth from which it came. It also has hints of honey and nuttiness.
A mid-color truffle between black and off-white, this truffle is a fall stunner from October to December. It matures in autumn and is ready for eating during the holidays. The more mature the truffle, the darker it appears.
Located in elevated sites among deciduous forests, this truffle can’t stand heat. It’s more suited to consistently humid but damp, cool conditions. It prefers clay-based soils and those rich in humus.
This species is fabulous for truffle butter, risotto, or infused with potatoes.
Also referred to as the Muscat truffle (Tuber brumale), this is a black truffle type. It’s less expensive than other black species and is often confused with the black Perigord truffle based on its appearance (but not flavor).
A strong-tasting truffle, it has an earthy fragrance and thick vein-type imprint within its flesh. The winter truffle is harvested, as the name suggests, in the winter season. Starting hunting for truffles and harvest them from December through to March.
This truffle grows in the wild is southern Europe. It’s also cultivated in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s an excellent option for dishes such as scrambled eggs and pasta.
A white truffle species with marbled ivory, light brown, and earthy hues, Tuber borchii is an amazing addition to risotto. Add it to dishes such as taglionlini, roasted artichokes, or scallop dishes.
It’s one of the most commonly found truffle species in Europe, from Finland to Italy, and grows mainly with host trees of hazel and oak.
It’s an abundant grower and suited for harvest from January to April. For people who are new to hunting for truffles, this is a more common one to find.
Oregon White Truffle
Oregon has had huge success in cultivating this delicacy, and it can also be found growing wild in young Douglas fir forests.
Deemed one of the strongest-tasting truffles in the world, Tuber oregonense prefers soil types that are sandy limestone, which is more typical of coastal regions.
Mostly harvested from fall on, from September until January, it’s usually smaller than other white truffles, but the flavor is anything but small. It has a musky, cedar, garlic, and nutmeg flavor.
Grate or slice this beauty on polenta or celeriac and apple soup. It’s also ideal for a white truffle fondue with mild cheese. For those hunting for truffles in the PNW, this is a sought-after option.
Oregon Black Truffle
With the flavor of a musky pineapple, Oregon black truffles (Leucangium carthusianum) are finally earning some serious respect in the culinary world.
They are easiest to find from November through April, but you can usually locate good ones all year round. Look around the bases of young Douglas fir trees in the Pacific Northwest to find them.
They’re so dark on the outside that you might think you’ve discovered a lump of coal when you dig one up. Just be careful; these large truffles have thin skin.
Don’t use too much all at once while cooking as they have a pungent flavor.
Oregon Brown Truffle
Kalapuya brunnea is found in the Pacific Northwest. This species has reddish skin with warty lumps and bumps. People compare the flavor to camembert cheese with a cheesy, garlicky note.
It can only be found in Douglas fir forests and is best found from October to March.
This species was only recently discovered and is just now finding its footing in the culinary world. If you find it while out hunting for truffles, try some on pasta or bread and enjoy the unique flavor.
For those hunting for truffles east of the Rockies, you can find the pecan truffle (Tuber lyonii). It grows in the roots of oak, hazelnut, pecan (Carya illinoinensis), and hickory trees.
They are typically smooth or lightly lobed with a marbled interior. They’re slightly nutty and earthy, and much milder than the Oregon species. They’re also much less costly than many other truffles. But don’t ignore them; they have a fantastic flavor worth seeking out.
Harvest for these truffles from September through March.
How to Store Truffles
After you harvest your truffles from the wild, the excess soil needs to be removed before storing. Don’t wash them, though. Just gently brush them with a toothbrush or vegetable brush.
Wrap the truffles in a clean, cotton kitchen towel and place them in an air-tight container. These flour sack towels from DG Collections at Amazon would be perfect.
Secure the lid to prevent the truffles from tainting other foods or from becoming tainted themselves, and place them in the warmest section of the fridge. This is usually the top shelf.
Change the kitchen towel and re-wrap the truffles every 48 hours to prolong their shelf life.
As they are unpreserved, they will last up to two weeks this way. Avoid moisture getting to the truffles, as this will render them unusable. Some people opt to place a desiccant in the container to extend their life.
If you can’t eat them within two weeks and want to store them longer term, it is best to freeze them fresh.
So they don’t go soft, vacuum seal unwashed truffles and place them in the freezer. Once ready to use, the frozen truffles can be grated into dishes.
The longer a truffle is stored, the more its aroma and taste will diminish.
How to Prepare Truffles
Heat is not the truffle’s friend. Think of it as a garnish best added to meals once most of the dish has been prepared.
If cooked, truffles tend to lose their essence. That’s why you’ll often see them shaved onto dishes after they’ve been cooked. This adds a bit of the raw flavor for the biggest impact.
If you decide to cook them, add them at the last minute and cook them just briefly. You might want to do a little experimenting to see whether you prefer the cooked or raw flavor or how long you like them cooked.
Truffles can bring an extra unique zing to dishes. Here are two straightforward recipes that are not only easy to use to make other dishes but will also extend the shelf life and make storing the truffle flavor effortless.
1. Truffle Butter
This recipe is a good way to spread out your truffle stores to last longer and can be added to many different dishes.
Place the butter on your favorite steak, cooked just how you like it. Add to mashed potato or dab a blob on your corn on the cob. Drizzle it over French fries or roasted parsnip chips.
You can even mix it into risotto or other pasta dishes. The beauty of having this on hand is that you can spruce up dinner dishes at the drop of a hat.
It’s best to use fresh truffles, as frozen ones will add too much moisture to the recipe. You can always freeze this butter once made, either as one roll or separate slices for use when needed.
Preparation time is about 10 minutes.
- 17 ounces (500g) salted butter
- One ounce (30g) grated black or burgundy truffles
- Place the butter in a bowl.
- Cut the butter into pieces and allow to stand until at room temperature.
- Using a fork, mash up the butter pieces.
- Add the grated truffle and stir in.
- Using baking parchment, roll the butter into a cylinder shape.
- Remove the baking parchment and cover the butter with clingfilm, securing the ends.
- Place in the fridge until butter firms up and flavors infuse (at least 3 days).
- Use straight away or freeze for later use.
This is a definite one to make and have ready to use. You might have seen it for sale at fine grocery stores for a pretty penny. You can also make it for gifts and spread some truffle love.
A little goes a long way with this recipe. It can be added to salads, pasta, scrambled eggs, toasted fresh bread, and even pizza.
Preparation is five minutes tops, so this is a quick treat to make and it takes just two ingredients.
- 1/2 – 1 cup high-quality extra virgin olive oil
- One whole fresh truffle, about an inch in diameter
- Using a mandolin or grater, trim down the truffle into fine slivers.
- If using a mild species, use half a cup of oil. If using a strong species, use more oil to dilute the strong flavor.
- Gently heat the oil in a small saucepan until around 130°F or just below its smoking point (not to where it is smoking).
- Remove from the heat.
- Place truffle slivers into the oil and cover.
- Once completely cool, strain the mixture to remove the truffle particles.
- Pour strained oil into a clean, sterilized, airtight jar or glass bottle.
- Store away from direct heat and sunlight.
Oil made in this way should last for up to 3 months.