How should I try black truffle?
September 9, 2007 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Are truffles worth the extreme hype? If so, what would be the best way to try some?

So, having watched enough Top Chef, Iron Chef, and other high-class cooking shows, I have heard endless commentary about how truffles are the best of the absolute best, the most delicious, mind-boggling wonderful food in all existence. (And, to avoid confusion, I'm talking about mushroomy truffles, not chocolates.) Certainly, truffles are expensive enough to make them a fancy delicacy.

My curiosity piqued when I discovered small amounts of black truffle available for sale nearby. While even that tiny little bit still holds a large price tag, I figure, if truffles are just that good, it'd be worth experiencing at least once.

However, I want some advice:

1) Are black truffles really as great as everyone seems to say? Or is it some huge fad and not really worth it?

2) Would I be able to get the full truffle experience just from some truffle oil, which I'm assuming would be cheaper? Anything else?

3) Considering your answers to the above, what recipe (or type of recipe) would best showcase the truffle?

Thanks for your advice.
posted by Ms. Saint to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've come to LOVE the truffle in the few times I've had it. It's one of those foods that grows on you each time you try it, so don't be put off if it isn't orgasmic the first time.

To tell you the truth, the whole truffles we've bought to cook with have been rather disappointing. I don't think the retail market gets the pick of the crop, I'm afraid. They just haven't had the punch that I've had in restaurants. What does seem to give me my truffle fix, though, is "truffle salsa." We got some of Tetsuya's Truffle Salsa, but you might be able to pick up another brand. It's a mix of truffles, porcini mushrooms, and olives. Mix some together with butter and spread on fresh crusty bread... HEAVEN.

Other than simple truffle butter, the best truffle dishes I've had have been truffle risotto (at Restaurant Balzac) and "Fettuccine al tartufovo" (from Buon Ricordo). The risotto was DIVINE; I'm guessing it had truffle salsa or oil throughout with fresh shavings on top. The fettucini was your basic hot pasta with cream sauce, but here's the thing: the waiter cracked an egg over it, and then proceeded to toss it all together. The egg had been stored for some time with a truffle so it had soaked up all the flavor. Very, very good.
posted by web-goddess at 10:30 PM on September 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

web-goddess has it, although I've never heard of the truffle salsa. Oil or shavings, which would definitely be lovely in risotto- are good ways to try truffles without breaking the bank.
posted by solongxenon at 10:34 PM on September 9, 2007

A good way to try truffles cheaply can be to pick up a (small) bottle of truffle oil, which you could toss with a bit of pasta or drizzle on some good bread.
posted by rossination at 10:37 PM on September 9, 2007

Fine thought, but truffle oil contains little to no actual truffle.
posted by xil at 10:41 PM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

A friend gave us some Tetsuya's Truffle Salsa as a gift. I had some on the weekend: mix a small amount (half a teaspoon per person) through scrambled eggs, eat with bacon and toast.

On last week's episode of The Cook and the Chef, truffles were the featured ingredient. They did some interesting things, with potatoes, pasta, and eggs.
posted by robcorr at 10:45 PM on September 9, 2007

Just a heads up - according to a really interesting but unfortunately now archived NY Times article published in May, most commercial truffle oils contain little to no actual truffle, and they can be pretty sketchy about reporting that. So, while truffle oil is an attempt to replicate the smell and taste of truffles at lower cost, and may give you some sense of the truffle experience, it's not what truffles are really like.

I haven't ever had truffles either, but have had the oil in restaurants many times and don't think it's anything particularly special. I had read all these breathless reports of the profundity of the aroma and so forth, but the truffle oils I've had typically don't have very complex smells or flavors as far as I can discern. I am hoping real truffles will be a bit more inspiring.
posted by crinklebat at 10:49 PM on September 9, 2007

Dang, didn't preview. What xil said, sorta.
posted by crinklebat at 10:50 PM on September 9, 2007

Well there you go. Thanks, xil and crinklebat.
posted by rossination at 10:52 PM on September 9, 2007

1) No, they aren't. Yes, they are a huge fad. Truffles are expensive because they are scarce and a pain in the ass to amass, not because they are taste-tastic. The only people saying otherwise are deluded foodies and people with a vested interest in selling more truffles. Sure, they're good, but so are many other cheaper fungi.
2) Kinda, but the only way to do it right is to infuse your own oil, and then you'd already have the truffles, so you might as well eat them.
3) Shaved thinly over risotto, as suggested above, is a great idea.

Also tasty on scrambled eggs. Once worked at a restaurant that did a brunch item of shaved white truffle over scrambled eggs. Plain ol' scrambled eggs, with a side of bacon and a nice thick slice of ripe tomato. And a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Unapologetic decadence. Man, I loved working there. Too bad the chef went batshitinsane.

On preview, what everyone else has already said.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:05 PM on September 9, 2007

A tasty alternative
posted by hortense at 11:17 PM on September 9, 2007

I.. want to eat all the things that web-goddess describes.

They are a fad, but prepared properly, they are quite tasty. My favorite Japanese restaurant just did a special appetizer with a nice bit of thinly-sliced truffle on top recently, and it was damn good. Other than that, I've only had them sparingly, so ymmv, etc.
posted by bedhead at 11:19 PM on September 9, 2007

A restaurant near my parents offered a tasting menu with truffles as the featured ingredient. Perhaps a restaurant near you does the same thing?
posted by bijou at 11:36 PM on September 9, 2007

Ooh, I forgot another way I've enjoyed truffle butter: on a steak. Just mush some up with the butter and chill it for a bit in the fridge, then whack a bit on your steak. It's also lovely stirred through mashed potatoes.

I saw that episode, too, robcorr. Could you believe the size of that thing? It was bigger than a baseball! The only ones I've had fresh have come from the DJ's Food Hall, and they've been more golf-ball-sized. Someone gifted us one a few years back when we were making a turducken, so we slid slices under the turkey breast. I couldn't even taste it. Not a whiff. We also tried storing some with eggs (to do the fettucine thing I mentioned) but they just weren't strong enough to make much of an impression.
posted by web-goddess at 12:07 AM on September 10, 2007

It's just one of those tastes and scents that either does it for you or not. If you enjoy stinky cheeses, then chances are this is something you'll like.

Start with a small bottle of premium truffle oil which will be pricey but still cheaper than a truffle. A little of the good stuff goes a long way. Look for one where the ingredients say "Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Truffles" and nothing else. Ignore anything that lists "truffle flavour" or "truffle aroma" as an ingredient. Then, if you like the flavour, perhaps move onto a fresh truffle.

Bear in mind that the scent is volatile and will disperse so you need to find somewhere that imports their truffles fresh. You may need to befriend a restraunteur. Most truffles will be from France or Italy (which will be coming into season soon), but Australia is also producing truffles for export now (although the season is just finishing here).

My favourite way to use the oil is to mash a pile of potatoes with an indecent amount of butter, some cream and whip witha whisk until very smooth. Beat in a handful of grated pecorino and drizzle in a little truffle oil. Serve with steak or salmon and a salad with some sharp dressing. I've not yet been able to afford fresh truffle to cook with although I have eaten it. It was very delicious indeed and was stuffed under the breast skin of a spring chicken which was then pan fried in butter and served with baby vegetables.

Disclaimer: The above relates to black truffles only, not the white variety.
posted by ninazer0 at 12:13 AM on September 10, 2007

Truffles are not a fad.
I absolutely love them.
But their taste is not for everyone.
I don't like oysters or caviar too much and wouldn't spent my food money on them but neither would I call them a fad because I don't like them.

Here's my tipp on getting properly truffled:

Cook some fresh (freshly made!) pasta.
After cooking toss them with some truffle oil.
Put on plate. Grind a little black pepper over the pasta.
Then use a truffle plane to shred fine slices over everything.
Add a little fresh parmesan.
Just thinking about it makes me drool on the keyboard.
posted by ollsen at 12:19 AM on September 10, 2007

Alternatives to truffle oil: sliced truffles in olive oil, truffle salt.
posted by iviken at 2:07 AM on September 10, 2007

Yours is a great questions Ms Saint and I was considering my own related one - "How would I go about hunting for my own truffles?". En-route to that I found the fairly informative Wikipedia page on Truffles and this page which tells you what each sort of truffle looks and tastes like. Finally here is how to train your dog to hunt them. The point of truffle oil - it turns out - is to get your puppies used to the scent of what they need to go after.

Finally I looked to see if there was a reasonable prospect of getting truffles on my doorstep in Scotland (there is - and this is supposed to be a good year for it) and found this article. I quote:

"A dark shape appears. And there it is, a fine black truffle. About 50 grams, says Auguste, lifting it gently and examining it in his hand. Not large, but it has a good colour and scent.

Auguste cups his hand and lifts the contents to my nostrils. "What do you think?" he asks.

I breathe deeply. The fragrance is almost frightening, filling my nostrils and throat with a scent so exciting, so overwhelming, so astonishingly familiar that my head swims and I have to sit down on a tree-stump, limp as a leaf.

Auguste watches me, amused. "I see you recognise the scent." And I, a mother of four, 20 years married, blush like a girl.

What has just invaded my senses is something unimaginably exquisite. These words spring to mind: sweet almonds, ripe grapes, thyme, rosemary, juniper, the scent of heather-roots, bonfire-embers after rain - and underlying all, that strange sense of excitement, a reminder of long ago when love was young and magical, without all the baggage of later years."

posted by rongorongo at 2:37 AM on September 10, 2007

I hardly think that a very old, highly regarded and loved culinary experience could be a “fad”. Maybe its popularity in trendy American restaurants is faddish, but appreciation and love for the truffle itself is not.

I'm pretty sure that all fungi are very high in the only recently recognized fifth taste, in the East called “umani”, which is basically a savory flavor. The researchers which recently identified the receptor on the tongue for umani called the receptor “aste-mGluR4”. It seems like I read somewhere that truffles are especially high in this, although I could be mistaken. But I'm sure all fungi are, which doesn't surprise me at all as basically this is the taste that I'm fanatical about, almost to the exclusion of all others. I could eat nothing but some meats, cheese, fungi, and other things and I'd be happy.

Chef Daniel Patterson in the NYT article seems awfully reactionary to me and it's obvious that the one molecule that producers are using for so-called “truffle oil” is a molecule that is prominent in truffles in general and especially important for the olfactory experience of truffles. It's almost certainly a poor echo of actual truffles, just like vanillin is of vanilla, but, on the other hand, not an unreasonable flavor to use when the genuine isn't available and when taken for what it is, rather than what it is not.

I mean, look, in so many things we experience today this is true. Most of them are poor imitations of the real thing, whether it's music, or food, or whatever we're talking about. But, in most cases, the alternatives to poor imitations are nothing because authenticity is often both rare and expensive, usually both. As far as I'm concerned, second-rate experiences of a huge variety of things is better than no experiences of those things and living a life with little variation but high authenticity. A wise person finds the things that matter most to him/her and tries to maximize the quality of those particular experiences. All else he/she allows to be what they are and not worry too much about them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:39 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Elisabeth Luard's book on truffles - which I quote form above - mentions that part of the appeal is supposed to be about the similarities between the scent of truffles and that of sex pheromones. Specifically - and rather less romantically - there is a close chemical relationship between some chemicals in truffles and the male pig sex pheromone adrostenol.
posted by rongorongo at 3:53 AM on September 10, 2007

Try truffle salt. Mrs. Plinth got me a jar of it for Christmas last year. It is redolent with the aroma of truffles and goes great on red meat.

She also got me white and black truffle oils which could make cardboard taste good.
posted by plinth at 4:17 AM on September 10, 2007

You might want to go to a French restaurant and try Tournedos Rossini: tender slices of the heart of the fillet of beef, topped by foie gras and truffles... named after the celebrated Italian composer.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:03 AM on September 10, 2007

There are species of truffles that are relatively flavorless, so make sure you get yours from a trustworthy source. You should be able to smell it yourself, do so before you buy it. I haven't eaten truffles yet (just truffle oil), but there are few things on this earth with a more layered and pleasing aroma (I don't think ambergris will ever be a food item).
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:10 AM on September 10, 2007

Trufle is not a fad. But i'll agree that it's not as incredible as people say. Basically it's not a garanteed orgasm, you might not like it.
Trufle is known because it's extremely rare and expensive and because its taste has no equivalent.
It's like garlic, not in taste, but in the way that only garlic tastes like garlic.
It's that peculiar, and i think that's why people who likes trufle go apeshit over it.
And BrotherCaine, you're wrong about Ambergris.
posted by SageLeVoid at 8:19 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is definitely worth it to try truffles, but before you blow a wad of cash on the real thing, you should try some black truffle oil first.

I've had both real truffle (in restaurants) and the oil (in restaurants and at home), and I love both flavors, though they are different.

If you like the taste and smell of the oil (I recommend a poached egg on top of toast that's been toasted with truffle oil and parmesan cheese), then do go get some truffles in a restaurant.

As was said above, the restaurants get first pick of truffles and have better quality ones, even if you happened to pick the best of the for-sale bunch on your first try.

When I tried the real thing (on plain pasta with butter at a restaurant in NY), I was surprised at how different it was to the oil. The real shaved black truffle is more about aroma and less about flavor on your tongue. The oil is much more concentrated and tastes more immediately of truffle, but the real thing is more complex and fragrant. Try it!
posted by rmless at 8:48 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buying a truffle isn't all that expensive and a little goes a long way. You'll probably be able to buy a decent sized black truffle for ~$20.

Buy a nice piece of brie and some water crackers. Go home, shave some truffle off, slice the cheese in half and lay a layer of truffle slices inside. Reassemble the cheese and place back into the fridge overnight. Remove from the fridge the next day, allow to come to room temperature. Eat on the crackers.

I think this is probably the best way to determine if you like real truffles. You'll still have plenty left to sprinkle over an omelet or mashed taters later. Then you can spread out into the remainder of the truffle world.

At the worst you are out ~$30 and you are pretty sure you are eating a truffle and not some truffle flavored concoction.

But what do I know? I'm a barely civilized barbarian.
posted by Seamus at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2007

I know it's not the full experience, blah blah, but the truffle oil (the "aroma" kind; it was the only available at Whole Foods) mashed potatoes I made last Friday were amazing, and I went to bed dreaming of what else to use it with.
posted by mimi at 10:00 AM on September 10, 2007

thirding or fourthing the truffle salt--it's a nice condiment, delicious on eggs, pasta, potatoes, just about everything, and if you like it, then splurge.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:30 AM on September 10, 2007

Ethereal Bligh: The taste is called "umami" with two Ms. But yes, that's what everyone's going nuts over—and you can get it much more cheaply with a basic mushrooms-and-pasta dish.

That said, I have not yet had truffles.
posted by limeonaire at 4:38 PM on September 10, 2007

Whoops. Thanks for the correction of a stupid mistake!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:55 PM on September 10, 2007

The best way to experience truffles is at a good French restaurant.
Personally, I think they're frequently overdone, but when right they add an amazing zing, especially to seafood. Shrimp and other crustaceans are the best thing I've eaten with truffle zing.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:42 PM on September 10, 2007

Black truffle honey from otto (NYC) with a good cheese (gorgonzola? tallegio? robiola? etc) and a nice sangiovese. I dream about this frequently.
posted by lalochezia at 9:37 PM on September 10, 2007

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