When people talk about luxury gourmet foods, truffles are usually the first example to come up after caviar.
The inimitable umami flavor of these impossible-to-domesticate fungi have earned legions of well-heeled fans who find them worth their weight in gold. At more than $200 an ounce, Italian white truffles are more expensive than most species of caviar you can buy in the U.S.
This reputation has spun off many “truffle” products that don’t contain a speck of white truffle or even black truffle (black truffles at the high end run around $25 per ounce).
Most truffle oils are made of olive oil mixed with overpowering synthetic flavors based on a chemical derived from formaldehyde — manufacturers are not required to spell this out on the label.
Many authentic truffle oils are surprisingly affordable, but that’s often because they contain low-quality truffles that have little to no flavor, sometimes supplemented with artificial flavor.
To experience their true complexity, your best bet is to find a restaurant that serves dishes containing truffles or to buy your own to prepare them how you wish.
Tuber magnatum is the rarest and costliest of any truffle, as they grow primarily in northwest Italy with a few more dug up in Croatia.
Their musky, pungent aroma have won some detractors along with their admirers, and many say it’s entirely responsible for the garlicky, spicy taste, though it quickly dissipates. They’re strong enough that they’re usually served in slices on top of pasta, eggs or steak.
They’re harvested from September through January, and many devotees say they’re best consumed immediately after they’re unearthed, so several truffle festivals are held during these months.
Native to the French region of Perigrod, black truffles are now grown in other parts of Europe and are making inroads into Australia and Northern California.
Their earthy taste and smell is more delicate than that of white truffles but is longer lasting, which makes it more amenable for using in sauces and spreads.
Their harvest season falls just after that of white truffles, from December to March.