Why Are Truffles So Expensive?

Published Categorized as Food
Black trufflesneillangan /Depositphotos

Truffles are the most expensive type of mushroom in the world. And it’s not just because they smell like a dream.

The truffle is the fruiting body of one of the many fungi belonging to the genus Tuber. Colloquially referred to as “the diamonds of the kitchen,” truffles are praised by chefs, home cooks, and gourmands alike for their rich aroma and deep flavor.

They are also very—and I mean very—expensive. According to Truffle Farm’s truffle price tracker, the retail price of Italian white truffles was $211.64 per ounce in 2021. Winter black truffles sold for $20.49 per ounce, Burgundy black truffles for $24.93 per ounce, and summer black truffles for $22.57.

Compare the price of truffles with that of their more humble relative, the mushroom, and you will see how great is the difference of which I speak. On the day I wrote this article, white mushrooms sold for 25 cents per ounce.

This means that the black winter truffle is 82 times more expensive than the ordinary white mushroom; the Italian white truffle is the whopping 846 times more expensive. That’s a big difference in price for something that grows on the ground…

Why are truffles so expensive, really? And are they truly worth the price?

Truffles grow beneath the ground in forests, in the presence of oak, hazel, or linden. They’re harvested with the help of truffle-hunting dogs or pigs that can spot the flies that lay their eggs on truffled soil.

Truffles live in symbiosis—a mutually beneficial relationship, if you will—with trees. They extract nutrients from the soil and share them with the trees in exchange for the sugars secreted by the trees’ roots.

They also take forever to grow. Once the trees are planted and provided the conditions in the forest are right, it can take upward of a decade for the truffles to start growing and for the truffle forest to reach its peak of production.

When you pair that with the fact that truffles are highly perishable and taste their best when cooked and eaten fresh, it isn’t hard to understand what makes these edible fungi so much more expensive than their utilitarian cousin, the white mushroom.

Can Truffles Be Farmed?

Contrary to popular belief, truffles can be (and are) farmed. Their cultivation and growing, however, are difficult, which is why few truffle farms exist out there, and most edible truffles are harvested from truffled grounds in wild forests.

Farmers grow truffles by introducing truffle spores into the roots of young trees. Truffles need moist springs, hot summers and cool winters to grow. The soil must be rich and alkaline, with a pH of 7 to 8. Throughout the year, sunlight must be able to reach and warm the base of the trees.

Depending on the soil chemistry, the weather conditions, and a bit of luck, reports Food Unfolded, the soil starts to yield truffles in anywhere from 5-7 to 10-12 years with this farming method, which was conceived of in 1969.

Where Do Fresh Truffles Come From?

If truffles are so difficult to cultivate and grow, where do fresh truffles come from? The long and the short of it is, from wild forests. This makes the supply scarcer and the quality of the harvest unpredictable year over year, driving the price tag even higher.

In terms of location, truffles grow in North America, along the Mediterranean Seacoast and on the Balkan Peninsula in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in certain parts of Asia. Truffles have also been cultivated commercially in New Zealand, Australia, and China.

Chefs and restaurateurs get their truffle supply from truffle dealers, who work as clandestinely as their name implies. Truffle dealers harvest truffles from wild forests, keep their locations top secret, and drive around in unbranded vehicles to protect themselves from the spying eyes of their competitors.

Home cooks like you and I tend to get our truffles from gourmet food retailers. Stateside, the most reputable truffle retailers—and the one we recommend to shop from—are D’Artagnan and Gourmet Food Store.

How Do I Select, Keep, and Cook Truffles?

Select truffles for their firmness and density. When you hold a truffle in your hand, it should feel brittle and heavy for its size. Aroma is key; the truffle should smell complex and appetizing, never musty or moldy.

Let’s say you bought truffles, whether from a deli, a gourmet store, or a trusted online retailer. How do you keep them fresh once you’ve unwrapped them from the shopping bag? And by when should you cook and eat them?

To keep truffles fresh, seal them in a zipper bag or food storage container with the lid on and store them in the fridge. Refrigerated, white truffles last for 5 days and black truffles last for 7 days. (That said, they are a highly perishable food product; the sooner you eat them, the fresher they will be.)

You don’t cook truffles per se: the high heat of boiling water, hot oil, and dry air will destroy their richness of aroma and depth of flavor. Instead, you shave them coarsely over freshly prepared food, whether it’s a salad, a pasta dish, a thick-cut steak, or a juicy, decadent burger.

When seasoning your food with truffles, the truffle shaver can make or break the end result. A shaver that shaves truffles too thinly will waste much of their aroma by releasing it into the air in your kitchen, and will not preserve its flavor on your food.

Look for a truffle shaver that produces large, coarse shavings.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.