Truffles are a little trick of Mother Nature. Growing wild in forests filled with oak, poplar, chestnut, or hazelnut trees, truffles rely on perfect weather conditions. They do not like it too hot or cold. Wild animals roaming the forest floors help spread their spores and, even when truffles have grown, you are at the mercy of having an animal (traditionally a pig, but dogs are easier to train) sniff them out for you. They are not easy for humans to cultivate or copy. White truffles (Tuber Magnatum Pico), in particular, have even proven themselves mysteriously elusive to truffle farmers because of the particular soil environment they require to grow. This is precisely what makes them so incredibly special.
True to their name, black truffles have an armor of dark, dinosaur-like skin. Their aroma is mushroomy and mellow. White truffles, however, are even more luxurious. The little pale beige tubers have smooth, velvety skin, a marbled interior, and an intense, earthy perfume. While they are rare, Italy is blessed with the best quality white truffles the world can find, with a number of areas of white truffle production, like Pesaro-Urbino in Le Marche, Alba in Piedmonte, and San Miniato in Tuscany. And November is the best time to celebrate them, when truffle festivals are abound.
A white truffle is a true luxury, but thankfully a little goes a long way. A truffle the size of a walnut kernel and weighing less than two ounces (about 50 grams), is enough to generously garnish a plate of buttery tagliolini for 8-10 people.
Once you have a white truffle in your hands, you’ll want to handle it with extreme care. Keep it wrapped in paper towel in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator. Change the paper towel each day. The Piemontesi like to keep it in a jar filled with rice, which helps absorb the excess moisture. Use it as soon as you can—the longer you wait, the more the truffle loses moisture and therefore its aroma. When something costs $3,000 to $7,000 (or more) per pound, you want to, of course, use it at its freshest.
To prep truffles, clean it of its forest floor dirt just before using it. You don't need any fancy truffle equipment. A new, small toothbrush will do the trick, or even a toothpick for gently pushing dirt out of crevices. A quick rinse under running water and a damp paper towel finish the job. Don’t be overly zealous about cleaning, as the truffle's quite delicate and you don’t want to lose precious chunks of it.
To get the most out of a white truffle, it's best served as simply as possible—not cooked, but grated or finely sliced over a warm dish, which brings out its aroma. Funnily enough, it's the humblest of ingredients, which allow its flavor to truly stand out, that marry so well with truffles: fresh egg pasta, polenta, butter, eggs, potatoes, and cheese. This recipe for truffle fondue uses black truffles, however it would be just as beautiful with white truffles.
If you have some little knobby bits of truffle leftover, or you aren't going to use it all at once, but want to conserve its special aroma, make white truffle butter: Gently melt some butter (opt for a European-style cultured butter), grate the fresh truffle over it (again, don’t cook it, you just want to warm it in the melted butter to release its aroma) and add good quality salt, to taste. If you’re not using it straight away, pour the butter into small glass jars and it cool before storing in the fridge. The fat helps keep the truffle protected from the air—and you have yourself a handy condiment to spoon into scrambled eggs, fry eggs in, add to mashed potatoes, top a steak with, toss with some fresh tagliolini, or simply spread onto warm crostini. The butter also makes a very impressive edible gift for the holidays.
Tell us: Have you cooked with white truffles before? If so, what did you do with them?