Truffles: Wild and Delicate Fungi

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Black TruffleThe culinary world clamors for truffles, so why not make them a part of your menu? Whether white (Alba Madonna) or black (black Perigord), truffles are pungent-smelling, warty, irregularly-shaped plants. Truffles grow wild, underground, at the roots of trees, like oak trees. While truffles primarily grow in Europe, they have also been harvested in the United States, Asia, New Zealand, and North Africa.

Animals are usually the ones hunting down truffles -- either female pigs or specially-trained dogs detect the scent. Of course, truffle merchants are usually the ones digging for them.

Truffles are a hot commodity. They’re also costly. In fact, certain varieties can cost hundreds of dollars per pound. Needless to say, chefs take special care of their private truffle stash.

The flavors of the truffle are delicate and they lose their potency over time. This loss of flavor means that truffles are best eaten as soon after harvest as possible.

The culinary uses for truffles are extensive. You can grate them into sauces, soups and stews, or you can thinly slice them over chicken, fish, or meats.

One method of imparting truffle flavor into foods is to store items close to the truffles.Foods like whole eggs (in their shells) and rice kernels will absorb the truffle essence, allowing their cooked versions (like scrambled eggs and boiled rice) to have a wonderful truffle flavor without using the whole truffle in the dish.

Be careful when you shop for truffles -- truffle oil, for example, usually does not contain actual truffles. Instead, the oil is flavored with a synthetic chemical. Black Perigord truffles are now infused into vodkas, which is used to make cocktails or in cooking. When you cook with these vodkas, the alcohol is reduced and the aroma of the truffle remains.

As far as nutrients, truffles, like other mushrooms, are jam-packed with minerals from the soil – think calcium, potassium, and magnesium. These are all good for cardiovascular health. Plus, truffles are low in fat and sodium and contain fair amounts of fiber and chitin, a protein that gives structure to the fungi’s cell walls.

Since truffles are typically paired with fats (i.e., foi gras, oil and butter), pay attention to how much you eat at one sitting. Too much can do more harm than good. If you can afford truffles, enjoy them in small doses – your heart and taste buds will both benefit.

By Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LDN, author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods.

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