A highly sought after wild edible prize, truffles are known as the “Diamonds of the Kitchen.” The phrase is fitting as these nuggets come from the earth and with a little polishing and skilled cutting, they reveal themselves as true culinary gems.
Truffles are the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus, one of the many species of the genus Tuber. They are usually found within close proximity of the roots of certain trees, such as adolescent evergreens like Douglas Fir. Because of this, tree farms are common hot spots for finding the species of white truffle that are specific to the Pacific Northwest in areas west of the Cascade Range. Plantings that range from 20-30 years of age produce the best environment for finding these treats due to the thick layers of debris produced by the trees. The truffle season varies based on weather, but usually occurs in a pocket between November and springtime; however, some have had luck harvesting them as late as June.
Truffles are normally found subsurface to moss or leaf matter, slightly embedded in the soil. Their environment produces a lot of complicated and controversial cultivation methods. “Raking” is the practice of physically removing the layer of debris and moss with a rake to expose the truffles embedded in the soil. Because it is conducted with little respect for maintaining a sustainable harvest, this will likely make it difficult to continue finding truffles in the same area again. Additionally, removing the layer of debris at the base of those trees is harmful to the trees themselves, exposing their roots to a number of threats. Tree farmers are well aware of the destructive nature of this cultivation technique and that poachers are willing to endure risks, trespass and destroy property in order to find this pricey food commodity.
Using animals is a much more acceptable practice for locating truffles. A domestic female pig is one way to target specific areas where truffles are below the forest floor. This is due to a compound within the truffle similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva. Dogs can also be trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate truffles, and are also much less likely to consume them before their owners can pluck them from the earth.
If you do not have a female pig or a trained subterranean mushroom-sniffing dog, there are other ways to locate truffles through using tracking skills and observing the behavior of wild animals. Spore dispersal of truffles is carried out by fungivores, animals that eat fungi. The fungus is an important component of the diet of Northern flying squirrels, and comprises the majority of their diet at certain times of year. These animals are good indicators that don’t require the attention of canines or swine. The squirrels will often burrow into the top layers of debris, leaving behind a divot similar to what you might find at a teeing ground on a golf course. If you run your fingers between the soil and the debris or moss in the area around the edges of the divot, you should be able to make contact with truffles left behind by the animal and harvest them without disturbing the habitat. In areas where moss is prevalent, you can peel it back like carpet and reveal the individual truffles poking out from the soil, carefully replacing the removed layer of moss and debris. It should be noted that this practice is still somewhat damaging and in some cases the habitat can take a few years to fully recover from harvest.
Once you’ve managed to collect enough of them, preservation becomes necessary to keep truffles from sprinting through their very short shelf life. There are several ways you can do this, but four in particular are the most common methods:
1. Truffle Oil – Although it requires a little extra effort, this is perhaps the best way to preserve the flavor of truffles, and it takes only a small amount of truffles to infuse the flavor into the oil. First, wash your truffles individually to remove all the unwanted dirt. A clean and sterile electric toothbrush can make this process more efficient. Once they are cleaned, slice the truffles paper thin, and place them in a mason jar. You can fill them near the top if you have a lot to go around, or put just a few in the jar to give flavor to the oil. Then pour olive oil over the sliced truffles until the jar is completely filled. The next step is perhaps the most important; as the truffles infuse the oil, they will emit a gas that needs to breathe. If you tighten the jars too much and leave them sitting too long, they will begin to bubble and boil over much like the head on a draft beer once you open the jar. This is extremely messy and you do not want this to happen because it could potentially spoil your harvest or blow out the metal lid to your jar and your kitchen cabinet will look like BP installed a deep-water drilling rig in your pantry. To prevent this from happening, you can open the jars every day or so and let them breathe for a few minutes. You can also leave the lids loosened on the jars so the air can get out (you don’t want air to get IN though).
After about 45-90 days, the stiff sliced fungus will become floppy like a sauteed mushroom. Then you can enjoy them at their optimal flavor on bread, eggs, etc. After about nine months the peak flavor of these delectable treats begins to decline and soon after they will spoil, so enjoy them while you have them.
2. Truffle Salt – This is one of the easiest and most versatile ways to preserve your truffles. After you’ve cleaned your harvest, dice the truffles with a rough chop that resembles the size of minced garlic. Then add 2 to 4 parts sea salt. It’s ideal not to skimp on the salt you use for this as it cheapens the culinary value of your little diced dirt diamonds. Shake up the concoction so that the salt and diced truffles are evenly distributed. If you want to be conservative with the truffles, you can put them in a salt shaker that will allow the grains of salt to flow through the holes while keeping the truffles intact. This way you can refill the salt and still have a delicious kitchen product, however the more times you do this, the less optimal the flavor will be, and eventually it will be completely lost.
Keep your truffle salt in the refrigerator to prevent spoiling. You can also use a flip-top jar with a rubber gasket to hold in the wonderful odor and maximize the flavor. Truffle salt can be consumed more readily than truffle oil infusions, so if you are impatient and can’t wait two to three months to eat your find, this may be the way to go for you.
3. Truffle Butter – This is a good way to portion out your harvest for consumption. Clean and dice your harvest the same way you would for truffle salt. The amount of truffles you want to use is really up to your own discretion, but a little bit goes a long way. Most recipes recommend 2-4 ounces of chopped truffles for every pound of butter. You’ll want to use unsalted butter to achieve the best flavor, and you can add sea salt during the mixing process to taste if necessary. Leave it out at room temperature overnight to soften the butter for the preservation process. Then, place the ingredients into a mixing bowl and blend evenly. Allow the butter to sit out at room temperature for another few hours so the flavors can mingle and infuse into the oils in your butter. You can portion out your truffle butter into ramekins or wax paper and freeze them to pull out for use as needed. Allow the portions to sit at room temperature for a few hours before serving.
4.Truffle Vodka – This process is a good way to efficiently and quickly preserve the flavor of your truffles without the use of oils, salt or butter that may be shunned by your friends and family with strict dietary concerns. Slice the cleaned truffles paper thin, and infuse roughly a quarter to half ounce of truffles to one liter of vodka in a sealed container. You probably don’t need this warning, but don’t get the cheapest handle of rubbing alcohol you can find. It doesn’t need to be top shelf, but get good stuff; there are a lot of great distilleries here in the Willamette Valley that will have what you need. After a week or so, pour the infusion through a paper coffee filter to remove any impurities and you will have a martini-grade, truffle-infused vodka. This can also be used in cooking risotto or other grains to add the flavor without the fattening additions of butter or oil. It will also make a martini you’ll go hog wild for.