The Real Reason Why Truffles Are So Expensive

No, we're not talking about the chocolate kind.

Black trufflefabiano caddeo/Shutterstock

If you’ve seen “truffle” on a menu next to fries or pasta, you probably also saw a hefty price tag, too. This unique ingredient always adds to the bill and makes people ask—why are truffles so expensive?

What is a truffle?

Truffles are rare, edible, subterranean fungi or tubers, which are similar to but different from mushrooms. Mushrooms grow outside of the ground, but truffles are essentially underground mushrooms as they prefer growing in the dark. According to Boston Magazine, truffle “gills” that drop the spores of a regular mushroom pack together forming a sack or a truffle. And slices of truffles are really slices of many different spores.

Although truffles all grow the same way, there different truffle species in the world. The most well-known species are winter white, winter black, muscat black, musky black, Chinese black, Himalayan black, summer black, autumn black, and white truffles. There seem to be even more varieties and sub-varieties, too, but not all are worth eating. Even though they are edible, some truffles taste awful or have no taste at all. So just because the word “truffle” is there doesn’t mean it’s a delicious product, which is why truffle oil is one of the 13 foods professional chefs like the least.

Why are truffles so expensive?

Pig harvesting trufflesPhilippe 1 bo/Shutterstock

Truffles are expensive for a few reasons. First, they aren’t something people can easily plant, farm, or harvest—they’re wild and picky about where they grow. Truffles usually flourish in places where there’s moisture on warm days and cool nights. They also prefer growing on certain types of trees including oak, pine, and hazel trees, per Boston Magazine. The Italian and French countrysides are especially popular growing spots, but some species grow in the Pacific Northwest and Australia, too. They also grow slowly, have short seasons, and don’t last long once out of the ground. In fact, some reports say it takes four to six years for some types of truffles to grow.

After they finally grow, the next step is finding them—which is no easy feat. “Hunters” rely on animals with great senses of smell to help find truffles. As truffles mature, they naturally release smelly compounds, attracting animals like pigs, the New York Times reports. This could be a problem, however, since these swine might also eat the precious truffles. That’s why hunters also train dogs to find truffles, too. Once they see them, hunters carefully dig up the truffles avoiding damage; a labor-intensive process adding to the answer to why are truffles so expensive. Some argue that truffles are worth their price tag, but these 26 foods you should cross off your grocery list sure aren’t.

Which truffles are the most expensive?

White trufflesFotosr52/Shutterstock

Why are truffles so expensive is only part of the question. Why people would pay serious money for them is all about their aroma and taste. People describe truffles’ flavor as umami-like or moldy, in a good way. Still, not all truffles are equal. The more affordable variety are black truffles because they have a longer season, are freezable, and are less-rare than other kinds. That’s why you can find budget-friendly options like these truffle thrills. Meanwhile, white truffles are more expensive since they’re rare, have a short season, don’t freeze well, and pack a seriously flavorful punch. European white truffles can sell for as much as $3,600 a pound, according to CNN.

If you can afford the real deal, remember that the longer they’re out of the ground, the quicker truffles lose their signature smell and flavor, the Times reports. Ordering a truffle-based dish at a restaurant might be better instead, but don’t order any of these 10 most overpriced foods you’ll find on restaurant menus.

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Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.