Truffle hunting is the California gold rush of the culinary world. To get their hands on the coveted fungi, truffle-hunters head out at dawn with hopes of uncovering the buried treasure—and making sure they don’t get highjacked by any tuber bandits in the process. Available between October and December, Alba white truffles—the most rare and flavorful type, thanks to the alkaline-rich soil of the region of Italy that they’re named after—have sold for more than $300,000 each, leading opportunistic conmen to sell over-priced lookalikes. The black truffle, which has a considerably longer harvest, usually comes from France and Spain, but similar-looking varieties from China (which have far less flavor) are often used to dupe unsuspecting buyers.

Truffles are a hybrid of a fungus and a tuber, and they grow symbiotically with trees, filling in the space alongside the roots of their host (hence their funny shape). They release a pungent aroma that mimics pheromones, which allows pigs and dogs to sniff them out in the wild. Though truffles are traditionally served raw, shaved over eggs, pasta, and risotto, chefs have begun deploying them on everything from burgers to pizza. While some of these high-low dishes are legitimate (see: the coveted white-truffle burger available now at Soho’s Burger & Barrel), the majority are enhanced not with actual truffles but rather truffle oil, which has little to do with truffles at all (we’ll get there).

Given all the high prices and duplicity in the truffle business, it pays to know what you’re eating. Here, we chat up an expert to get the hard facts.

truffles_insertThe expert: Sandra Lotti, owner of Toscana Saporita, an Italian cooking school for Americans near Pisa. For students enrolled in late fall, the school’s two-week sessions include a truffle hunt in the cool and damp wooded areas of Tuscany led by Lotti, as well as truffle hunters Luciano and Cristiano Savini (plus their dog, Giotto), who uncovered the record-breaking 3.3-pound white truffle in 2007 that sold for $330,000.