Huitlacoche, sometimes referred to as Mexican truffle or corn smut, is a fungus that grows on ears of corn. It is considered a delicacy in Mexican cuisine and has a unique, earthy flavor. In Mexican slang, huitlacoche is sometimes referred to by the terms “hongo del maiz” (corn fungus), “el hongo de los dioses” (mushroom of the gods), or “oro negro” (black gold).
What is huitlacoche and where does it come from?
Huitlacoche is caused by two species of fungus, Ustilago maydis and Ustilago zeae, which infect corn crops. The fungus causes smut or galls to form on the ears, leaves, tassels and stems of the corn plant. These tumor-like growths are swollen with the dark bluish-gray spores of the fungus. While considered a crop pest in some regions, the resulting fungus is a highly desirable food in Mexico.
The Nahuatl word “huitlacoche” comes from “cuitlacochin” meaning “raven’s excrement” which refers to the dark color of the fungal growth. Other Aztec names for it included “tzictli” meaning “dog’s armpit” or “tzinacatl” meaning “excrement.” In modern Spanish slang, huitlacoche is sometimes jokingly referred to as “mutant corn” or “corn cancer.”
Where does huitlacoche grow?
Huitlacoche thrives in the humid, temperate conditions found in central Mexico’s highlands. It can grow on ears of corn during any point in the plant’s development, but is most common after pollination. The states of Tlaxcala, Puebla, Hidalgo and Mexico are major producers of huitlacoche in Mexico.
It also grows in some parts of the southern United States where it is viewed as a crop pest rather than food. However, there is growing interest in cultivating huitlacoche for commercial use in the U.S. as its popularity rises.
Why is huitlacoche considered a delicacy?
While an infected ear of corn may not look very appetizing, huitlacoche has a unique, delicious taste and texture that make it a highly prized ingredient in upscale Mexican cuisine. Here are some of the characteristics that give huitlacoche its delicate, truffle-like quality:
- Earthy, robust flavor – The taste has been described as nutty, smoky, and mushroom-like.
- Smooth, creamy texture – It has a soft, velvety texture similar to truffles.
- Umami taste – It provides a savory, umami flavor to dishes.
- Low yield – Because it can be difficult to cultivate, scarcity adds value.
- Replaces meat – The hearty texture means a little goes a long way in vegetarian dishes.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico, huitlacoche was present at a variety of Aztec feasts and celebrations. It remains a delicacy served at upscale Mexican restaurants today. Popular methods of preparation include sautéing, folding into quesadillas or tamales, mixing into sauces, or eating fresh with lime and salt.
What does huitlacoche taste and smell like?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention descibe the taste of huitlacoche as:
earthy and mushroom-like, with hints of sweet corn flavor. The black to blue-gray color of the diseased corn kernels is sometimes likened to the appearance of truffles.
Renowned food writer Josefina Velazquez de Leon describes the taste as:
A magnificent combination of earthiness and corn sweetness. The texture is smooth and velvety.
The aroma of fresh huitlacoche has been compared to wet corn husks, dried porcini mushrooms and fermented fruit. It has a delicate, woodsy fragrance. When cooked, it takes on rich, roasted aromas.
Does huitlacoche smell bad?
Despite its origins from diseased corn, fresh huitlacoche does not have an offensive or unpleasant odor. Any harsh or strange smells typically come from huitlacoche that is old, stored improperly or starting to spoil. Properly harvested and prepared huitlacoche has an earthy, fungus scent reminiscent of truffles and mushrooms.
What does huitlacoche look like?
Fresh huitlacoche looks like large, bulbous grayish-blue or black fungal galls growing in place of normal bright yellow corn kernels. The tumors start out spongy white and become filled with dark blue-gray powdery spores as the fungus matures. They can grow to 2-3 times the size of a normal corn kernel.
On ears of corn, the swollen smutty kernels will appear randomly mixed in with healthy, unaffected yellow kernels. Sometimes the fungal growth distorts the entire ear.
When huitlacoche is harvested and sold for culinary use, it is cleaned and trimmed of any plant material. It then resembles chopped mushrooms, with a slimy, sticky texture and blue-black color.
What does canned huitlacoche look like?
Canned huitlacoche has been pre-cooked so it appears softer and darker than fresh. The contents of the can will be very soft, a blue/black color, and quite viscous almost like a puree. Once opened, it should have a pleasant, earthy aroma.
What does frozen huitlacoche look like?
Frozen huitlacoche will resemble darker colored corn kernels or chopped mushrooms. Since it is uncooked, it will still have a firm, spongy texture before being prepared. Once thawed, it should retain the same appearance and flavor as fresh huitlacoche.
Is huitlacoche healthy to eat?
Yes, huitlacoche is completely safe to eat and offers some health benefits:
- Nutritious – It contains protein, minerals, and essential amino acids.
- Low calorie – It has only around 20 calories per ounce.
- High in lysine – Lysine helps the body absorb calcium and form collagen.
- Rich in umami flavor – Provides savory taste with less sodium than salt.
- Prebiotic qualities – May support probiotic gut bacteria.
- Anti-inflammatory – Contains compounds that reduce inflammation.
Huitlacoche has a long history of use as food and medicine. While exotic looking, corn smut itself is not toxic or carcinogenic. Some people may have mild allergic reactions. Overall it is considered a nutritious, flavorful addition to a healthy diet.
Is eating huitlacoche dangerous?
Huitlacoche does not contain toxins and eating it is completely safe. In indigenous Mexican medicine, it was traditionally used to treat conditions like hemorrhoids and gut inflammation.
There are no compounds in corn smut that are toxic, addictive or dangerous even when consumed in large amounts. It has been a regular part of the Mexican diet for centuries.
However, huitlacoche can cause mild allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, similar to other edible fungi like mushrooms. Discontinue use if any irritation occurs.
Where can you buy huitlacoche?
Fresh huitlacoche is still difficult to find in much of the world. But as its popularity rises, opportunities to buy it are increasing through these channels:
- Specialty grocery stores – Mexican and gourmet food stores, particularly in the southwestern U.S.
- Farmers markets – Sold in late summer and fall when corn is harvested.
- Online stores – Shipped frozen or canned from merchants like Amazon and MexGrocer.
- Mexican restaurants – High-end establishments may offer it seasonally.
- International food aisles – Canned huitlacoche can sometimes be found alongside items like refried beans.
When buying fresh, look for moist, spongy galls with a mild earthy scent. Canned or frozen should still have a pleasant aroma once opened or thawed.
What does huitlacoche cost?
As a delicacy, huitlacoche commands a premium price, especially for fresh specimens. Expect to pay:
- Fresh huitlacoche – $15-$30 per pound
- Canned huitlacoche – $5-$15 per can
- Frozen huitlacoche – $10-$20 per pack
Prices may come down as more producers enter the huitlacoche market. But due to the difficulty of cultivating it, it will likely always be pricier than typical vegetables.
How do you cook with huitlacoche?
Huitlacoche’s rich umami flavor allows it to enhance everything from simply eggs to elaborate mole sauces. Here are some of the most popular ways to cook and serve this Mexican delicacy:
The easiest preparation is to simply sauté fresh or thawed huitlacoche in butter or olive oil with garlic, shallots and herbs. Salt enhances its natural umami flavors. It can be served as a side, used as a taco filling, or stirred into dishes like risotto.
One of the most traditional preparations in Mexico. Fresh or canned huitlacoche is placed inside corn tortillas with cheese like queso fresco or queso Oaxaca. The quesadillas are then grilled until the cheese melts.
Huitlacoche is combined with masa dough, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, and steamed. Chicken, pork or cheese fillings are sometimes added. This makes a richly flavored, heartier style of tamale.
The earthy flavor of huitlacoche enhances vegetarian soups like caldo de queso (cheese soup) but also works well in chicken tortilla soup. It provides a nutty, savory undertone.
In addition to Mexican cuisine, huitlacoche can be used as a filling for empanadas, samosas, pot pies and other stuffed pastries. Sautéed onions, seasonings and cheese help complement its flavor.
Fresh or jarred huitlacoche can elevate a simple pasta dish. Sauté with garlic, toss with hot cooked pasta, and finish with parsley and parmesan. The rich umami adds interest to red or white sauces.
Eggs are a canvas to let huitlacoche shine. Simply sauté fresh or thawed huitlacoche, add to whisked eggs, and scramble or make into an omelet. Top with avocado, queso fresco and salsa.
Huitlacoche’s natural viscosity helps thicken and add body to salsas. Blend it raw or sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, onion and chiles for a rich topping for chips, eggs, chicken or fish.
Puréed huitlacoche can add deep woodsy flavors to traditional moles like pipian and negro. Its soft texture also helps thicken and blend the sauce.
What does huitlacoche pair well with?
Huitlacoche’s versatile umami flavor allows it to complement and enhance a variety of ingredients:
- Corn – Highlights natural sweetness of corn in quesadillas, tamales, soups.
- Mushrooms – Adds another layer of earthiness.
- Onions and garlic – Brings out huitlacoche’s savoriness.
- Herbs – Thyme, parsley, cilantro add freshness.
- Cheese – Queso fresco, Cotija, goat cheese add creaminess.
- Eggs – Compliments the richness of omelets and scrambles.
- Poultry – Chicken and turkey absorb huitlacoche’s flavor.
- Pork – The fattiness contrasts nicely with the fungus.
Huitlacoche also pairs well with earthy, robust flavors like mole, mushroom sauces and seasoned broths.
What beers pair well with huitlacoche?
Huitlacoche’s deep umami flavor profile pairs nicely with complex malty beers:
- Brown Ale – Nutty caramel maltiness complements earthiness.
- Dunkel Lager – Roasted malt notes echo huitlacoche’s savoriness.
- Stout – Bittersweet cocoa flavors contrast the fungus.
- Smoked Porter – Matching smoky-woodsy characteristics.
- Vienna Lager – Sweet, toasted malt flavors harmonize.
Since huitlacoche can have a slippery texture, beers with some carbonation help cleanse the palate between bites. Sessionable beers around 5% alcohol highlight its flavor best.
What wines pair well with huitlacoche?
When looking for wines to accompany huitlacoche dishes, earthy varietals with umami notes work well. Good options include:
- Pinot Noir – Earthy cherry flavors match nicely.
- Grenache – Savory herbaceousness pairs well.
- Syrah – Robust, peppery notes complement.
- Tempranillo – Leathery tannins echo huitlacoche.
- Malbec – Rich dark fruit contrasts fungus.
Light, lower-tannin reds are most compatible. Cool climate wines often have the earthy undertones that resonate with huitlacoche’s flavor profile.
Huitlacoche is a unique culinary delicacy in Mexican cuisine with a fascinating history. The fungus that grows on corn has an irresistible sweet, earthy flavor and velvety texture that excites food-lovers and chefs. While still gaining wider acceptance, its reputation continues to grow as more people discover its incredible taste and versatility in both traditional and modern dishes. With its health benefits and intriguing backstory, huitlacoche is poised to become the next global food trend.