Secret Ingredient

My Trouble With Truffle Oil

Some things, a newbie just has to learn the hard way

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I’m a self-professed foodie, and it took me nearly three years to be able to say that. Learning about food is like learning about anything else—trial and error and lots of “learning as you go along”—and this story is no different. While some food lessons are more obvious than others (like removing bay leaves and adding cornstarch to cold water instead of hot), others can seem downright tricky. In my journey up until this point, I can think of no harsher (yet surprisingly popular) a lesson than learning about truffle oil.

The seemingly classy ingredient might very well be as crooked as the evil stepmother in Snow White, luring you in with false promises. When you think about quality ingredients, it’s not entirely uncommon to also see an increase in price, like better beef, organic produce, or vanilla beans instead of extract. So when looking at a bottle of truffle oil, everything seems to make sense. At $30 for a bottle just over three ounces, it has to be good stuff; the yellowish liquid surrounding the few flecks of actual truffle sitting peacefully down at the bottom. When I first saw it, that bottle of oil seemed so authentic and impressive until I did a little research.

My newly-launched food blog was definitely a catalyst, and I was determined to come across as fancier than I really was and wanted to sound impressive. Moreover, I wanted to use this new oil as a first-step to a new habit of cutting down on processed foods, cooking at home and from scratch, and keeping everything as natural as possible. I figured a high-quality ingredient would only serve to make good food great, but then I discovered what truffle oil was really about.

When I set out to buy my first bottle I felt empowered, like all of my food dreams would now come true. I held the bottle in my hand, made the commitment to spending some big money (as far as I was concerned) and felt that this tiny bottle held the key to me essentially knowing everything there is to know about food. After all, truffle oil was used in cooking shows and cook books and by chefs and made from real truffles, right?

Later that night some research lead me to a website selling legitimate truffle oil, like many-hundreds-of-dollars truffle oil. Wondering why the price had skyrocketed to over $300, I dug deeper and ended up discovering the awful truth. I had been bamboozled. Hoodwinked. Duped. Swindled! Real truffle oil (which contains more truffle than oil instead of the other way around) can go for $90 an ounce, but the stuff you find at super markets is actually a fraud.

When I turned over the bottle over and read the ingredients label, I was horrified by what I found. You would be too. “Organic olive oil and truffle flavoring” it said. Truffle flavoring?  What the hell is that?

Remember my new commitment to natural and minimally-processed foods? Brace yourself.  Turns out, truffle flavoring is otherwise known as 2-4 dithiapentane, and for those of you who are not familiar with organic chemistry, it’s a carbon-sulphur-carbon-sulphur-carbon chain that you get when combining a cabbage-smelling thiol compound with formaldehyde. Chemistry background aside, does that even sound appetizing? To add insult to injury, the only thing that 2-4 dithiapentane really does is give the oil its smell. Furthermore, the thiol compound most commonly used in this chemical reaction can also be found in bad breath and flatulence. Tasty, right? With olive oil being the first ingredient on the ingredient panel (and therefore existing in the largest quantity), 2-4 dithiapentane gives aroma to the olive oil, but really doesn’t do any real truffle any justice when it comes to the flavor frontier. As a matter of fact, truffle oil really tastes nothing like actual truffle. Once people have experienced both, they often report real truffles as having an amazing earthy flavor, and truffle oil as tasting nothing short of strong and offensive.

What a lot of emerging food lovers think is just a natural alternative to a real-life truffle is just as synthetic as the sweetened tile caulk that they use to fill Twinkies.

As soon as I figured out what was really in my truffle oil, I ditched the bottle I had purchased.

Now, I’m not just outing truffle oil because I’m bitter about wasting $30 or because I’m some giant anti-establishment food rebel. I’m outing truffle oil because what a lot of emerging food lovers think is just a natural alternative to a real-life truffle is just as synthetic as the sweetened tile caulk that they use to fill Twinkies (may they rest in peace). If we’re worried about arsenic in our apple juice, pink slime in beef, and crushed up beetles in our beloved strawberry frappuccinos, then why dismiss this funky synthesized chemical in some impressive-looking bottle of oil? What gets me is that I’ve crossed many “healthy” recipes that use truffle oil to enhance their dishes, add to fresh vegetables, and toss with green salads. Would anyone like some MSG with that while we’re at it? While a lot of hardcore foodies would find this information unsurprising, having sworn off truffle oil a millennia ago, a lot of to-be epicureans aren’t privy to this information… and that’s just not right!

Truffle oil can still be seen in recipes and on restaurant menus. It’s still tossed with French fries and parsley to make something seem upscale. Participants on television cooking shows seek it out with hopes of impressing judges, and searching for “truffle oil recipes” yields no shortage of hits. Fear not, however—truffle oil can be replaced in many ways to still deliver a flavorful punch to foods without some formaldehyde and cabbage cocktail. Many cooks suggest a simple swap with hazelnut, walnut, and grapeseed oils as well as a good quality olive oil. Go for a mild flavor with a great aroma, and make sure there aren’t any hitchhiking chemicals. For a similar earthy flavor to real truffles, try finding some dried porcini, chanterelles, or morel mushrooms (a wild mushroom blend would work too).

While there are many people out there aware of and advocating against the synthetic nature of this sneaky ingredient, there are just as many people innocently adding it to already great food just because it’s “what the professionals use” (although it sounds like no professional chef worth their weight in salt would even touch this stuff). Well, fear no longer future foodies, instead of forking over money, go for a simpler and more realistic approach with natural oils and mushrooms. A better tasting and better-for-you food always trumps the price of the ingredients you add to it.

Ditch the posers, and get with something a bit cheaper, less pretentious, and way more natural. In a time when America is revamping how it looks at food, narrowing out preservatives, and paying attention to additives, truffle oil should be no exception to this overdue overhaul.

Illustration by Diane Pizzuto

Comments

  1. While I agree whole-heartedly that adding one organic compound to olive oil is no substitute for actual truffles, it’s not because that compound is 2-4 dithiapentane, or because it’s “a carbon-sulphur-carbon-sulphur-carbon chain that you get when combining a cabbage-smelling thiol compound with formaldehyde”. If you could list all the organic compounds in a real truffle, it would no doubt take pages of IUPAC nomenclature. And describing how to synthesize them would be no more appetizing than the one description you provide. The problem isn’t that the truffle oil has an organic chemical compound in it; it’s that it doesn’t have enough of them. And sadly, the only way to get all the ones we want in just the right proportions is to cough up the bucks for real truffles.

  2. Sara says:

    Great article!

  3. Miriam Davey says:

    I visit a certain non-coastal Southern city fairly often. Several times I have eaten there, in an upscale, chef-owned restaurant over which locals rave. It advertises itself as nouvelle-Louisiana cuisine; shrimp & grits, duck a l’orange, chicken andouille gumbo, bread pudding,etc. I am from South Louisiana, and being that this city is over 500 miles from my area, I really didn’t expect the food to be much like the food I’m used to, and it wasn’t.
    But for the price, I did expect it to be well-prepared.

    The place had potential, and the food had potential, too. Nice wine list, wonderful atmosphere.

    But every visit, I kept catching a whiff —sometimes a lot more than a whiff—of an oddly unpleasant odor. Pungent, not-quite-rancid, reminding me of some kind of meat that’s gone a bit too long in the tooth. A slight ammonia-type bite, along with a cheesy, slightly sour oomph.

    Maybe, burned garlic, I thought?

    Somebody smoking one of those weird flavored cigarettes in the restroom?

    A hex bag of asphoedita to ward off evil spirits?

    I kept thinking, maybe someone spilled some kind of meat juice or let rotten potatoes roll under the oven, and when it gets hot from cooking, the restaurant fills with this musty rank fragrance from the rotten stuff heating up underneath.

    Anyhow…my shrimp & grits came out to the table, and though the shrimp were rather tasteless (likely Asian farm-raised imports) and overdone (common inland cook’s kitchen mistake), the texture of the grits were good. Soft, creamy, garlic-flavored….but…. wait! Ugh! Every bite of creamy grits was accompanied by a taste of this same odd pungent chemical odor in the air! Disappointment!

    Anyhow, I just moved them around on the plate, ate other stuff, enjoyed good company, and drank lots of wine. Next visit….same odor in the air. I didn’t get the grits, though, and insisted we sit outside. Outside the odor wasn’t as bad, and my food was blessedly free of the taint. Or the haint.

    Anyhow…at another restaurant since then, I discovered the culprit. It’s not an evil kitchen spirit. It’s something called “truffle oil”!

    Well, I got big news for chefs all over the country: Truffle oil is NASTY! Don’t use it!

    And especially don’t use it if you bill your food as “Louisiana-inspired”! NO authentic Louisiana recipe I know of has ever used such a rank substance! If you want good-tasting food, do what both chefs, mom-and-pop diners, and thousands of excellent South Louisiana home cooks do:

    Use first-rate “from scratch” locally sourced ingredients including seafood, meats, veggies, and even herbs, and don’t skimp on prep.

    Limit your menu to a mere handful of items you prepare daily, and change it with the seasons.

    Remember, there is NO substitute for sauces made with home-made savory stock, glaze, and fond from the pan. YOUR pan. And tarragon and parsley and rosemary from the backdoor kitchen garden. YOUR garden. There is NO substitute for real, fresh butter and heavy cream—and no you don’t have to have a cow out back, but you do need to source your dairy locally if not regionally, and be really picky as to its quality. There is NO substitute for fresh green onions, bell pepper, and celery sauteed’ in a flour & butter roux. There is NO substitute for fresh whole heads-on wild-caught Gulf shrimp. DO NOT use imports, believe me, people who know good food and live on the coast CAN tell the difference!

    Remember that lots of us now do gourmet cooking at home, now, and we know what good food tastes like. And some of us are from Louisiana and we were just born into a food culture.

    So for goodness sakes, chefs everywhere, LOSE the truffle oil!

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