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