Devan Grimsrud

Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

Every month on Kitchen Stories, we’ll be putting our food knowledge under the microscope to find out if what we think we know is really true. Have a food-related case that you want cracked open? Leave a comment underneath the article!

Truffle fries, truffle mayo, truffle burgers, truffle potato chips, truff—well, you get the picture. As you’ve probably noticed both in restaurants and supermarkets, truffle-y foods have made their way into the culinary mainstream all around the globe—often perceived by hungry diners as luxurious dishes that are worth paying more for. But, did you know that these truffled foods are usually made with an intensely flavored truffle oil that in fact contains zip, zero, zilch of the real thing?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s true, and today, we’re going to dig up the facts about truffle oil.

Diamonds in the rough: What are truffles?

The story of truffle oil’s rise in popularity and introduction to the mainstream must start with the so-called “diamond of the kitchen”—the truffle itself. If prestige in the culinary world were to come down to one ingredient and one ingredient only, it would undoubtedly be the wild Italian white truffle or “Alba Madonna.” Coming in second price-wise, but equally alluring and sought out, is the Périgord or French black truffle. Intoxicating, exquisite, and even sublime are all words you’ll hear to describe the homely, bulbous truffle—but it’s not just their one-of-a-kind taste that places them at the top of the heap.

Truffles are the fruiting body of a fungus that forms near the roots of specific species of trees. The highly prized earthen gems must be individually hunted for by experienced trifulau (truffle hunters) with specially trained dogs. If they’re not harvested during their short season (September through December), the truffles simply decompose and are lost. Similar to a wine vintage, truffles have both good and bad years, with many of the most esteemed truffle producing regions noting an overall trend of decreasing harvests year after year.

So, it’s the rarity, seasonality, and confounding taste of truffles that makes them one of the most expensive foods in the world—coming in at a whopping $1,000 – $5,000 USD per pound (equal to just under half a kilo) depending on type, size, quality, and overall availability each year.

With this hefty price point—which can get even higher based on the distance the truffle travels and typical retail markups—it’s not surprising that both restaurants and truffle enthusiasts alike would be extremely interested in a cheaper, just as heady and pungent alternative… bringing us to our true topic of interest: truffle oil.

What is truffle oil?

Truffle oils first appeared on the mass market around the 1980’s, but weren’t exceptionally common in high-end kitchens in places like the United States until the early 1990’s. They were seen as a luxurious flavor enhancer with a tiny price tag—some bottles costing as little as one-sixtieth of the price per ounce of their fresh counterparts. Used to both enhance the flavor of real truffles, and as a full-on substitute for the real thing, what many chefs who used the oils didn’t know was that this oil in fact did not actually taste like truffles.

Then what exactly was the commercial truffle oil Gordon Ramsay referred to in 2009 as “a chef’s dream” really made of? Basic olive oil flavored with a lab-created synthetic compound called 2,4-dithiapentane. Much more intense and pungent than the real deal, one chef puts it well: "Truffle oil is to truffles what Tang (a discontinued fruit-flavored orange drink, often powdered) is to orange juice."

While this aromatic molecule is essentially a chemically produced equivalent of the most prominent scent of Italian white truffles, its labeling is most often highly misleading—with unscrupulous truffle oil producers slapping words like “natural” and “truffle essence” onto their bottles to hide the fact that their oils don’t contain even a trace of real truffle. To make matters even more complicated, 2,4-dithiapentane is thought to be a derivative of petroleum—leading chefs and critics alike to refer to the taste as metallic or even reminiscent of gasoline.

Can I make my own truffle oil?

Indeed, if you have access to fresh truffles and high-quality olive oil, you can make your very own truffle oil—sans commercially produced chemical compounds.

Truffle oil recipe

Simply warm up some olive oil (2 cups or thereabouts) over low heat. Shave the truffle into the warm oil then transfer it into a glass jar or bottle with an airtight seal. Let it steep, then use it freely!

Should I be using truffle oil?

So, what’s the verdict: Is truffle oil a harmless, yet contentious flavor enhancer? Or a synthetic chemical compound hidden in olive oil that we should shun from here on out?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so black and white. While many, if not most, truffle oils on the market today are still made with this petroleum-derived compound, there are a handful of especially high-end oils that do use fresh truffles and quality olive oils.

But if you look to the internet, and you’ll find many chefs and food critics from Martha Stewart to the late Anthony Bourdain advise against the use of the mass-produced stuff, stating, "it's ruinous of most recipes", "it’s not food", and "it’s full of chemicals."

It’s not all bad

Our opinion is this: If you’re a truffle maniac or just want to add an opulent touch to your cooking, skip these oils altogether and opt for a high-quality truffle salt instead. Truffle salts rarely, if at all, fall prey to the fake “truffle aroma” compound. Although still relatively high in price, it’s a product that provides a good bang for your buck—no lab chemicals included. Use it for seasoning meat before grilling, mixing into vinaigrettes, sprinkling over scrambled eggs, swiping through mayo, or tossing into a simple pasta or risotto.

You can also find jarred black and white truffle pates, pastes, and butters, canned or dried truffles. Not quite as fragrant and intoxicating as a fresh truffle, they can still serve to add a touch of magic and truffle-whimsy to your meals, just make sure to check ingredients and, for the pates and pastes, cross-check price and percentage to make sure you’re not paying an arm and a leg for something like 5% or less of real truffle.

Have any truffle oil thoughts you’ve been dying to get out? What other questions do you have about truffles? Tell us in the comments below!

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