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Monday
Feb162009

Truffles, Truffle Oil, and Truffle Salt

By: Eddie Lakin  Very few can afford truffles, the pungently funky fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with the root systems in certain trees in certain forests in certain weather conditions. Attempts to cultivate them have been unsuccessful (with some recent, still developing, exceptions), so the world’s truffle fanatics are at the mercy of secretive old Italian and French guys who employ dogs or pigs trained to find the famously elusive subterranean prize, as has been the case for generations.

The price of truffles continues to skyrocket (last year’s depressed prices were, I believe, an anomaly). Each year brings news of new record per ounce prices at the famous white truffle auction in Alba, Italy, and world-class chefs buy up pounds and pounds to utilize in pricey truffle-tasting degustation menus that often clock in at upwards of $200 per diner.

So they’re a luxury, to be sure.

About 10 years ago, however, one began to see the word “truffle” appearing on more and more restaurants, even in more reasonably-priced restaurants. This was due to the preponderance of truffle oil, which, one would assume is oil that’s been infused with truffles. Unfortunately, almost all truffle oils found on the market contain no truffle whatsoever. A look at the ingredients listed on the bottle tells you that what these oils contain is “truffle aroma”; also known as 2,4-dithiapentane. That’s right—the flavor contained in truffle oil is an artificial flavor that is produced in a lab and the oil most chefs happily spritz into your mashed potatoes or over your pasta has never, ever been in contact with anything even vaguely resembling a tuber melanosporum. In other words, truffle oil is fake. In the exact same way that cherry Kool-Aid contains no natural cherry flavor and is, therefore, fake.

Yet foodies and chefs alike continue using it. This is an interesting phenomenon, and San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson wrote a really great, thought-provoking
2007 article about it for the New York Times.

If you actually sit down and taste truffle oil and compare it to the flavor of truffles, the difference becomes readily apparent. The flavor of truffle is difficult to describe, because there are really very few similar foodstuffs with which to compare them as a reference. They are musky, heady, and possess a funkiness found in some of the stinkiest cheeses. Truffle oils, like other artificially-flavored foods, take a food that possesses hundreds of flavor notes in a very complex array and reduce the “flavor” down to a single note (or, most, a few notes).

The best way to explain it is to compare the flavor you get when biting into a perfectly ripe strawberry with the flavor you get from strawberry Jell-O. Or the flavor you get from eating a banana compared to that artificial banana flavor found in banana candy. The fake flavor bears almost no resemblance to the real deal.

Those who have had the good fortune to partake in real truffles shaved over buttered fresh tagliatelle can attest to the difference. Truffle oil misses all of the subtlety of real truffle flavor and simply knocks you out with that stinky-feet funk to the point where it almost doesn’t even resemble the complex, dizzying aroma of real truffles. The fake stuff also lacks the staying power of real truffles. When I lived in Bologna, we bought a small white truffle to shave over mashed potatoes as part of our Christmas dinner. The vendor we bought it from gave it to us wrapped in damp newspaper placed in a few plastic bags. We put this package in the back of our fridge, and within half an hour, our entire apartment smelled like truffles—you could smell it in the hall outside our front door. Spill some oil on the counter and, sure, the smell will knock you upside the head for a few minutes, but it will quickly dissipate.

Real truffle oil does exist, but it’s outnumbered in the marketplace by probably 100:1 and, since most people seem content paying ten bucks for a bottle of what they perceive as a luxurious ingredient, bottles of oil infused with real truffle scraps and shavings that cost much more and deliver a more subtle flavor are simply not very popular.

If you’re interested in buying oil that’s been infused with real truffle flavor, you can look for a few things; first, it’ll seem expensive. It should. Truffles are expensive. If it seems like a good deal, it’s probably fake. Second, you should see some pieces of truffle floating around in the bottle, although this is no guarantee that you’re not getting artificially-flavored oil with a speck or two of real chopped truffle. And, third, the label should indicate that this is an “all natural” product, and should contain among the listed ingredients, either the latin name (best) or the provenance (winter Perigord truffles) for the actual truffles used to infuse the oil. If you see stuff like “truffle essence”, “truffle aroma”, or “truffle flavor”, it’s safe to assume that’s the fake stuff.

Truffle salt, thankfully, along with other products such as truffle butter and truffle paste, is much more difficult to fake. These products feature prominent flecks or pieces of actual truffle, so you can literally see that there is some real truffle involved. They can be faked, of course—when stuff gets to be this expensive, people get really enterprising. The most common way that’s done is that they’ll use Chinese black truffles, which look just like the real deal, in conjunction with the aforementioned “aroma”, but this kind of thing is much less common in the salts, pastes, and butters.

I’ve had good luck with a lot of different truffle salts. The real, complex earthy flavor of the truffles are present and the salt is usually very high-quality
fleur de sel-type stuff to boot, so they’re nice products to use for finishing—a sprinkle of truffle salt over sliced beef tenderloin, buttered popcorn, french fries, or buttered pasta is a wonderful, revelatory touch—but be careful of over-salting.

 A few things to know when cooking with truffles or truffle-infused products—
don’t cook the truffles. The complex flavor notes present in truffles quickly dissipate when exposed to heat. You’ll smell them when they’re cooking, but the aromas will be gone by the time your dish is served. For best results, dishes are finished with truffles, allowing the heat of the dish to heat the truffles just enough to soften and melt them, sending the scent wafting through the air.

Stay simple. When using truffles, they should be the star. Use them on neutral, familiar flavors like bread (thinly-shaved truffles over warm, toasted, olive-oil drizzled bread is an amazing indulgence), potatoes, plain buttered pasta, risotto, eggs, or beef.

As much as you might love the flavor of truffle,
save it for special occasions. The real deal is just so much better than the fake stuff. It’s better to splurge on $100 worth of real truffle products that you use over the course of two or three special meals than to buy a hundred bucks worth of artificially-flavored truffle oil and drizzle it over everything in sight. One of the travesties of artificial flavors and processed foods is that our palates become accustomed to the fake or inferior flavor and, over time, we start to forget what the real thing tastes like, causing our standards and expectations to be lowered.

This phenomenon, caused by the mindset that we should be able to buy and eat any product at any time of year, regardless of season, and eat as much of it as we want, is a much larger and more pervasive issue than just as it relates to truffles. The movement towards better, more seasonal, more local, and more flavorful foods has been building momentum for the last 20 or so years here in the US, but those of us that care about the integrity of food are fighting against some very powerful and well-funded entities, and the mindset that we, as Americans, are entitled to eat strawberries in January is deep-seated. Never mind if they’re crunchy, white on the inside, and flavorless; many people think that’s how strawberries are supposed to taste.

But they’re not supposed to be flavorless, of course, as anyone who’s eaten a small, perfectly ripe fraise des bois
knows (and that group is growing in numbers all the time). Most foodies, then, that are in the know, wouldn’t buy a big clamshell of Chilean strawberries, knowing how they compare to summer farmer’s-market strawberries. And we won’t even mention strawberry Jell-O.

But many in this same group wouldn’t hesitate to use Bis-(Methylthio)methane oil in their mushroom risotto. Partly, I believe, this is due to the fact that the difficulty and expense of getting to know the flavor of real truffles makes it difficult for most people to taste the difference. But it’s also partly due to the desire to indulge in a “luxury” ingredient more often than our budgets allow.

So it’s time to re-think truffles and truffle-related products. You wouldn’t drink Two-Buck Chuck Cabernet and call it Screaming Eagle, but there’s a time and a place for each and sometimes an inexpensive bottle of wine is entirely appropriate. The important thing, though, is that your palate knows not to expect the good stuff. The same applies with truffle oil; it’s fine for when you want the flavor it provides, just don’t fool yourself into believing that what you’re tasting is truffles. Save that expectation for when you decide to splurge and buy products that contain the real tuber magnatum pico, or, even better, for when you peel back the layers of damp newspaper and rain down paper-thin shavings of the real deal over warm, softly scrambled eggs or grilled crusty bread drizzled with good olive oil.

 Chef Eddie Lakin comes to us with an extensive culinary background, having worked one year in both Spain and Italy. Eddie has worked at the four star “Tru” in Chicago, and with chefs such as David Bouley, and Nobu Matsuhita. Eddie will offer his insights on a wide range of cooking and culinary topics. Visit his blog: Cooking and Eating in Chicago 

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