Truffle Oil - Real or Imagined?

Is truffle oil infused with actual truffles?

Truffle Infused Oils

The truffle oil so often called for in haute cuisine does not contain actual truffles and may have never come in contact with a real truffle.  Let's pull back the curtain and see why.

A truffle is an underground fungi that grows symbiotically with the roots of several species of trees.  They grow in limited quantity, are typically harvested by rooting hogs and dogs, and therefore, are extremely expensive.  Italian white truffles and French black truffles are the most sought-after varieties although truffles are grown in several parts of the world.  Oregon produces some nice, slightly milder truffles these days while Chinese truffles are often used as an inferior-quality substitute for European ones.

Besides being extremely expensive, truffles are very aromatic.  Truffles are thinly shaved over a dish with a special slicer just before serving to maximize their heady aroma. However, the aroma will dissipate quickly and a truffle is not suited for cooking.  Likewise, they make poor candidates for infusing an oil.  There is so little transfer of the truffle aroma into the oil, that the result is extremely delicate.

 "Truffle Oil" came about as a result of chefs who wanted to add that characteristic truffle earthiness, but without the associated high price.  

One of the organic odorants present in truffles has been isolated in the laboratory: thioether 2,4-dithiapentane.  Not very sexy sounding.  It's added to olive oil or grapeseed oil to produce the aroma of a real truffle.  If you look on the label you will often see "aromatized" or "essence".  Some varieties will have a tiny, thin slice of a truffle in the bottom of the bottle so that they can list it as an ingredient.

Is "truffle oil" a bad thing?  While it does begin to sound like a mad scientist lab experiment, it's best to keep it all in perspective.  We're not talking about genetic modification, just food enhancement.  We enrich our milk and flour among other things, so think of it along those lines.  Truffles have a wonderful, earthy, pungent aroma that enhances many elegant dishes.  Few among us can  afford a real truffle, so truffle oil allows us to experience haute cuisine for a home cooking price.  It is still a premium product and a luxury for many of us.  The best quality truffle oils use very high quality olive or grapeseed oil and they will be aromatized according to the strength of a white or black truffle.  They are used so sparingly, that they are always sold in a small quantity and should be used up within a year or so.

Culinary uses for truffle oil

"Truffle isn't exactly aphrodisiac but under certain circumstances it tends to make women more tender and men more likable."      - J. A. Brillat-Savarin

Perhaps you’ve seen a recipe that calls for the aromatic haute cuisine essential, truffle oil.  Truffle oil has an intense wild mushroom flavour with pungent, earthy, nutty, garlicky overtone.

Truffle oil is a finishing oil, not meant for the heat of cooking.  Starchy foods like potatoes, rice, and pasta are excellent vehicles for truffle oil and the residual warmth helps to aromatize it.  Spring peas and fresh herbs provide a bright but subtle counterpart to its intensity.

White truffle oil is light and slightly garlicky.  It’s best used in light pasta, fish and egg dishes or with spring/summer vegetables and herbs.  

Black truffle oil is stronger and used with heartier dishes, meats, stews, strong herbs, and fall/winter vegetables.

Here are ways to finish or dress with truffle oil:

  • truffle mayonnaise
  • drizzle over grilled asparagus
  • drizzle over sliced heirloom tomatoes
  • mix in vinaigrette for mixed greens 
  • drizzle over steamed or stewed greens such as spinach, kale, collards
  • drizzle over risotto, gnocchi, or pasta with light sauce and fresh herbs
  • drizzle over steak or filet mignon with mushrooms & blue cheese
  • drizzle over mushroom, lobster or sweet potato filled ravioli 
  • mix with roasted garlic spread on crostini 
  • drizzle over seared, grilled or poached fish
  • drizzle over steamed lobster or clams
  • mix in cheese fondue
  • mix in mashed potatoes
  • toss with roasted root vegetables
  • drizzle over scrambled or poached eggs
  • drizzle over hearty Tuscan minestrone 
  • mix in with duck or foie gras paté

by Anna Russell, originally published in the June, 2011, issue of Pearl Magazine

Read more on the subject of truffle oil: Patterson, Daniel (May 16, 2007), "Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles", The New York Times

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