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Truffle Oil; the Ubiquitous Imposter

I was heartened to read in a Wall St. Journal profile that Jean-Georges Vongerichten finds truffle oil to be the most over rated cooking ingredient and he likened its effect to gasoline. Over the past few years, this noxious substance has shown up in every possible dish in restaurants around the country. This ubiquitous poison overpowers everything it touches. I have had it on lettuce, in beet salad, with smoked salmon, roast beef, and on fish! Contrary to popular belief, most of the truffle oil in use has nothing to do with the magic of black or white truffles but is a synthetic concoction of 2-4 dithiapentane. Its increasing popularity would seem to be very much against several other trends in cooking and gastronomy such as organic food, the locavore movement, and slow cooking. While the delicate taste of real truffles can enhance a variety of foods, particularly eggs, simple pastas, and lobster, and is a true luxury if one can afford it, the stench of truffle oil fills the nose and monopolizes the palate. Chefs who would not dream of sprinkling raw garlic on their food toss truffle oil about with abandon. Has the palate of the consumer become so jaded that it now requires the gustatory equivalent of a nuclear explosion to achieve a modicum of satisfaction? I am wondering when the era of truffle oil will finally end and if anyone else feels the same way I do.

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  1. I fully agree. However, you should not refer to that as "truffle oil". And indeed, if you have ever had real truffle oil, it is completely different what you describe. However, it is hard to come upon it, and costly - 1 9 1/2 gram bottle would cost you $70.

    1 Reply
    1. re: j_brodu

      The fake stuff is definitely over-used BUT the real thing, as j_brodu said, is vastly different. It tastes purely of truffle. I don't buy it often but plan to make my own once we live in Croatia (the heart of white truffle country). Our neighbours there harvest olives for the oil and we have truffle hunting friends. So, we're lucky.

    2. I am so glad that you posted this.

      My step son went to school to be a chef. He’s been working in the business for a few years and still has to learn ‘nuanced flavors’

      He bought a bottle of “Truffle oil” and began experimenting with it at home. Not a pleasant experience. I’ve purchased little bottles of gold that cost me a mint (especially for how little they are) that I’ve used by the drop… he positively ruined an entire pot of soup by adding this stuff in by the tablespoon full, overwhelming everything.

      Now you’re seeing this stuff in everything from macaroni and cheese to mashed potatoes, pierogi, you name it

      You can keep the stuff as far as I’m concerned
      (I’d take just a few flakes of the real stuff over the artificial oil anyday)

      1. I just made some ravioli with truffle oil, sherry, and pecorino cheese. Yum. No need for a heavy cream sauce. I don't understand what the problem is. You are not supposed to over do it. It satisfies a hankerin' for truffle when you don't have any.

        Are you saying that professional chefs are over using it?

        4 Replies
        1. re: sedimental

          Well, that is partly what he was saying - it is a bit of a fad, and is being put on everything, including places it doesn't belong. However, you're really completely missing the point. The problem is that the common "truffle" oil is anything but - I'm fairly sure a chemical called 2-4 dithiapentane does not qualify in your book as truffles. This chemical is what most truffle oil is, and is accountable for it's cheap pricetag. But it's just not the same, and furthermore, who wants to eat that? For more: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/din...

          1. re: j_brodu

            I am very aware that truffle oil (and truffle salt) are rarely made up of actual truffles. If they do have real truffles in them, I am sure it is nano gram. I would think foodies know this, but the general public might not.

            I haven't experienced restaurant chefs overusing it -but I don't usually order "truffle dishes" in restaurants for this very reason. I would never assume that "truffle mac and cheese" at a gastropub for $13.00 would be made with real truffles! I would assume that a truffle dish at the French Laundry would be made with real truffles.

            So, I am not missing the point, it doesn't matter to me. I still enjoy it in dishes sometimes. I also use fake vanilla in cookies sometimes and enjoy a bag of cheeto's with beer after mowing the lawn. I guess I am just not offended that it is fake.

            Maybe they should call it imitation truffle oil (like they do with fake extracts for baking).

          2. re: sedimental

            truffle oil tastes nothing like truffles

            1. re: shoeman

              Sure it does, it just doesn't taste as good as truffles.

          3. Yes it is fake. Like Artificial vanilla and the likes. but it can be perfectly fine in a lot of dishes.

            I think what people really don't like about it, is that is is taking away some of the luxury of actual truffles.

            The chemicals they use to make it are the same chemicals in the truffle that give them their distinctive taste.

            People over use it, too much and too often. However I love having it around for when I want to add a little truffle earthiness to a dish without searching out fresh truffles.

            The oil is very one-note compared to real truffles though, So it is easy to get bored of it.

            17 Replies
            1. re: LawnGnome

              "The chemicals they use to make it are the same chemicals in the truffle that give them their distinctive taste."

              Sorry but I must disagree. Food scientists have mimicked a component of the truffle, not the true essence.
              To reply to the OP, I had a sense that the $15 bottle of white truffle oil at Cittarella's is not the real deal.

              1. re: CCSPRINGS

                You can disagree all you like. But the main organic compound in truffles is reproduced and put in truffle oil.

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2,4-dith...

                In white and black truffle oils they synth the organic compounds for each, then put them in oil. They dont have all the compounds, but they have some.

                And an organic molecule is the same as an artificially created organic molecule.

                1. re: LawnGnome

                  I hope you realize that the "organic" portion of the compund refers to the fact that "carbon" is part of the formula (i.e. oposed to "organic" as in healthy, natural, etc.).

                  These "organic molecules" are in fact 100% aftificially created/"synthesized" by chemical processes/reactions/steps. The only reason the "synthetic" versions are allowed to be used in food products is that chemical industry was able to persuade the regulatory agencies that these "compunds" are indistinguishable from "naturally" (i.e. found in actual truffles) occuring compounds.
                  As far as I am concerned fake is a fake...even if you can not (or do not want to) tell it apart...

                  1. re: Pollo

                    That was my point. That the chemical is the exact same regardless of its source.

                    1. re: LawnGnome

                      See, that's the problem with your interpretation. The "devil" is in the details and there is a huge difference between saying that a compund/substance is the same and saying that it is indistingushable. It all boils down to how/what method(s) are used in the testing step.
                      Long story short: if I want to taste truffle oil I will buy the real thing....there is a difference.....(same goes for vanilla)....

                      1. re: Pollo

                        it is indistinguishable. The difference you taste is the other minor components in the truffle that also make up the aroma.

                        Which is why in my original post I said the fake oils taste one note compared to actual truffles.

                        But the point was that 2,4-Dithiapentane sythn'd or isolated from truffles would taste the same.

                        1. re: LawnGnome

                          My point was that the current method(s) used to compare the "real" and "synthetic" versions may see no difference but in 5-10 years the scientists will find a better/different method and realize that there is a difference....this kind of "scenario" has happened numerous times in the past...
                          Not to sound jaded/argumentative but I have a real problem with eating anything "synthesized" in a test tube....

                          1. re: Pollo

                            I'm not a chemist, but had my share of chemistry classes while failing pre-med. And as far as I can remember from school, your statement is completely unfounded. You can literally make the same claim about almost any chemical and it would still be just as untrue.

                            When has this kind of "scenario" happened in the past?

                            p.s. Aside from chemistry, there's a VERY good reason to go for the real stuff - as LawnGnome mentioned, the real deal has a BUNCH of other stuff in it that contributes to the taste/smell of truffles. (Same reason synthetic THC isn't the same as smoking the real stuff.)

                            1. re: joonjoon

                              Although the fact that the majority of truffle oils are imposters is disturbing, what most bothers me about the product is not that it may be fake, but that it is ubiquitous and overpowering. Once it is included in a dish, it dominates everything else on the plate. Of course, the way in which truffe oil overwhelms ones sense of taste may be related to the fact that it is largely synthetic; real truffles do not interact with food in the same way. When I find the stench of truffle oil wafting up from a dish in which it should never have been included, I wonder more about the authenticity of the chef than of the oil.

                              For those interested in reading a detailed and informative article about truffle oil and its doppelgangers, I recommend a 2007 article in the NYT by Daniel Patterson; it can easily be found on a Google search.

                              1. re: joonjoon

                                My statement is based on my experience in the field of science....the more you know the more you will realize how little is known and how much is "assumed" and how often we get it wrong (anyway, that subject could be a v. long conversation).

                                Point is that "synthetic" stuff is presented (i.e. labeled) as if it was the real deal....basically a case of legalized fraud.

                                Correct me if I am wrong but do any of the labels on truffle oil bottles state that the flavor is artificial?

                                1. re: Pollo

                                  Hi Pollo,

                                  Can you direct me to any resources online that back up your claim?

                                  1. re: joonjoon

                                    "joonjoon" - Nothing specific/definite off hand....I remember some talk/discussion about optical isomers of compounds beeing the "same" when it turns out that this may be not true.

                                    1. re: Pollo

                                      Pollo, not all compounds have isomers.

                                      and you have yet to provide any evidence to support your claim. When you are trying to argue a point, it is hard to take it seriously when you provide no evidence or reasoning to support it.

                                      1. re: LawnGnome

                                        No, not all compounds have isomers but the reason I mentioned this was to ilustrate my point that eventhough the molecular formula was the same the way isomers behave might be different (i.e. it all boils down to the method used to analyze the compound).

                                  2. re: Pollo

                                    Pollo: "Correct me if I am wrong but do any of the labels on truffle oil bottles state that the flavor is artificial?"

                                    Labeling of products like this sold in the US (often in translation from a European original) sometimes includes vague language acknowledging but downplaying artificial crutches. I checked a couple of bottles I have from Italy. One includes as final ingredient, in the English translation, "flavour" (in It., "aromi," Fr., "aromes," Germ. "Aromastoffe"). That's typical of what I've seen for years.

                                    As mentioned below and in past truffle threads, the labeling issue is larger than just truffle oils (or truffle products). Ambiguous, misleading, occasionally outright deceptive wording (as when labeling Tuber aestivum "black truffles") is on packages I've bought over the years. As with various other things people will pay for, a cachet surrounds truffles. Marketers can easily let people _assume_ things not actually true.

                                    But you can only sucker people who let you. The informed consumer can avoid this and many other manipulations.

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      Yes, in Europe it's very common to use the term "aroma" bu what get's me is that some products indicate in the label statement that they contain artificial flavor ingredient(s)....why is truffle oil exempt?

                                      1. re: Pollo

                                        "Why" is a question for a trade-law forum maybe. FWIW, I've long observed some looseness of label terms when food labeling contains pro-forma translations from original languages. Buying various food products in and from Europe and closely checking their labels in the original, I've noticed that customs and protocols vary in all sorts of ways. Offhand examples: Categories into which fats were characterized was different (this may have changed more recently, as in US with trans-fat labeling); permitted ingredients vary (e.g., cyclamate sweeteners, whose early US ban became controversial when evidence showed that saccharin, still permitted, was more toxic yet the rule stayed); ingredient implications and concerns approached differently in general. You can do only so much with translation when what you're translating reflects different assumptions than your own labeling customs do.

                                        As for truffle oils, they're luxury niche condiments (at least, while consumers continue to pay prices more reflective of truffle lore than of mere scented olive oil). An overburdened and somewhat industry-reliant US FDA sees many more urgent priorities and consumer pressures. (Point was raised already in a previous recent truffle thread).

                                        Current thread casually mixes issues actually distinct: Longtime overuse of truffle oil (whether real or fake) in restaurants; some people's unawareness that most such oils are fake (though that's been very public, including on Chowhound, since 2007); failure of labeling to make fakeness clear (aided by including trace amounts of real truffle and claiming "truffle infused")-- similar games occur with other food products where something cheap can adulterate something expensive and in US, labelers need never reveal actual proportions.

                2. Well, that would explain the vile "truffle parmesan fries" we had in Vegas this summer. Jeebus, those were NASTY.

                  1. There is a difference between truffle-infused essence or oil and the authentic truffle oil. You can purchase artisan truffle oil in Italy with the whole truffle inside the jar. Pricey, yes, but so worth it - you just need a couple of drops. More than that would be overwhelming. As said, price is an excellent indicator on what you are getting. Having done taste comparisons the difference is night and day.

                    1. It's the opposite of impressive for me, it's like cheating! I want to taste the chef's mushroom
                      risotto or soup without this totally overwhelming addition. Way to mask any complexity and skill. I've observed that many people love it however, generally these people don't seem to identify it instantly the way I do, they are just mystified and impressed. I had a bottle (threw it out eventually) and I think the stinky familiarity in my fridge totally killed any appreciation for the flavour I might have had. And I'm not even comparing it to the real thing which I've never had. For a while I thought I was missing some foodie gene that I didn't enjoy the stuff, then chowhound clued me in that if I can afford it, it's 'fake'. I wish I did enjoy it!

                      1. Variations on this topic have surfaced in CH cooking and regional forums for years. Here in the SF Bay Area, the fad for putting truffle oil on everything in fancy restaurants hit hard around late 1990s but faded a few years later, though maybe not everywhere. Daniel Patterson's 2007 NYT exposé about the fake or essentially-fake truffle oils also alerted many people to that issue.

                        If you're not jaded by over-used truffle oils in restaurants I know no reason not to use the stuff from time to time in home cooking if you like it. (Easy test for fake or essentially fake truffle oil: did it cost any kind of affordable price?) I mentioned in a related recent thread below that the concrete objections cooks raise are its "one-dimensional" imitation of true truffle aromas (Patterson's phrase); and elevated prices people will pay for any "truffle" products even if they aren't what their sellers encourage the buyer to think. (With truffles, that's not limited to oils.)

                        Incidentally if anyone can really distinguish molecules of true 2,4-dithiapentane produced in a truffle from those made any other way, alert the media. Expect a scientific revolution and sure Nobel prize, because it would obsolete all current understanding of what a "molecule" actually means. OTOH, congeners and other complexities _above_ molecular level are very relevant to artificial vs natural flavors and are the genesis of the "one-dimensional" issue:

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7184...