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May 27, 2012 02:37 PM

The Trouble with Truffles...

The fungus kind, not the chocolate kind. The first problem with them is they're so damned expensive, AND so damned addictive! I LOVE them! I cannot afford them! But maybe the rules of horseshoes can work in the world of food? Let's shoot for "close."

Canned truffles are a big problem. The very act of preserving them with heat greatly diminishes their flavor and aroma. Bummer. Fresh truffles are seasonal, not to mention pricey, and shipping can be "iffy." So that leaves truffle salts and truffle oils. And I didn't know a thing about either when I started down this path. I did read all I could lay my eyes on, but that's not the same as trying things out first hand. So I set about giving them both a shot.

Truffle oils are a little scary, depending on who and what you read. Some say, ooh, they're made with the "essence" of truffles, and not "real" truffles. Well, for the life of me, I can't figure out what that means. To me, the "essence" of something is a concentration of all that is good about it, so what could be wrong with essence of truffle? Darned if I know! For me, the greater problem comes with the type of oil that is infused with the truffle essence or flavor. I don't think a highly flavorful olive oil makes a whole lot of sense. So a neutral oil is probably the best choice, I would think. After lots and lots of reading, I went with an oil from Truffle Hunter, in the UK. It's a family run business, and they write like they know what they're talking about. I bought 100ml of their English Truffle Oil. Hey, they don't offer any French Perigord truffle oil, so there wasn't a lot of wiggle room. I considered a couple of other truffle oils, but a bad review or two on pushed me this direction. I'll get back to this later.

Truffle salt is fairly straight forward. Small bits of truffle are mixed in with salt and the aroma and flavor bloom. I wish I could find a source to buy the small bits of dried truffle they put in the salt because logic says that would give me a way to concentrate more truffle flavor without adding more salt, but alas, I haven't found a source. So based on that, it is obvious that using a less salty salt is the better way to fly. So far, I have bought three different truffle salts. One was from WorldSpice, a spice source I am extremely fond of and the source for most of my spice needs, but they dropped the ball on this one. Seriously! The salt is way too salty. Fine table salt. And the truffles are way too un-truffley. I tasted it and gave it away, with instructions that if the friend doesn't like it, toss it! The other two truffle salts I've bought are Fusion brand truffled sea salt, and Dalla Terra, They are both products of Italy (French truffle salt is extremely difficult to find for some reason), and the Fusion only says "black truffle," while the Dalla Terra says "black summer truffle." The general consensus is that winter truffles are far superior to summer truffles, but once again, if they're available on the market, I couldn't find them!

So now to my point. My personal opinion is that truffle oil is not worth bothering with. I might give it one more shot with another brand, but I am not at all impressed with my experience so far. The flavor is easily lost, as is the case with many "finishing oils" in my experience. They tend to be easily washed away or overcome by other ingredients, so I'm not holding a lot of hope of finding any truffle magic in that direction.

Truffle salt is another matter. In my experience they are superior to bottled or jarred truffles simply because they retain and give off more of the truffle "vitality" that is so lacking in canned truffles. Of the two brands I have used, both are good, but the Dalla Terra is the best of the two. And that was a bit of a surprise because upon opening the jar and examining it, the salt grains were much finer than the Fusion salt, and I assumed it would mean it would be saltier and less "truffley." Boy, was I wrong! It is pungent, and it will let you know that truffles are present! Or at the very least, the spirit of truffles. I have found that adding it to a simple button mushroom duxelle really expands the illusion of rich full truffle experience. Hey, a few lies from the kitchen never hurt anyone! Well, let's just call them "illusions," not lies. Okay?

And just for the record, I also found out a bit more about my personal preferences for steak while investigating truffle oil versus truffle salt. I sous vied a couple of tenderloins at 56C for around 4 hours, then used a torch to char one and seared the other in a cast iron pan. Somehow, I had never gotten around to testing those two methods of finishing a sous vide steak side by side for comparison before now. What I learned was that, in my experience, the pan searing toughened the steak while the torch searing left it nice and tender, plus it adds more flavor than the cast iron pan could come up with. I used truffle oil on parts of each steak, and truffle salt on the others. Truffle salt rules!

With the possible exceptions of strawberries and other fresh fruits, I can't think of much that a little truffle salt won't make better. I just can't make up my mind if I want to try it on strawberries.... hmmm.... Probably not. But hey, for a fried egg sandwich that makes your taste buds dance, try frying the egg in rendered beef fat, then sprinkling it with a dash of truffle salt, put it on some thick sliced sour dough bread with a light touch of aioli and you've got lunch..! It's really nice to know I can enjoy the rich aromatic experience of truffles any time I like, and no longer have to wait for fancy holiday dinners. Not only that, now I get better truffle flavor than I ever got from jars of imported and expensive truffles. Life is good! '-)

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  1. I use truffle oil and truffle salt (sometimes together). It is much harder to find nice truffle oil and I discovered I prefer Black Truffle oil and white truffle salt.

    You might also check out truffle cheese. It is my new favorite thing on pizza. It melts like a dream and when using mushrooms and truffle cheese together on a pizza or omelette.....mmmmm......

    3 Replies
    1. re: sedimental

      Oooooh... Truffle cheese. Now you've done it! Thanks. I've never tried white truffles. I'll pick some up.

      1. re: Caroline1

        I've enjoyed reading your posts over the years, and so I'd like to offer some advice about white truffles: don't buy any until the season begins (usually October)-- they mainly come from Piedmont and have become extremely expensive so buying them now, when the freshness is doubtful is not worth the money. (And ignore the store that claims it's rested on rice all these months and is "fresh"--that rice business is a myth and actually draws moisture out of the truffle.)

        1. re: penthouse pup

          Thanks! I'll put the white truffle money in the airfare-to-Italy kitty! '-)

    2. "Truffle oils are a little scary, depending on who and what you read. Some say, ooh, they're made with the "essence" of truffles, and not "real" truffles. Well, for the life of me, I can't figure out what that means. To me, the "essence" of something is a concentration of all that is good about it, so what could be wrong with essence of truffle? Darned if I know!"

      By "essence of truffle" they mean someone in a lab put a bunch of chemicals together to try to mimic the flavor and aroma of truffles. Most truffle oilsdont contain anything related to a truffle, and the ones that do use real truffles in the bottle just do it for show as the compounds are not fat soluble and therefore dont actually add anything to the oil.

      So, in a nutshell, truffle oil is really pretty much just synthetically perfumed oil.

      7 Replies
      1. re: twyst

        Yes, but I have no problem with synthetics * IF* they accurately duplicate the original AND do me no harm from consuming them. '-)

        1. re: twyst

          After much study and consulting with European professionals (in the business for several generations), I have accepted the fact that ALL truffle oil on the market is flavored stuff. Maybe some of it has little pieces of truffle in it but, it is not the REAL THING by any means. The FDA only requires that a food item not be toxic in order to be labeled "Natural." Some chefs really do make their own and it has a very short shelf life.

          1. re: keepyourfork

            I wasted a chunk of change on truffle oil to confirm that. It has been demoted to display only. I've also learned that while really good truffle salt comes closest to giving the sensation of real live truffles, once opened it loses its potency rather quickly. Rats!!!

            1. re: Caroline1

              **I have not tried this**
              Your comment about the open salt makes me think the issue may be oxidation. My dad had some cans of nitrogen for spraying into wine bottles before recorking. The idea was that the nitrogen would displace the air and keep the wine better -- similar to blowing into a paint can before re-lidding. Might this work with the salt? Spray some of the wine-keeper in and then lid quickly?

              1. re: travelerjjm

                With wine, it's reasonable to think it would only need to be preserved/protected once before the bottle is empty. I'd hate to try to cusume four ounces of truffle salt in two sittings! But seriously, as often as I use truffle salt, that could get to be more of a deterrant to using it than anything else. I think a better answer might be to transfer some to a small saltshaker, then hermetically seal the rest and store it in the freezer right next to my stash of saffron! Or I could just buy smaller containers... '-)

              2. re: Caroline1

                that's just what i was going to comment- short shelf life of truffle salt.

                a few comments. I'm in the Boston area. A French restnt here, Aquitaine, serves their steak frites w/ a KILLER truffle vngtte (i have the recipe if you want it.) and they use 'white truffle oil, canned tr peelings, canned tr juice ' for the tr elements of it. I haven't tried yet to ask the sizes of those, or vendors, but i know they're wicked expensive.

                In CA there is a good co. called Far West Funghi. The owner and his son are good peo to talk to/learn from. In their store at the Ferry Bldg. they sell many many truffle (and other funghi products as well as fresh and dried funghi.) I am a major fan of their house-made Truffle Honey Mustard which is misnamed imo; it tastes like a v good quality dijon, w/ truffle flavor. Looooong shelf lfe, as you might imagine. (Yes, they ship.) Inexp compared to other products. They also sell truffle flour, just fyi. Also jarred truffles.

                Here in Cambridge, the owner of our fantastic specialty foods store, Formaggio, is a very helpful and well informed food person. They sell many truffle oils and Ishan would have opinions on them for you. I'd advise callng any retail people in off-hours like early or after lunch.

                Thx for sharing all your info.

                p.s. Whole Foods and TrJ and Formaggio Kitchen all sell various truffle cheeses. As you might think, TrJ is the least exp. All tend to develop (flavorless) mold , which I think is truffle/funghi/duh! related.

            2. re: twyst

              Not true at all. Truffle essence is extracted from broken truffle pieces that can't be preserved the same way as whole truffles. The essence is soluble in alcohol or oil. Hence, truffle oil! No one in their right mind would flavour oil with whole grated truffles. If you want to get legal, this is called 'natural flavouring'.

              'Someone in a lab' would be making artificial flavouring, which means it's never even seen a truffle.

              Now, I can't vouch for North American made truffle oil since their labelling standards are so low. That's part of the problem with American mentality - they would rather sacrifice quality for a cheaper product. Stick with French or Italian truffle products. In general, they won't put up with s*&t!

            3. shall I post you a bag of truffle potato chips?

              (actually, I wouldn't subject you to them...there are actually truffles in the ingredients list, but they're pretty funky and weird-tasting)

              8 Replies
              1. re: sunshine842

                mmmm... Somehow I suspect truffle seasoned beef jerky would be a lot more palate pleasing than truffle dusted potato chips, but then I readily admit to being a stodgy old traditionalist. '-)

                1. re: Caroline1

                  of course, I wouldn't eat beef jerky unless it was pretty much my last chance....

                  Truffles and fried potatoes isn't an odd concept, so I tried them...they skimped on the truffles just enough to leave them tasting musty, rather than truffly...but they've been on the shelf for a few years now, so I guess someone must like them.

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    Just sayin'... I don't recall ever seeing truffled jerky. On the other hand, I don't recall giving beef jerky a second glance in about... oh... at least thirty plus years. Tough stuff! So maybe they do make it?

                    I suspect I've become rather stodgy: I strongly prefer fresh Perigord black winter truffles, and I strongly prefer them with classic prime beef recipes like Wellington or Rossinni. If I wanted to get creative, I MIGHT try creating an escarot dish served in the shell with truffle butter and cognac. I'd rather smother my mac'n'cheese in butter and double or triple cream than truffles. Stodgy traditionalist!!! If only my pocket book had kept up with my tastes... <sigh>

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      I'm hoping (but really don't have a lot of hope) that this has been a good year down in the sudouest, and truffles will be cheap this year.

                      The reality, however, is that after a very cool and wet spring, they had a very hot and dry summer...not very conducive to truffles.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        Truffles will never be cheap. Too much working and waiting on them. We'll see if Nature responds favorably this year.

                        1. re: keepyourfork

                          "Cheap" is relative...and I meant "cheap in comparison to other years"

                          I've bought and eaten a few too many truffles to consider them cheap compared to other items in the basket.

                      2. re: Caroline1

                        I had an escargot-stuffed tortelloni with truffle foam somewhere that was absolutely amazing. Foam irritates me but this dish was incredible.

                        1. re: biondanonima

                          ohhhhhh, what you're doing to me! I have escargot in the cupboard and a jar of truffles in the spice rack.... ohhhhhhh.... I think I'm in trouble! '-)

                2. l was told by a French truffle seller that while the summer truffles look good, they have little aroma or flavor, thus buy the winter ones.
                  l have found over the years that the Italian white truffles have far more smell and taste than the French.
                  In addition, Manni is one of the few makers using real truffles anymore in their oil. Most companies sell a product of 250ml for $18-$40 which has a chemical truffle 'replacer' as do most perfumes now. The perfume makers put a discovered chemical that smells like lavender, iris blossoms, or whatever as it is more dependable and far less expensive.

                  1. Have you considered a trip to Oregon during truffle season? There are some people up there experimenting with producing truffles - maybe someone on the Portland board can give you some info about where they are and which farmers' markets they show up at. (And it's a nice place to visit anyway). I don't know how well truffles dry - it's pretty easy to dry most other mushrooms, so maybe you can get some dried ones from an Oregon producer.

                    The mushroom people at my local farmers' market in the Bay Area once had truffles that they said came from the very north of California: they smelled divine, and I'm still kicking myself for not buying one, pricy as it was. I don't know why we can't get them to grow in this state - there's no shortage of oaks!