The Trouble with Truffles

The latest in unfortunate trends seems to be truffle oil. It's everywhere being put on everything both appropriate and bizarre. It is becoming a panacea for an otherwise lack of flavor focus, a singular obscure ingredient (in the palates of most people) that adds that earthy dimension difficult to describe and impossible to emulate. Well, almost impossible.

This sudden trend is no-doubt due to the the introduction and restaurant promotion of artificial truffle oil. "Give your customers the flavor of expensive, exotic truffles - and charge them accordingly - and you pocket the difference." For any restauranteur, the opportunity to bump the price of an appetizer by a buck or two for mere pennies per dish is a no-brainer.

While truffles can range anywhere from $60 to $300 an ounce (depending on who you ask, what time of year, and whether you want black or white truffles), one truffle can make a respectable amount of truffle oil. But it's still pricey. Like any other organic compound, a truffle begins to die once it's plucked from the ground, so it must give off its aroma and flavor to an oil quickly and, likewise, that oil needs to be used before it oxidizes.

The artificial version is understandably MUCH cheaper than the real thing. Truffles are notoriously expensive when measured in dollars per pound placing hem probably third in line behind gold leaf (bizarrely and unnecessarily sprinkled over chocolate desserts on occasions in places that cultivate bling in food) and saffron threads. The promise of delivering such a "rich" flavor at a fraction of the price is obvious. There's only one problem; it doesn't quite taste like truffle oil.

The first time I really encountered it, the knock-off was SO bad I thought the oil had gone rancid. After taking a bite from my plate of carpaccio (which listed truffle oil among the ingredients; a clue I should have caught), I nearly gagged thinking that an otherwise savvy restaurant had somehow neglected a bottle of olive oil for 6 months. I urged others at the table to stop eating other items tainted with the oil. To my horror, they kept eating it. Not that rancid oil is overwhelmingly bad for you (though, if you can parse this article on it, you'll have a better idea), but it just tastes nasty.

Another one that confounds me is oxidized butter. Restaurants slice little pats of butter into a bowl in the morning, and then place it in a refrigerator where a fan blows air all over the individual pieces. By the time it reaches your table, it's got that trademark "off" flavor to it. (Much like the good flavor of real truffles is hard to describe or liken to something else, so too is the bad flavor of oxidized butter. If you slice through a stick of butter, and notice the outter layer is clearer than the more opaque inside, you can scrape the outer layer off and taste for yourself.)

Here is the kicker - most people don't seem to recognize (or care) about oxidized butter and I was the only one at the table that thought that "truffle oil" was actually "rancid oil". While I'd like to think I have a developed palate, my fear is actually that others are getting accustomed to the flavor of artificial ingredients and clearly inferior products. While the smokey flavor of, say, a McDonald's hamburger is created chemically, I think the average person (if they really sat down and thought about it) would make a distinction between what a charcoal-grilled hamburger should taste like. But given the sticker price of truffle oil, how many people will detect the difference?

How do you make fake truffle oil? It's impractical (okay, impossible) to emulate all of the chemicals from truffle oil, so you focus on the biggest one. In short, figure out what gives, not so much the flavor, but the aroma of truffle oil and triggers that response. Give up? It's 2,5-dithiapentane.That was probably going to be your guess though.

A quick search confirms that both pigs and mixed-breed dogs are used for truffle hunting (dogs preferable to pigs because pigs like truffles), but I can't seem to find a source for 2,5-dithiapentane.

That's troubling.


Anonymous said…
You probably have had trouble finding a source for 2,5-dithiapentane because there is no such thing--the chemical you're looking for is called 2,4-dithiapentane.

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