"Comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex."
"It's the only ingredient that I have never allowed while at Clio. It all tastes synthetic, and the flavor is too artificial," says Chef Ken Oringer, talking, of course, about the culinary bane of the '90s. The ingredient we're all embarrassed to say that we thought we enjoyed for nearly an entire decade: truffle oil.
For some reason, back in the '90s, truffle oil became an acceptable—even desirable—ingredient for chefs to use. Coming in at a fraction of the cost of real truffles (which vary year to year, but generally run in the thousands-of-dollars-per-ounce range), it seemed like an easy way to add some truffle aroma to an otherwise boring dish.
Problem is, truffle oil isn't even made from truffles. It's made from an organic compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane—derived either naturally or from a petroleum base—mixed together with olive oil. Sure, that happens to be the most prevalant chemical odorant in real truffles, but using truffle oil is the culinary equivalent of dousing a custard with, say, artificial vanilla flavoring, or making soup from a chicken bouillon cube—worse, even. At least bouillon cubes usually start with real chicken. Can you think of a single great chef who'd dream of using such artificial flavorings in their food? So what made truffle oil different?
A lot of it was the caché of the name. As fine dining became more mainstream, more and more ordinary folks started hearing about what truffles were, about their extraordinary scent, and the extraordinary cost associated with them. Truffle oil was a quick, easy, and cheap way to give'em a taste. Since back in those days, most people had no idea what a truffle was supposed to taste like, chef's, seeing the dollar signs, thought to themselves, "what's the harm in pulling one over on a couple of rubes?" Most likely, many of these chefs had never even tasted real truffles themselves.
It's like saying, "I can't stand fruit" after having been raised only eating Jolly Ranchers.
And it worked. For many many years, diners—either legitimately tricking themselves into liking the flavor of the fake stuff, or more likely, not wanting to appear uncultured when they claimed not to like truffles—simply put up with it. I know many diners these days who swear up and down the line that they simply don't like truffles, despite the fact that most of them have never even tasted a real truffle. It's like saying, "I can't stand fruit" after having been raised only eating Jolly Ranchers.
So what? What's the problem?, you might say. Even if it doesn't taste like truffles, as long as it tastes good, who cares?
Well, here's what I have to say to that: It doesn't taste good. It bears a passing resemblance to truffles at first whiff, but it quickly devolves into metallic, gasoline-scented notes, particularly at the concentrations that chefs seemed to use it in in the '90s. That diners actually put up with the stuff for as long as they did is perhaps one of the greatest examples of mass pyschosomosis in history.
Fortunately, most diners and chefs these days have come to realize it, and truffle oil is becoming more and more scarce. I chatted with a couple of chefs who went through the truffle mill in the '90s about their current thoughts on the matter. Michael Anthony, of New York's Gramercy Tavern is diplomatic about the issue, saying that "I decided a number of years ago to stop using truffle oils. Once or twice a year, usually for New Year's Eve, we create a blow out menu which will include fresh truffles. They are a rare, expensive treat and it only seems sensible to celebrate them by tasting the real thing."
Jason Bond of Cambridge's Bondir agrees with the "ingredients should taste like what they are" philosophy: "I prefer to let ingredients taste like themselves and truffles taste as they should, unamplified. If the truffle isn't coming through in the dish, you shouldn't amp up the truffle, you should lower the ambient noise around it." If only all chefs in the 90's had shown such restraint!
Like adding truffle oil made one's food more luxurious!
Other chefs were nowhere near as subtle about their disapproval. Tony Maws of Craigie on Main is even more blunt. "I really can't stand truffle oil. Perhaps there is some quality stuff out there but I'm scarred by the combination of overuse and ubiquitousness from food and cuisine in the nineties. Like adding truffle oil made one's food more luxurious! Whatever! Plus the metallic, punch-you-in-the-face, chemical flavor that floods the palate and nostrils is just plain overwhelming and nasty."
It's Tony's sentiments that I agree with the most. The stuff tastes bad, plain and simple, and having to not only endure it for so many years, but actually having people say things like, "the pasta was great—it had truffle oil," as if that instantly elevates a dish has scarred me to the point where I'll actively avoid restaurants where I get even a whiff of it or spy the cursed tiny bottles sitting in the kitchen.
Thankfully, this avoidance has become a relatively easy task these days (though pizzerias still seem especially prone to overtrufflitis), but there's one place where its use is still ubiquitous: high end catering.
On Tuesday night, Erin and I headed over to the Food & Wine Best New Chef Gala* at the Bohemian National Hall on the upper west side where a full three out of four of them were doused with truffle oil, some of them in the absolutely most ridiculous of ways.
*Side question: if a spectacle is spectacular and a wonder is wonderful, is a gala galactic?
Really cute and tasty looking miniature Egg McMuffins on tiny homemade English Muffins with a nice aged cheddar started off tasty, until your entire head got filled with the unmistakably chemical-laden scent of truffle oil. Little grilled cheese sandwiches with a tasty apple compote start out nutty, tart, and perfectly balanced, until your nose is taken for a spin by a strong whiff of the nasty oil, undoubtedly bottled by the devil himself.
Is this chef out of her mind?!?
Ah, I said to Erin—here comes something that will surely be free from the gasoline-scented, metallic crud. Miniature taco shells, stuffed with a cold shrimp salad. I picked one up and confidently brought it to my mouth, popping back the whole thing in one go. My head started swimming. Is this chef out of her mind?!? Why in the world would it ever be even a remotely good idea to douse cold sefood with fricking truffle oil?!? Even real truffles would be abominable in that situation. It's just about the worst combination I could think of—one that deserves, at the bare minimum, a catering license revocation.
I propose that from now on, any chef who decides to charge $20 for their mediocre mac&cheese by dousing it in this chemi-crap or every caterer who thinks their quail eggs just don't taste fancy enough should be forced to spend 8 hours in a warm room with an open bottle of the nasty stuff.
Am I being snobby about this? You bet I am. Truffles are snob food, by definition, and their attempted democratization was one of the largest culinary crimes ever committed. I'm happy that most of the world has realized this, and implore the last few stragglers to just put down the bottle once and for all.
Ed Levine's got a line of unknown origin he's been carrying around that to me, pretty much sums it up: "Comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex."
I couldn't agree more.
This article by Daniel Patterson (EDIT: article originally misidentified author as David Patterson) in the New York Times from 2007 is a thoroughly more academic, less off-the-hilt, and much better written article on the same subject. I suggest reading it!