the truffle oil controversy

December 29, 2011 /

The Napa Truffle Festival comes only once a year and I know most of you, (myself included), want to enjoy truffles the rest of the year. A few years ago, a product made it big on the gourmet foods market which allowed us all to indulge in truffles at home. But, as is the case with many good things, success spoiled truffle oil and the market became flooded with inexpensive products promising the essence of the rare fungus in a bottle.

It all came to light with the New York Times article “Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles” which exposed inexpensive truffle oils as, essentially, cheap knockoffs. Ever since then, chefs (including many who had previously happily doused their cuisine with the stuff) and most food media have turned up their noses at all liquid truffle essence.

I am writing this post to help clear up a little of the controversy and let you know that there are great products out there that can give you a little taste of truffle at home.

To understand genuine truffle oil, its important to understand the “Beaker of Truffles” the New York Times exposed. Many commercial truffle oils are made by combining olive oil with aromatic molecules manufactured in a laboratory. If you compare one of these oils with the aroma of a fresh truffle, you will immediately notice the difference. A truffle is much more subtle, delicate. Yet the taste of these manufactured truffle oils is similar enough that it fooled great chefs for years. And even now, great chefs, including Chicago’s Grant Achatz, still use a drop or two on occasion to enhance the flavor of truffle dishes.

If you enjoy the flavor of these truffle imitators, then I say knock yourself out! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enhancing your food with a flavor you enjoy. (I’m not shy about drizzling a little on a well-salted pile of French fries!) Just don’t confuse it with the taste of real truffles, one of the greatest food experiences in the world.

There are a few honorable products on the market that make truffle oil with genuine truffles. They’re more expensive oils and their flavors are much more subtle than what you might expect. But there truffle notes are complex and like no other flavor sensation on earth. Check the bottle’s ingredients for one that lists oil and truffles as the ingredients like Chef Jack Czarnecki’s Oregon Truffle Oil. Terms such as “natural truffle flavoring” or “truffle essence” are a giveaway that what you’re holding was made in a beaker.

The best way, of course, is to experience truffles in their natural state. Which is why, if you haven’t already, you should get your tickets to the 2012 Truffle Festival before its too late!