If your only introduction to truffles has been through truffled popcorn, French fries, mac ‘n’ cheese or pizza, you may be upset to discover that you have never tasted a truffle at all. Those dishes were almost certainly made with so-called “truffle oil” or “truffle salt” — which are basically oil or salt mixed with a chemical compound called 2,4-dithiapentane.
There’s a reason these products aren’t made from actual truffles. Salt would quickly dry out any bits of truffle mixed with it and render them tasteless. Oil infused with truffles might acquire a slight truffle flavor, but that flavor would be ephemeral, dissipating long before the bottle reached you. You may find bits of truffle in these products, but they are mostly included as windowdressing. Truffle oil is actually a food science invention from the 1970s.
If you don’t believe it, check the label. The dead give-away is “truffle aroma” on the ingredients list. That’s an alternative description of 2,4-dithiapentane. True, the compound is a synthetic version of one of the elements found in real truffles — but it represents only one of the 20 or so volatile oils found there (none of which occurs in such an intense concentration).
Chef Ken Frank of La Toque, host chef of the Napa Truffle Festival, calls truffle oil “an abomination,” in part because its name misrepresents its contents, but more importantly, because the strong, one-dimensional flavor has changed diners expectations of what truffles should taste like, ruining their appreciation of the subtle, complex aroma and flavors that the real thing can bring to a dish.
But nevertheless, many people like it and find it delicious, whether or not it’s the real thing. There’s nothing to stop you from enjoying chemically flavored 2,4-dithiapentane oil on your popcorn. (Though it certainly sounds less appetizing when you call it that!) Just don’t be fooled into thinking that it has anything to do with truffles and that it accurately represents their delicate flavor.