Truffle oil is the “it” ingredient for home cooks looking to add a special touch to everyday dishes like mashed potatoes and risotto. The subtle earthiness a small drop imparts seems harmless enough, but what consumers and retailers may not know is the simple ingredient deck on a truffle oil label—usually just the carrier oil, such as olive oil, plus “truffle aroma” or “truffle essence”—doesn’t tell the whole story.
“The majority of the truffle oils on the market are chemically infused with petroleum,” says Cecilia Ercolino, president of Italian Products USA, a Clark, N.J.-based importer of truffle products.
Though truffles (think savory fungi, not chocolaty confections) have been used in cooking for thousands of years, the history of truffle oil is shorter than you might expect. “In 1981, an Italian scientist synthesized in a lab a chemical flavoring that is one of the 35 or so natural chemical compounds found in truffles,” says Rosario Safina, founder of da Rosario Organics, a Watertown, Conn.-based manufacturer of U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic truffle products. “Prior to that, there was no such thing as truffle oil.”
There are naturally flavored truffle oils on the market, but it takes some sleuthing to learn how a given product is made. “Most producers guard their secrets,” says Justin Marx, founder of marxfoods.com, an online retailer of gourmet products. “I just finished tasting every truffle product we carry and talking to every producer, and it’s hard to get a straight answer.” One of the best ways to determine truffle oil quality is by tasting.
“It’s not possible to extract the actual flavor and aroma from a truffle,” says Ercolino. In order to match the combination of flavors found in actual truffles, she says, manufacturers might extract one compound from a carrot, another from a mushroom and so on, then combine them in a carrier oil. This process is much more expensive than using a chemical flavoring, but yields more authentic results.
A few manufacturers do claim to extract aroma directly from truffles. Safina says his company use a proprietary vacuum process to extract scent molecules directly from fresh truffles and infuse them into a base of olive oil, using only truffles harvested from privately owned certified-organic lands.
Why buy truffle oil?
Most shoppers will never have the opportunity—or the money—to sample fresh white truffles from Italy. “A good truffle oil is fabulously close to what a real truffle tastes like,” says Ercolino. “When people know the truth, they can make a choice and try a natural truffle oil, which is one of the best ways to get truffle flavor in a dish economically.”
Naturals retailers, armed with information about truffle oil, are likely to reject petroleum-based oils for health and environmental reasons. But flavor is another reason to stay clear of these lower-cost oils. “With a truffle oil flavored with a petroleum product, you can really taste the petroleum,” says Marx. “The real stuff is not so overpowering. It’s intense, but subtle. We try to disclose the truth to customers and let them make the right choice for themselves.”
Based on his love of truffle aroma, Mitchell Clute must have been a pig in a past life. In this life, he is a freelance writer in Ft. Collins, Colo.