Chefs disagree on a lot of things, but if there's one thing that can unite cooks, writers and other leaders of the culinary world, it's a hatred of a seemingly innocuous ingredient–truffle oil. Martha Stewart said in her Reddit AMA "I think truffle oil is one of the few ingredients that doesn't belong in anyone's kitchen. It's ruinous of most recipes." Anthony Bourdain simply stated it "not food." "It's the only ingredient that I have never allowed in Clio. It all tastes synthetic, and the flavor is too artificial," Chef Ken Oringer told Serious Eats. The author then says it’s an ingredient we re all "embarrassed to say we thought we enjoyed," and calling any lingering enjoyment of the ingredient "mass pyschosomosis." No, tell us how you really feel.
As a quick primer, most truffle oils are not made from real truffles infused in olive oil. Instead, they're oils with added 2,4-dithiapentane, a gas that's naturally produced by the Italian white truffle, but is often used as the primary or only flavoring in synthetic white truffle oil. You're not getting the entire aromatic experience of truffle, just the most obvious one. And when it’s added separately rather than infused naturally, the oil becomes even more strong and "truffle-y" than a natural oil could ever be.
"Naturally infused truffle oil can never be as strong as one infused with a single powerful gas" says Jack Czarnecki of Oregon White Truffle Oil, which produces 100% naturally infused oils from Oregon truffles. However, he thinks synthetic truffle oils have gotten a bit of a bad rap. "They realized this flavor compound was really strong and they started using it. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It’s just that it was perceived as a chemical rather than something that came from the truffle, and people got a little angry. It's important to understand that that gas is very distinct and it does naturally occur in the Italian white truffle."
In America, the inclusion of truffle oil on restaurant menus started to rise in the 90s, when many professional chefs discovered they could give their diners a truffle experience, or enhance the flavor of the truffles that were already there, without the accompanying high price tag. With the cheaper oil, there didn't even need to be the presence of real truffles. Toward the early 2000s "truffle" flavor became an easy way to fancify just about anything, from truffle parmesan fries to a truffle tater tot “hot dish” I ordered once in Minnesota. There are even limited edition truffle potato chips from Lays. The one-rare flavor became ubiquitous. Now, no one blinks an eye at a “truffle mac and cheese” or a truffle oil-seared hot dog, much to the horror of the nation’s gourmands who knew what “real” truffle was supposed to be like. From the nation’s restaurants, bottles of truffle oil naturally migrated to home kitchens, leaving those gourmands to clutch their pearls over the imagined atrocities that could be committed there.
Perhaps access to synthetic oils has ruined our palates a bit. Czarnecki says he's had customers tell him his oil doesn’t taste enough like truffle, just because it doesn’t have that 2,4 dithiapentane punch. But it’s also a matter of perception. “It’s kind of like the difference between two heads of broccoli that look exactly the same, but one is labeled Organic and the other isn’t,” say Czarnecki. "People grab Organic because they make all sorts of assumptions about the other one, which may or may not be true." And many chefs were happy to use truffle oil when they were under the impression it was made "naturally," and only turned when they learned it was added through a synthetic process. It’s one of those moments where we realize how fine the line is between natural and fake, and how labels like "organic," "natural" and "artificial" often break down upon the smallest bit of scrutiny.
The backlash against synthetic truffle oil is about the idea of purity. Italian white truffles hover somewhere around $3,000/pound. The experience of tasting them in that pure state is accessible by very few. But isolate the naturally occurring gas and blast it into olive oil, and soon everyone is eating truffle mac and cheese. To some, it’s faux-elevation, taking something nuanced and rare and putting it in places it shouldn't naturally be. To others, it is the only shot at anything resembling truffles, and to begrudge them for it is to begrudge people who can’t afford shavings over their pasta for wanting that experience in whatever way is available.
It's fine if chefs want to keep artificial ingredients out of their kitchens, but what's confusing is the vitriol for the "chemical" 2,4-dithiapentane over almost any other synthetic ingredient. There are plenty of less-than-gourmet ingredients dotting the average kitchen. That balsamic vinegar is probably not real balsamic, that butter has "natural flavors" added, and that juice has additives that make it taste even fresher than fresh juice. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. If molecular gastronomy has taught us anything, it’s that "chemicals" have their place in cuisine. And if 7th grade science taught us anything, it's that, you know, water is a chemical. And yet, you don’t hear Joe Bastianich threatening to boycott restaurants over serving red velvet cake with food coloring.
Yes, naturally infused oils are more nuanced and don’t come with the connotations of your high school chemistry lab, and though they’re more expensive than the synthetic kinds, they're wildly more affordable than the truffles themselves. But food is about pleasure, and if we find pleasure in "synthetic" truffle oil, that’s really no worse than finding pleasure in Oreos or flavored seltzer or any other of the “chemical” filled ingredients we’ve already accepted. It doesn't need to go on everything, but truffle oil does have its place in the kitchen. It can be drizzled lightly on pasta, or stirred into mashed potatoes. It is like any other ingredient, a tool that can be used or abused. And if you want to start boycotting every synthetic ingredient, good luck. I'll be here with my truffle popcorn.
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