Trufflesome Truffle Oil

I broke one of my rules last night. Which just goes to show you rules are made to be broken.

I was having friends in for a casual dinner and a screening of the movie The Wrestler. It was another one of those weeknight entertaining events that I spoke of last week and I was really wrestling with the menu.

I had a 3‑pound beef round tip roast bought on sale that was screaming to get used (or should I say mooing??). Round tip is a fairly inexpensive cut of meat. It’s got a lot of flavor for the buck, but is in no way a stand-alone red meat experience. It’s better as a partner in something hearty and earthy.

“Hearty and earthy” is a phrase that conjures up stew. So I decided on a beef stew braised in red wine with lots of root veggies and some kale. Technically I would call this a simplified Beef Bourguignon.

Making a simplified version of this classic French beef stew was not the rule I broke. I have no rules about Beef Bourguignon.

Nope. The rule I broke was no more truffle oil!

I went through a shameful phase when I used truffle oil in way too many things. Black truffle oil, white truffle oil– I embraced them equally. 

In theory, what’s not to like about truffle oil? It has a mighty heady aroma. Compared to actual truffles it’s practically free. So it seems an affordable alternative and a good fancy-pants way of enhancing almost anything. Right?

Wrong. Examine that paragraph and compare it to what we know about truffles and truffle oil. Truffles are rare and difficult to procure. They are expensive and their price fluctuates greatly due to their uneven availability. In other words they are a market driven commodity.

Truffle oil has a fairly constant price and lately even begun to trend downward in its price point. How is this possible? 

In the real world, white truffles are tremendously more expensive than black. But white truffle oil and black truffle oil cost pretty much the same. How is this accomplished?

Many of the great chefs believe that when it comes to truffles more is more, and frankly I agree. Not so with truffle oil. It has a tipping point and can actually pollute a dish if used with a heavy hand. Again I have to ask why is this? Why can one be used liberally and the other only judiciously??

Well, the key to this conundrum lies with Coca-Cola.

Coke and Diet Coke are supposed to be pretty much the same in taste and experience. But really they are 2 different creatures. One has a lot of calories and one does not. How is this possible? I think you know the answer. The answer is chemicals. Well it’s the same thing with truffle oil.

Truffle oil is NOT truffle-steeped oil. Truffle oil is olive oil enhanced with the chemical dithiapentane. According to the New York Times, Dithiapentane is a chemical recreation of the “aromatic molecules that make the flavor of white truffles so heady and evanescent”.

Dithiapentane is the chemical responsible for making your brain think it’s getting ready for big flavor. But that’s where the similarity to truffles ends. Because if you stop and be honest with yourself you have to admit that truffle oil delivers a flavor that is very unlike real truffle flavor. It’s similar-ish, but very shallow.

In fact there is an argument to be made that the one-dimensional flavor of dithiapentane oil (after all let’s call it what it is) is also changing American’s understanding of how a truffle should taste.

American tastes are going through a phase right now. We like big, overblown flavors. I mean think about some of the wines on the market and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what we expect on the palate. This was summed up very well by Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize winning restaurant critic for LA Weekly when he said: “People expect that slap in the face of truffle oil, they have lost their taste for subtlety; they want bigger than life flavors that are amped up with aromatic”. The chemical companies that developed truffle oil know this and they deliver it to us by th gallon.

Well, when I learned all this I swore the stuff off. Cold Turkey.

I mean I was not the kind of cook who used fake ingredients. I would never use anything but real vanilla. Non-dairy creamer? Cheese Whiz? You get the idea.

Besides, I prized subtlety. Or at least I wanted to. So I did the hard work and began to teach my palate some restraint. I incorporated these ideas in my cooking. I made great strides in balancing my flavors. I felt good about what I had accomplished. But like any “diet” if it’s too much about denial then it’s bound to fail.

So, I have to admit I have fallen off the wagon. I am beginning to rethink my stand on Truffle Oil. 

It’s true, like Diet Coke, Truffle Oil can be insidious. It can get under your skin and make you feel not quite right! But that does not mean there is absolutely no room for it in my life. It just means I need to learn when and how to enjoy it. I am talking about Diet Coke as much as I am Truffle Oil– so my motivations may be a bit suspect.

But the truth is I don’t want to be a person who places arbitrary limitations on my life. Eating “healthy” and eating for “enjoyment” are 2 sides of the same coin. The key to success in both areas is judgment. I don’t like not liking things. Life is too short to have such hard-core rules about little pleasures. I want to experiment with many tastes, new or familiar. Old or unknown. It’s who I am.

So last night I dug back deep in my pantry and found a bottle of white truffle oil. Like an alcoholic, I seemed to know exactly where the bottle was stashed. 

I had decided on a big plate of French fries, served family style, as a side dish to my Beef Bourguignon. But I felt like a really big flavor was needed. After all, I am an American.

Almost instantly my mind turned to truffle oil. It was as if I had never actually banned the stuff. I began to realize all things have their proper place. Moderation is our friend, rigidity our enemy.

Besides, I felt that the new knowledge I have gained about cooking since giving up on truffle oil could be incorporated into this dinner. I could do big without doing overblown.

So I made a simple flavored salt with a tiny amount of truffle oil and a big (slightly overblown) grinding of black pepper.  I generously sprinkled it on to the fries in a big (slightly overblown) way.

You could smell the dithiapentane-laced potatoes coming all the way down the hall. I felt like my potatoes had just the right fancy-pants aura to them too. I got the ohhs and ahhs I was looking for when I put that platter in front of my friends. After all, the guests were all Americans!


Greg Henry

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