What is White Truffle Oil?

White truffles on a truffle grater

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The white truffle, known as the diamond of the kitchen, is a rare edible fungus that is highly prized for its unique flavor and aroma. But fresh truffles are expensive and difficult to source, so chefs, home cooks and restaurant chefs alike, often turn to truffle oil to impart their near-mythical flavor and aroma to dishes. 

And it's reasonable to assume that white truffle oil is made from truffles, or, at a minimum, that it at least tastes like truffles. But both these assumptions, it turns out, are wrong.

What is White Truffle Oil?

White truffle oil is the name of a product that's made by infusing oil, usually olive oil, with a flavor compound found in white truffles. That compound, 2,4-dithiapentane, is just one of the hundreds of aromatic compounds that give truffles their elusive flavor and aroma. The vast majority of white truffle oil is made with synthetic 2,4-dithiapentane, which is derived from petroleum products. 

Some products, often labeled "all natural" derive their 2,4-dithiapentane from foodstuffs like broccoli, garlic, celery, onions or mushrooms. In either case, the product is made with no truffles whatsoever, and represents just one of the hundreds of flavor compounds present in fresh truffles. Some truffle oils will even contain bits of dried truffle which are visible inside the bottle. But the volatiles in those truffles are long gone, and they contribute no flavor at all. Which means that truffle oil is a pale representation of truffles.

Why do they do this? A couple of reasons. One, truffles are expensive. A pound of truffles can cost several thousand dollars. And two, there is no reliable way to extract the flavors from a truffle. The compounds are highly volatile, and quickly disappear. Fresh truffles hold their flavor and aroma for only about five days. Oils made by infusing actual truffles lose their potency equally quickly.

Nevertheless, truffle oil, such as it is, has been popular since the 1990s, both in restaurants and among home cooks, and generations of enthusiasts, including professional chefs, have grown up with the one-dimensional flavor of truffle oil. And of course tastes and preferences are highly personal. If someone has never tasted an actual truffle, and is only familiar with "truffle" flavor by way of truffle oil, they may indeed genuinely enjoy that flavor. And in some sense, that's all that matters. As is the case with any ingredient, if you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't. You're not right or wrong.

How to Use White Truffle Oil?

Just because truffle oil isn't made from truffles doesn't mean that it doesn't have a potent flavor. It does. Which means truffle oil should be used sparingly. A drop of two of truffle oil drizzled on a dish just before serving is enough to impart its unique flavor. Truffle oil shouldn't be used for cooking, since the flavor would be destroyed by the heat.

Eggs, pasta, pizza, mashed potatoes, vegetables, french fries, popcorn and risotto are all foods that can benefit from a judicious sprinkling of truffle oil.

What Does it Taste Like?

Here again, individual preferences can vary widely. The flavor of truffle oil can be described as earthy, pungent, mushroomy, or perfumy, artificial, or even like gasoline. Also, because the synthetic compound is difficult to digest, some diners find that the flavor can linger for quite a while afterwards. The best, most well-rounded flavors will come from products that are produced from natural ingredients. And because truffle oil is usually made with olive oil, it will generally have a base flavor of olive oil underneath the truffle aroma.

White Truffle Oil Recipes

Where to Buy White Truffle Oil

White truffle oil can be purchased at most specialty food stores and high end grocery stores, as well as online. Look for oils that are derived from natural ingredients, and avoid ones that mention "truffle aroma", "essence," or "flavor."

Storage

As is the case with all cooking oils, store your truffle oil in a cool dark place, and use it within a month or two.

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