How to Recognize Them – Truffle Oils

After the FIRST and the SECOND posts of this series, here it comes the third with another interesting topic.
The persons who have been always interested about knowing exactly what they eat probably they know it already, but maybe who started only later to be more deeply interested about food don’t know it yet and I’m sure that someone could be surprised to read what’s coming next 🙂 if there are still so many truffle oils around is because still many people don’t know these things, I guess.

Everywhere it’s possible to find “truffle oils”, also in many restaurants you can find a bottle of “truffle oil” on the tables, but how many of those oils are really made with the famous and often expensive truffles? Unfortunately the answer is “very very little” (or “none”), because almost all of those oils have never seen a real truffle.

Indeed almost the totality of the “truffle oils” in commerce are not made using real truffles but they are mostly made with much cheaper artificial aromas created in labor and usually derived from petroleum (yes 😀 ) through distillation, more precisely that aroma is called bis(methylthio)methane (or 2,4-Dithiapentane).

Of course, on the labels you will find only the useless generic word “aroma“.

To be more clear bis(methylthio)methane is the aromatic fraction of the truffles, it means that also in the truffles there is the same molecule: the problem is to understand if the bis(methylthio)methane inside your bottle is derived from real truffles or from petroleum (or something else), that makes a huge difference in terms of quality from my point of view. And also in terms of transparency with the customers.

So it can be that the taste is “somehow” similar, but in the reality you are paying much more for something that costs much less, and for something that it’s not what you maybe think it is.

For example, for the Italian law (Italy is one of the main producers and exporters of truffles) if on the label you read between the ingredients “aroma tartufo”, “aroma di tartufo”, “aroma al tartufo” (all mean truffle aroma) you can be sure that there is no real truffles in that oil, and very probably there is bis(methylthio)methane derived from petroleum, for sure not from truffles.

To be sure that in the oil there is real truffle or an aroma derived from real truffles (if exists in commerce) on the label there should be written “aroma naturale di tartufo” (truffle natural aroma), because for the law only an aroma derived directly from the raw material called “XXX” can be called “natural aroma of XXX”.

Any other “aroma” can be derived from any other raw materials, but for sure not from real truffles (this applies to any other product).

Legally, for the Italian law all the oils that use only bis(methylthio)methane as aroma cannot be labelled as “olio al tartufo” or “olio all’aroma naturale di tartufo”, but maximum they can be labelled as “olio all’aroma di tartufo” or “olio aromatizzato al tartufo”. They cannot use the word “natural” and they cannot show pictures of real truffles on their labels.

Yes I know, it seems the regulations have been written to help more the sellers than the customers. But in other countries, especially outside EU, the law can be even less strict.

Truffle oils made with real truffles are rare on the market, I have no numbers but for sure if there are they are very few compared to the total number, and if they exist you can buy them or directly by the persons who make it or maybe in very specific deli stores that sell high quality food products, for sure not in common supermarkets (and they will not be cheap products). But probably almost the totality of the real truffle oils are just homemade products, made with a good quality oil and some real truffles, also because to make a real truffle oil it’s not necessarily needed to put the truffles directly inside the oil but just next to it: put the oil in a glass and then put the glass in a well closed box/jar or a pressure pot for some days (as for truffled eggs), in this way the real truffle aroma will transfer through osmosis to the oil, without direct contact and in this way the oil will keep the aroma for several months if kept in an hermetic bottle. Other homemade methods by dipping fresh truffles inside the oil have usually a quite short shelf life and they are not good for commercial use but just for a fast homemade use, and if you do it at home take care because there is always the botulism risk (about the oils sold with small pieces of truffle inside, mostly those dehydrated pieces are in the bottles just to attract the eyes of the customers and usually in the label there is written “aroma” too, especially if the truffle quantity is less than 5% and usually in those cases is 0,1/0,5 %, maybe 1%, and often those dehydrated pieces are previously treated with the artificial aroma. Those small pieces of unknown truffles are usually needed just to be allowed legally to use the name “truffle oil” and maybe to show a picture of real truffles on the label, but if in the ingredients list there is written also the word “aroma” then it means that those small pieces are not enough to give the final taste: again, you have to read carefully the label, as always).

Unfortunately all these fake truffle oils changed the expectations of many customers about the taste of real truffles, what most of people know about truffles is the truffle aroma and many chefs know that, especially in not high-end restaurants: indeed if they wouldn’t use on a dish some drops of those “2,4-Dithiapentane oils” then they should add maybe 10 grams extra of real truffles to give the expected taste, making the cost of that dish much higher for their kind of clientele (considering that good quality white truffles can cost also 3000-4000 euros/kg, 10 g more could higher the cost of a dish also of 30-40 euros more and just in raw materials). As you can understand, it’s cheaper to “cheat” them, but I wouldn’t use the word “cheat”: if someone really believe they can have a dish made with good quality truffles for an average/normal price then I think they are asking to be cheated.

On the web I controlled the ingredient list of one of the “supposed to be” better truffle oils: it’s made with 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil and it contains white truffle pieces (Tuber Magnatum, so the expensive one and not some unknown truffles), but the white truffle inside it’s just 1% of the total weight (0,2% after it has been dehydrated) and moreover there is also a not better specified “aroma” written in that label 😉 it costs 22,50 euro for a 100 ml bottle, so 225 euro/liter, let’s count: 1% of 100 ml olive oil is about 1 gram (0,92 grams exactly), right? The white truffles cost around 3000-4000 euro/Kg (every year it can vary, and it can vary from place to place, the ones in Alba are the most expensive), so 1 gram costs 3-4 euro (probably they used some broken/not perfect white truffles, but let’s assume they used a perfect one)…1 gram in 100 ml it means 10 grams in 1 liter, right?
10 grams of white truffles cost then 30-40 euro, but that oil costs 225 euro/liter we said: so if 30/40 euro are for the truffles, the remaining 185/195 euros are for what? Just for the oil….neither the best extra virgin olive oil in the world costs 185/195 euro per liter 🙂 and for sure they didn’t use the best oil in the world, I think it’s definitely overpriced: then it’s better to buy the real stuff, at least it’s 100% real, you know exactly what it is and you get what you pay for.

Resuming, it’s not easy at all to find a real truffle oil and very probably if you really want it the best thing to do it’s to prepare it yourself at home with a good oil and real truffles, as explained above (you don’t necessarily need the best white truffles available on the market, 100 g of “normal” black truffles are enough, so with some tens of euros you can make already a real truffle oil which can keep about the natural aroma also for some months…but I think it’s better to eat those truffles).

In any case, all the cheap and relatively cheap “truffle oils” in the stores and in many restaurants are usually made with low quality olive oils (or even seeds oils) with basically perfume added to the oil, and there’s nothing good in them.

Using those truffle oils is like making a cake with artificial vanilla flavoring, or making a soup from an industrial bouillon cube. Absolutely no quality in that, ingredients must taste like what they are. In few words, you don’t need those oils if you want to cook good quality food.

And with no doubts if you really want the truffle taste in a dish then the best thing is to use real truffles. Period. Maybe do it just once a year, but do it well and do it real, no fakes, there is no sense in my opinion. That’s what I think, and that’s why I never bought and I will never buy “truffle oils”. Before having a misleading, I also cannot afford top quality truffles but I prefer to avoid them completely rather than having a fake.

As famous food writer Ed Levine said “comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex” 😀

Thanks for reading until the end 🙂

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