Here’s the good news about truffle oil, a synthetic ingredient that’s despised by chefs and thoughtful eaters: It may be on its way out. The food industry research firm Technomic last summer reported that menu mentions of truffle oil slid almost 6 percent from 2012 to 2014.
“I would say the trend has matured and is slowly declining,” Technomic’s executive vice president told Crain’s Chicago Business.
Restaurant insiders talk about truffle oil’s origins in much the way modern historians discuss Jimmy Hoffa’s end. The broad outline of the story is clear: Chefs in the 1990s started glamorizing their dishes with a splash of 2,4-dithiapentane mixed with olive oil. But tastemakers are confounded by the way chefs supposedly dedicated to ingredient integrity let the chemical take over their kitchens.
“Part of the answer is that, even now, you will find chefs who are surprised to hear that truffle oil does not actually come from real truffles,” chef Daniel Patterson wrote in a 2007 New York Times story that tried to tease out an explanation for truffle oil’s success. “Much as I did for years, chefs want to believe. Stories of sightings of natural truffle oil abound, like a gourmand’s answer to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.”
More cynical chefs seized the opportunity to impress guests with an ingredient that sounded expensive: During the most recent white truffle season, the authentic delicacy fetched more than a buck a gram at wholesale rates. And the chemically engineered oil delivered a whomp of flavor that pleased a dining public that doesn’t prize subtlety.
But it also created a truffle backlash among eaters who’d never tried a real truffle (see the price quoted in the preceding paragraph.) “It’s like saying, ‘I can’t stand fruit’ after having been raised only eating Jolly Ranchers,” Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt griped. “(Truffle oil) doesn’t taste good. It bears a passing resemblance to truffles at first whiff, but it quickly devolves into metallic, gasoline-scented notes.”
Chefs familiar with the flavor of truffles were even more outraged by the endurance of “truffled” pastas and French fries: Patterson reported that when the late chef Jean-Louis Palladin found a bottle of truffle oil in his restaurant pantry, he hurled it against a wall. Celebrities with mass-market appeal also weighed in against the stuff: Gordon Ramsay called it “one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known,” and Martha Stewart described it as “ruinous of most recipes.”
Or as Eataly founder Joe Bastianich last October told the Huffington Post, “It’s garbage olive oil with perfume added to it, and it’s very difficult to digest. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for New Yorkers. It’s bad for the American people. So, stop it.”
Union Provisions (Pommes frites with truffle aioli, $6)
Are you sure you still want to? Truffle oil fans can get their fix at restaurants including Coleman Public House, The Macintosh, Stars, Leaf, Cru Cafe, Hall’s Chophouse, Graze, The Granary and Oak Steakhouse, all of which serve truffle fries.
Truffle oil is foremost an olive oil, so check the shelves of an olive oil purveyor: Lowcountry Olive Oil, 272A Meeting St., sells a 13-ounce bottle of black truffle garlic oil for $17.99.