Truffles are some of the priciest ingredients you can buy—so how is it that they’re so common on restaurant menus these days?
In recent years, truffles have become something of a fad in restaurants, but what many diners (and even some chefs!) may not know is that most truffle oils actually contain no truffles at all. Real truffles are pretty rare—to get some perspective, the white variety is almost exclusively found in the wild in certain regions of northern Italy, during a short harvesting season—but their unique flavor is highly sought after. To meet this demand, food manufacturers found a cheap alternative to the fungi, much to the dismay of those loyal to their earthy, nearly indescribable flavor. Make sure you know the other foods chefs never order at a restaurant, too.
In an article for the New York Times, chef Daniel Patterson explained that most truffle oils on the market are actually made only of olive oil and lab-made compounds that mimic flavors found in real truffles. Synthetic truffle oil lends its flavor almost exclusively to a chemical called 2,4-dithiapentane, though it’s only one of the molecules that contribute to the multiple layers of flavor in real truffles. “More times than not, they don’t have any relation to the actual taste of truffle, but are becoming more common with the public because they are an even cheaper option to the already relatively affordable truffle oils,” said William Eick, chef at Mission Avenue Bar and Grill in Oceanside, California. “They also give the guest a false sense of flavor for them once they encounter true truffles.”
Even if you think you’re a die-hard truffle lover, you might not even know what a real one tastes like. Even oils made with real truffle can be subpar, as the delicate flavor can be lost if left for more than a few days infused in potent oils. Synthetic truffle oils also remain incredibly overpriced due to their false association with real truffles, though they are cheap to produce—here are 10 more of the most overpriced foods you’ll find on restaurant menus.
While many chefs refuse to cook with commercial truffle oil at all, some believe that moderation is key. Other chefs, like Los Angeles-based French chef and founder of FoodFlo Florence Bertheau, believe there is no substitute for the real thing. “Using real truffles like the wild Perigord or the white Alba gives chefs an opportunity to play and shine, which cannot be done using less-than ingredients or fake chemicals like dithiapentane,” says Bertheau. Popular methods that chefs use to bring out the flavor of real truffles include shaving them directly onto the food or sautéing them quickly in a mild oil or butter.
So next time you’re at a restaurant that serves truffle-heavy dishes, be mindful of what you’re ordering. And remember these other foods you should never order at a restaurant.