Chef blab...

Solving the truffle kerfuffle

Comments Off 14 February 2012

Todd Fisher Dishing it Out!
Posted: 02/07/2012 01:36:20 PM PST
Updated: 02/07/2012 05:30:46 PM PST

A long-time reader called with what should have been an easy-to-answer question about Truffle oil, sort of a when-should-I, how-should-I-use-it deal. But you know me, and after triple-distilling my thoughts and over-kneading my dough, here is what I came up with.

When I started to answer the two questions, I realized there are a few things we all must understand before revealing the who, what, where and when of truffle oil usage.

One, lets make sure we all know what it is we’re talking about. Let us start with the first ingredient. Truffles have been found in Europe, Asia, North Africa and North America. They live in close mycorrhizal association with the roots of specific trees. Their fruiting bodies grow underground. Truffles are round, warty, and irregular in shape and vary from the size of a walnut to that of a man’s fist. The season for most truffles falls between September and May.

Just the mention of truffles conjures up images of the expensive French black truffle from the Périgord region of southwest France, used in making p té de foie gras. Or the renowned odorous white truffle of Alba, in the Piedmont district of Italy, famously shaved paper thin over tender arborio rice.

Truffles are among the most expensive of the world’s natural foods, often commanding as much as $1,000 per pound. Truffles are harvested in Europe with the aid of female pigs or truffle dogs, which are able to detect the strong smell of mature truffles underneath the surface of the ground. The female pig becomes excited when she sniffs a chemical that is similar to the male swine sex attractant. Yummy!
The use of pigs is risky, though, because of their natural tendency to eat any remotely edible thing. For this reason, dogs have been trained to dig into the ground wherever they find these odors, and they willingly exchange their truffle for a Scooby snack and a pat on the head.

The flavor of the truffle is directly related to its aroma. The chemicals necessary for the odor to develop are created only after the spores are mature enough for release, so they must be collected at the proper time or they will have little taste. This is the only sure indication that the mushrooms are ready to be harvested. That is why animals have proven to be the best means of assuring that the fungi collected will be flavorful.

Truffles are evanescence. For one to truly appreciate the sensational experience of dining on truffles, one must eat fresh, uncooked specimens as soon after harvest as possible. The intensity of the truffle flavor decreases rapidly with each passing moment above ground. However, these earthly gems can be purchased online from some specialty stores that will pack them in airtight containers and overnight them to you — adding yet more to the already exuberant price tag.

Now to the oil part of the deal. Olive oil and grape seed oil are the two most common oils chosen for truffle oil. Good choices, I’m sure you would agree. No first-press olive oil here, That would be too strong for the subtle flavor of the truffle. A pomace quality oil that will carry the flavor but not over power it is ideal.

Very few truffle oils on the market are, in fact, oil with crushed or chopped truffle added to them to create truffle oil. Premium retailers and online sources will offer you the best options. Look for packaging that says made with real truffle. And never have I found real white truffle oil.

Unfortunately most truffle oils are actually artificially enhanced oils that use an organic compound called 2,4-dithiapentane (the most prominent of the hundreds of aromatic molecules that make the flavor of white truffles so exciting). These oils, created in a laboratory with their petrol-chemical, one-dimensional flavor, are changing common understanding of how a truffle should taste. Many of us have never had the privilege of sitting down to a plate full of succulent, tender pasta adorned with white truffle shaved over the top with the orgasmic scent wafting up, intoxicating our minds with sinfully decadent wonderment! And to be quite honest, no truffle oil will ever give you the same wow factor as the real McCoy!

Should you choose to use truffle oil, less is more. Drizzling real black truffle oil over a hot, creamed soup like cauliflower or parsnip gives an earthen, musky, sexy aroma that elevates the simple row crop bisque into something far more elegant and unique.

Drizzled in unison with a vibrant vinegar over pungent greens to top a juicy, well-marbled, toothsome cut of beef, will draw out the forest floor of any dreamy Cabernet you choose to enjoy in harmony. You can dress up macaroni and cheese for a high end steakhouse rendition of your childhood favorite. Or make a batch of “Princess” french fries — crispy shoestring potatoes doused in black truffle oil, sea salt and Grana Padana cheese that will make any regal royal weak in the knees.

For real-deal truffle appeal at home, I highly recommend dropping a little coin on truffle salt, generally made of French sea salt and minced pieces of truffle, which is excellent for finishing grilled steaks, succulent scallops and other delicious mentionables. Also, truffle butter, made from combining minced black truffle with creamy butter, is a staple in my freezer. Yes, it freezes remarkably well and easily shaves off to finish a sauce or adorn some roasted vegetables for a fantastic winter melange.

Until next time my friends, cheers!

Celebrity chef Todd Fisher is a Herald columnist, chef de cuisine at Stick’s at the Inn at Spanish Bay and a brand consultant. E-mail him at cheftoddsdish@gmail.com.

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