Off the Wall

Haters, Halitosis and Haute Cuisine: Truffles vs. Truffle Oil

I don't like truffle oil, but I don't really care what it's made of. Don't get me wrong, I think it's vaguely misleading to pitch a $15 bottle of chemicals manufactured 100 yards off the Jersey Turnpike as a stand-in for a $6,000-a-pound European fungus, but I also think a reasonable amount of personal judgment can prevent a given diner from being bamboozled. In any event, my beef with 2,4-dithiapentane has little to do with its petrochemical provenance and everything to do with the fact that it's disgusting. Of course, that's almost entirely a matter of personal taste, as is the taste for actual truffles themselves.

For quite a few years, I wasn't entirely convinced I liked truffles. I think truffle oil has a lot to do with that. Through the simple application of a bit of common sense, I had immediate doubts about the true, direct connection between truffles and their oily cousins. The notion that any significant amount of such an expensive item had been used in the production of such an inexpensive one just seemed a bit far-fetched. Still, I always kind of assumed that they had more in common than not. Here, I'm referring less to composition than to effect.

I'd had truffled fries, truffled mac and cheese, truffle oil vinaigrette. I hated each one. I found the flavor and aroma to be overpowering and more than a bit off-putting. "If this is what truffles are like," I mused, "what is all the fuss about?" Where I'd heard truffles described as musky and earthy, I found my experience veering toward sharp and sulfurous. It reminded me a bit of old onions and overcooked broccoli.

Then I bought The French Laundry Cookbook. Thomas Keller's recipe for Purée of English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parmesan Crisps made it onto my menu to close out my Shift Work Bites column, and I mentally debated the inclusion of white truffle oil. I should have left it out.

When I repeated the dish for my family the following weekend, I should have left it out again. I didn't. Then, my younger brother cemented my dislike of truffle oil. "This stuff tastes like halitosis," he commented, both in person and in the comments section of the related post. He hit the nail firmly on the head. The fact that I was done with truffle oil doesn't mean I wrote off truffles, however. Every year, Central Market has fresh truffles for a few short weeks. I've always joked about buying a truffle, enjoying the somewhat inherently amusing notion of spending a relatively large sum of money for something that so closely resembles an average owl pellet (minus the fur and bones). I'd never actually done it.

I'm not exactly sure what possessed me to finally follow through, but the last time I saw truffles on offer, I bought some. I'm pretty sure they were Summer Truffles, so I suppose it's not a one-to-one comparison to the white truffle oil I'd had most recently.

For $15, I got two small truffles, not quite equaling an ounce between them. Due as much to the scant quantity as to the fact that I wanted the truffles to shine, I decided to treat them as simply as possible. No truffle-laced pâté de foie gras for me. I very strongly considered scrambling some eggs very loosely, topping them with truffles and letting that be the end of it. Finally, I decided on pasta.

Fresh pasta, made with an abundance of egg yolks, is in my mind a luxury ingredient. It's by no means expensive, but something about the texture makes it seem that way. The combination of satiny and slightly chewy noodles, dressed simply with good butter and salt, maybe a bit of cheese, is one of my favorite meals in general. Dressed up with truffles, I figured it would be the perfect marriage of simplicity and luxury. I was right.

Good pasta is surprisingly easy to make at home. I prefer mixing my dough by hand, mostly because I enjoy the process, but it's faster and just as good made in a stand mixer.

By hand, you mound flour (about eight ounces for four small portions of pasta) in the center of a cutting board. If you're overly concerned about the potential of an egg/flour tsunami, feel free to do this in a bowl. Make a deep indentation in the flour, like the crater of the volcano (an apt descriptor, I think), and place eggs in the center (six yolks and one whole egg). If you feel like it, you can add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil, as well.

Very slowly and carefully, swirl your fingertips in the central well of eggs, which will very slowly and carefully incorporate the flour. I cannot overemphasize the importance of patience in this step. I've had this go very, very wrong, and always as the result of impatience.

As the mess of yolk starts to pick up flour, it will thicken and turn into a shaggy batter. Once it has reached this stage, you can begin incorporating the flour a bit more quickly. Don't get overly confident, though. While the thicker mixture is less prone to catastrophically breaching the flour walls, it is prone to incomplete incorporation if mixed too quickly. You will likely have some flour left over once the dough is complete, but if you have a significant amount, or if your dough has lumps of dry flour in it, it likely means that you went too fast (temperature and humidity, both ambient and of ingredients, can also play a role in this).

When the dough comes together fully, knead it. For a long time. I'd say 15 minutes is a good starting point. When the dough changes from dull to glossy, you're probably done. Knead it a bit more, anyway. I haven't taken it to extremes, but more kneading seems directly proportional to satiny texture.

Once kneaded, wrap your dough and allow it to rest in the fridge for a good half hour. Or longer. Up to a couple of days. This allows the dough to hydrate and to relax. If you don't wait long enough before rolling it out, pasta dough is much more prone to falling apart during the process. That sucks.

Once the dough is rested, rolled and cut, it's a simple matter of making the "sauce." Butter, a pan and thinly sliced truffles were all I wanted, the better to let each ingredient stand on its own, yet complement the rest. I melted butter in a sauté pan, then added the truffles, allowing them to soften and cook slightly, infusing the butter in the meantime. Dinner was as simple as cooking the pasta for a few minutes (fresh takes far less time than dried), and tossing it with the truffles and butter.

If anything, I was surprised by the subtlety of the resulting dish. The truffles were both the same and different than what I'd been led to believe. Earthy, sweet, musky. The richness of butter underlining and carrying the flavor. There was nothing overpowering, no sulfurous bite. To call it delicate wouldn't be quite right, though. The flavor was clear and definite, but with a rounded and measured quality. It was unlike everything I've ever tasted, truffle oil most certainly included. It was, most importantly, delicious.

I think the point of all this is a simple one. Or, rather, several simple ones. First, had I allowed my mind to be made up about a thing, by something that was not quite it, I would have been missing the truth of the thing itself. Whether you love it or hate it, and regardless of reason, truffle oil is not truffles. From my (admittedly slim) experience, it doesn't even taste like it in any meaningful way. That being given, truffle oil tells you nothing of your opinion of truffles. You have to taste them to know what you think. A somewhat obvious-seeming point, but one that bears mention in light of recent discussions.

The second point, and the one that I personally find most compelling, is that few foods are as out of reach as they may seem. While some may see truffle oil as an egalitarian alternative, allowing those who feel themselves unable to indulge in the genuine article, it's not that straightforward.

I estimate that I spent about $40 on dinner for four, including a pretty good bottle of wine. While $15 is certainly a lot to pay for an ounce of anything, $10 per person is not a lot to pay for dinner. It's certainly not a lot to pay for experience, and for something truly delicious. $15 is, however, a lot to pay for something that tastes like halitosis.

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