What is truffle oil? Prized for their intensely savoury, umami-rich flavour, truffles are a rare and expensive type of mushroom with a pungent aroma. Small pieces can be added to high quality oils to make truffle oil, a luxurious finishing oil used to give dishes an expensive, gourmet feel.
Truffles are difficult to grow, and wild ones are difficult to find, with pigs or truffle hounds famously employed to sniff them out. This makes them extremely rare and expensive, so if you are lucky enough to get hold of some, it will likely only be a small amount. Luckily, their strong flavour means that you only need a little to elevate an ordinary dish to gourmet status, and infusing a good quality oil with a small amount of truffle is a great way of rationing out that precious flavour, drop by drop.
You can buy truffle oil from your local store, but much of it is made with artificial ‘truffle flavouring’, which lacks the depth and flavour of the real thing. It can sometimes be tricky to tell which of these oils are genuine, but as a rule, if the list of ingredients uses vague terms like ‘truffle essence’, it’s probably synthetic. Companies that use real truffles oil are generally keen to make the fact as clear as possible, and of course, real truffle oil will be far more expensive.
Black vs. white truffle oil
Truffles can broadly be divided into two types - white truffles, which are usually found in Italy, and black truffles, which are usually found in France. Both can be used to make truffle oil, but the results are subtly different.
White truffle oil has a more delicate flavour, with sulphurous notes similar to garlic or onion, and a meaty, mushroom-like taste. It is preferred for lighter dishes like pasta or risotto.
Black truffle oil has a stronger, earthier flavour, with chocolate notes, and a pungency similar to cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables. Because of its stronger flavour, it can be used in bold, hearty dishes like roast meats, fries or mac and cheese.
How to make it at home
The best way to make sure your truffle oil is made with real truffles is to make it yourself at home. The only real difficulty is managing to get hold of some truffles to make it with, but if you are able to track some down it’s really very simple to make.
You can use various different types of oil - olive oil is the most popular choice, but many people also choose a more neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed to allow the truffle to shine through. Whichever you choose, remember that truffles are a luxury, and they deserve a good quality oil.
Warm half a cup of oil over a very low heat on the stove, making sure the temperature does not exceed 130°F, as excess heat can ruin the flavour of truffles. Remove the oil from the heat and add 1 or 2 tablespoons of shaved fresh truffle, leaving it to steep while the oil comes back to room temperature.
For best results, use your truffle oil immediately. It has a very short shelf life and will last for 2 or 3 days at the most, so try to make a small amount as and when you need it.
There are many different varieties of truffle, each with subtly different flavours, and available at slightly different times of the year.
The Australian Truffle is a black truffle, similar to more expensive varieties found in France. It is also available from May - July, when French truffles are out of season.
The Black Summer Truffle is less intensely flavoured than winter truffles. It has a smooth surface and a white interior, and is available from May to September.
The Brumale Truffle is a more reasonably-priced French truffle, available from November to mid-March. It is similar in appearance to the more expensive Périgord and has sometimes been used to fool unwary customers.
The Burgundy Truffle is a dark brown truffle with a distinctive chocolate smell and taste. It is available from October through December.
The Chinese Truffle is inexpensive and generally considered to be of inferior quality. It is also very similar in appearance to the Périgord, so make sure you know what you’re buying.
The Oregon Truffle has a distinctive, pineapple flavour, and is used in both savoury and sweet dishes. It is available between November and March.
The Périgord or Spoleto Truffle is considered to be one of the highest quality truffles available, and is often referred to as ‘black gold’. It is available from 15th November to 31st March, and can cost upwards of $2,000 per pound.
The Spanish Black Truffle is another high quality truffle, but is sadly becoming even rarer due to climate change.
The Tuscan Truffle has a distinctively sharp flavour, and is particularly well-suited to making truffle oil. It is available from 10th January to 30th April
The White Piedmont Truffle or Alba Truffle is a smooth, off-white truffle with a heady garlic flavour. It is available between October 1st and December 31st.
Truffle oil can be used in various ways, but you should never cook with it, as this will destroy the flavour. It is most commonly used as a finishing oil, with a few drops added to a dish just before serving. It adds a deliciously fragrant flavour to dishes like pasta, risotto, meat, fish and eggs, and is often used to lend a touch of luxury to comfort foods like pizza, fries or mac and cheese.
Although it is best known as a finishing oil, there are many other delicious ways to use truffle oil. It adds depth of flavour to dips, vinaigrettes or soups, and makes a great dipping oil for warm bread. You can even put some on your popcorn for an ultra-glamorous movie night.
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