You're probably eating fake truffles. Here's how to tell

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You're probably eating fake truffles. Here's how to tell

Kitchen

You're probably eating fake truffles. Here's how to tell

Surrounded by strip malls, municipal parks, and across the street from a McDonald’s drive-thru, Left Coast Kitchen and Cocktails is a nondescript sliver of a restaurant specializing in upscale comfort food. Before you even step through the doors, you notice an unmistakeable scent – slightly earthy, slightly buttery and completely overpowering. While many restaurants drop bread baskets on your table, Left Coast likes to make things fancy for its suburban Long Island customers, with a tin bucket of popcorn doused in herbs and truffle oil.

It’s delicious as hell, super addicting and something I dream of often now that I live in Brooklyn. Tasting truffles was once a luxury afforded only to the finest of diners and those fortunate enough to travel abroad, where truffle harvesting is a way of life for some. These days, you can find truffles in or on everything, from bougie pizzas to $500 hot dogs sold at baseball games. Or at least the flavor of truffles.

That’s because the essence of truffle, as modern diners know it, didn’t quite go mainstream until a much cheaper substitute was developed; 2,4-dithiapentane is a chemical reproduction that smells eerily similar to the real stuff. It’s unclear when this synthetic truffle taste and smell was invented, but David Patterson, writer for the New York Times, alludes to having known of its use in the 1990s.

The reputation of the truffle has since blown up, raising prices for normally cheap foods like french fries and mac ‘n cheese with the simple addition of “truffles.” Most of us have been fooled into thinking we’re getting a taste of a rare, luxurious ingredient – and we’re happy to pay a (comparatively low) premium.

Sorry if your truffle-loving bubble just got burst, but real truffles can run more than $3,000 a pound.

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Why the expense? It comes down to harvesting. Truffles are extremely hard to find; they grow underground, and can only survive based on a very specific biological process: according to John Mahoney’s research for Popular Science, “All species of truffle are ectomycorrhizal, meaning they require a symbiotic relationship with roots of specific trees to live.” One could theoretically manipulate this process to force the growth of truffles, but Mahoney adds that “the symbiotic relationship relies on numerous variables to thrive… Add to that lag times of up to 20 years before truffles begin to sprout if you’re lucky enough to get them to grow at all, and you’ve got one impossibly finicky plant to cultivate.”

Highly trained dogs, and sometimes pigs, are used like truffle detectors, sniffing out locations so that harvesters can delicately dig them up and sell them off.

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Truffles also have an extremely short shelf life: they tend to spoil after 5 days, so if you’re lucky enough to have some fresh ones, eat them quickly. Once cut open, their rich aroma begins to recede, so you have to use them and consume them almost immediately to get the best experience. The fungi’s rare existence, labor-intensive sourcing and short lifespan all command the high price tag.

So how can you tell if you’re getting the “real deal” versus the chemically-manufactured flavor? Well, for one, the price is a giveaway. If it sounds too cheap to be real, it is. And regardless, unless you’re eating a restaurant with a great reputation, it’s best to consume truffles where they naturally grow, because of their complex nature.

Here is a guide to common varieties in Europe and America:

Black truffles

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Nicknamed “black diamonds,” this variety is one of the most coveted types of fungi in the world. You can find them throughout the European continent, but truffle experts claim that Périgord, an area in France east of Bordeaux, is the ultimate black truffle kingdom. The best time to “hunt” for them is November to April, but if you’re not into foraging, restaurants and markets in the surrounding region are happy to sell them to you. The exterior is black and spongy, the interior black with white marbling. If the price, and the cost of getting there puts you off, take note: scientists in Israel are experimenting with ways to reproduce these kinds of truffles elsewhere.

Black Summer truffle (burgandy truffle)

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Truffles can be harvested in the summertime, and can make for a great way to use fresh truffles for almost a quarter of the cost. According to James Patterson’s cookbook,  Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the Classics, this variety is less pungent than black winter truffles, but is much cheaper. Burgundy truffles are typically found in Tuscany, Italy, and are the ones you’ll find on many menus that offer “fresh truffle” – like Oak Tuscany Truffle Lounge, a new restaurant in New York City where every dish, even dessert, includes sliced or grated truffles. You can tell the difference between black and burgundy truffles through the scent, as well as the interior: burgundy truffles are light brown on the inside.

White truffles

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France may be home to the best black truffles, but Italy is where you want to go for the even pricier white truffles, fetching prices as high as $330,000 at auction. Found mainly in the Perugia and Piedmont areas of the country, this truffle variety has been used in Italian cooking since as early as the Middle Ages, according to Gareth Renowden, author of The Truffle Book. They look like very dusty potatoes, and have a brownish inside with white marbling, with a taste similar to garlic, but less sharp. The high price point is less due to rarity, and largely because of amazing marketing. According to food and travel writer David Farley, decades ago, “Giacomo Morra, Italian founder of a Piedmont company that sold white truffles, began sending out samples to celebrities and VIPs. Winston Churchill got some. So did Rita Hayworth, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe…Nearly every haute eatery in Europe and North America received a package of truffles.”

Oregon truffles

The United States has its own truffle varieties, its harvesting capital found in Oregon. These truffles come in both the black and the white variety, and though they don’t command as high a price as their European cousins, they don’t lack in flavor – some who have tried them think the flavors are more robust, sweet, and less earthy. In the past, these kinds of truffles were less desirable because harvesters used harsh tools to uncover them, but now many farmers are using trained dogs to ensure each truffle is sniffed out, then handled more delicately. Oregon truffles only recently became respected by culinary greats, so it’s possible that they could one day be as coveted as their French and Italian counterparts.

Pecan truffle

While most varieties of truffles are grown under oak trees, the pecan truffle harnesses the symbiotic relationship of pecan trees to help it grow. Their flavor is (you guessed it) nuttier, and the variety is mainly found in the Southeastern United States, especially in Georgia. Dogs are also being trained to find this difficult-to-locate ingredient; while maybe not considered as rare or exciting as the kinds found in Europe, they still can cost as much as $300 for a pound.

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