You Say Tortilla, I Say Frittata: A Three-Country Tour of the Omelette
The French omelette, or omelet, is as prolific in America as the pancake houses generously sprinkled along her highways, and in recent years its cousin, the Italian frittata, has become a fixture in American cuisine as well.
Now with the tapas-craze sweeping the nation, the Spanish tortilla may be the next edgy, eggy trend.
Tortillas: We're not talking chips and salsa
The Spanish word tortilla means flat cake. In Mexico the word describes a flatbread made of masa or flour; in Spain it describes a fluffy disk composed of beaten eggs.
Though many in the States are shamefully unaware of its existence, the Spanish tortilla is more common in its country of origin than the omelette is in France or the frittata in Italy. Considered to be one of Spain's national dishes, "...its image deserves to be emblazoned on the country's flag," says Anya von Bremzen, author of The New Spanish Table.
According to Italy's best-selling cookbook, The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2006), out of the three countries Spain annually consumes the most eggs per person at 300, compared to France at 280 and Italy at a mere 200.
In Spain you can bet that most of those eggs will find their way into a tortilla de patata.
This potato-filled tortilla is the Spanish standard and was described in texts of the Navarra region as early as 1817. It is unclear exactly when and where the dish originated, though it was certainly not before the late 1500s, as potatoes were not brought over from the Andes until this time.
"The Bible of Italian cooking"
So what differentiates tortillas from frittatas?
To be honest? Very little.
In Italy the word frittata refers to both crepes and omelette-like dishes.
However, the frittata we are most familiar with in the US is practically identical to the Spanish tortilla:
Both tend to start with 4-to-8 eggs, beaten lightly with salt and pepper and cooked over med-low heat in an 8-inch, nonstick, skillet coated with olive oil.
Both are thicker and fluffier than a standard French omelette, are served openfaced, and are cooked on both sides.
Many Spanish recipes instruct to slide the tortilla out of the skillet and onto a plate in order to flip it back into the pan to cook the other side. Many Italian recipes instruct to leave the frittata in the skillet and finish the uncooked side under a broiler. Either method may be used, but it is always important to use an oven-safe skillet if you opt for the latter. You should also keep a close eye on your broiler, as your creation could quickly burn under its fierce heat.
Restaurants and I prefer the ease of the broiler method, but as these dishes were created long ago in farmhouses unlikely to contain a broiler, the plate method is more legit.
Though not quite the standard they tend to be in tortillas, potatoes are also a common addition to frittatas. It is perfectly acceptable for either dish to skip fillings altogether, but when included, the fillings are mixed right in with the beaten eggs. Meat and vegetables should generally be sauteed before being added to the eggs, in which case it is typically acceptable to leave the fillings in the pan and simply pour the seasoned eggs over the top.
Occasionally a liquid may be added to the beaten eggs, allegedly to ensure juiciness. Many tortilla recipes call for a tablespoon of chicken stock, while many frittata recipes call for a tablespoon of milk or heavy cream. However, this is not a definitive criterion for either dish.
So, then...what's an omelette?
Interestingly, the word omelet (the common American spelling) is used in most English-language definitions for both frittatas and tortillas. The word is meant to infer that the dishes are composed primarily of beaten eggs cooked into flat cakes of some kind.
However, omelettes typically differ from their Spanish and Italian cousins in several ways.
Though they cook in the same 8-inch, nonstick, skillets as the tortilla and the frittata, omelettes are composed of only 1-3 eggs, compared to 4-8. This results in a much quicker cooking time and a much thinnner product.
Unlike the frittata and tortilla, which are meant to be cut into separate servings, an entire omelette is generally meant to serve one.
Because an omelette is so thin, higher cooking temperatures may be used. The thicker frittata and tortilla are cooked over med-low heat so that their middles have a chance to coagulate, or set, before their bottoms burn.
Omelettes, which typically cook in butter rather than olive oil, are meant to be lightly golden on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. This is achieved by allowing the bottom to just set, sprinkling fillings (if desired) over the still-runny top, and then folding the omelette over on itself, creating the classic half-moon shape.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea that the top side, now center, is left unset, fear not. The omelette is so thin that if you hold the half moon in the hot pan for an additional 10-20 seconds, the center should be cooked to perfection by the time the omelette hits the plate and you take your first bite.
While tortillas and frittatas are frequently served cold or at room temperature, omelettes are best served immediately.
I try to make my recipes as comprehensive as possible. Nothing is worse than embarking on a recipe and realizing you don't have an all-important gadget. Therefore, the tools and equipment you will need are made bold in the directions, and special notes are in italics. If you should have any questions relating to the recipes, please feel free to ask me in the comment section!
- Tortilla de Patata (traditional Spanish tortilla with potatoes)
- Roasted Red Pepper and Asparagus Frittata
- Traditional Folded Omelette
- Stuffed Rolled Omelette
- Baked Stuffed Omelettes
Tortilla de Patata (Spanish Tortilla with Potatoes)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tortillas may be served hot, cold, or warm and may be eaten at any time of the day. If served as a large appetizer or light meal, they are typically cut into wedges. While a wedge is sometimes served as a morning snack with cafe con leche, it is more likely to be served later in the day with a glass of wine, cider, or sangria (Spain's national drink). Bars will often cut a tortilla into bite-sized squares and serve them as tapas along with drink orders.
1 small russet potato (about 8-10 oz)
6 large eggs
1 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 T chicken stock
1/4 cup olive oil + more as needed (does not need to be extra virgin)
1/2 cup diced onion
1. Peel the potato, rinse, and thinly slice using a mandolin or very sharp Chef's knife.
Note 1: Place the mandolin over a large bowl half-filled with cool water so that the slices fall right into the water as they are cut, or transfer the slices directly to the water after cutting with the knife. This should prevent the slices from becoming an unsightly brown. Keep the slices in the water till ready to use, but dry off before adding to the hot oil in step 3, or you will be in for some serious splattering.
Note 2: The mandolin blade or the chef's knife should be wiped with water after every few slices to prevent the starchy buildup that increases your chances of slicing your finger instead of the potato.
2. In a quart-sized liquid-measuring cup or medium-sized bowl, combine eggs, salt, pepper, and chicken stock, lightly beating with a fork till just combined (over-beating is thought to result in a dry tortilla).Set aside, within reach of the stovetop.
3. Heat the oil over med-high heat in an 8-inch, oven-safe, nonstick skillet (you can test the oil by running your hand under the water faucet and carefully flicking a drop of water into the oil. If the water "jumps" or spatters, the oil is ready). Add the potato slices to the oil and pan-fry 10 minutes or till a light golden-brown (you can do this in batches if you like). Use a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula to stir as necessary for even cooking and adjust heat as necessary.
4. Using a heatproof slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes to the egg mixture, leaving the excess oil in the skillet. If some of the slices cook more quickly than the others, transfer those immediately to the egg mixture, allowing the remaining slices to continue cooking. Allow potatoes to soak in the egg mixture for 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, reduce the heat to medium, add the onions to the leftover oil, and sauté 6 minutes or till soft and translucent. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the onions to the egg mixture, stirring to incorporate.
6. Preheat broiler, making sure the top rack is placed about 5 inches below the heat element. If there is not enough oil left in the skillet to thinly coat the bottom, then add just enough. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet, and immediately begin stirring rapidly with the wooden spoon or heatproof spatula for 30 seconds as the eggs thicken. Stop stirring and reduce heat to med-low. Cook 8 minutes or till bottom is set but top is still wet, gently running your spatula around the edges as necessary to allow excess egg to run beneath.
7. Place skillet under broiler to cook the top. This should take about 3 minutes, but you should keep an eye on it, as the tortilla could burn quickly if the broiler is too hot. Do not overcook.
8. Remove the skillet from the broiler, and slide the tortilla onto a plate--remember not to touch the skillet's handle directly, as it will be HOT! Cool to desired temperature, and cut into wedges or squares.
I prefer to serve this dish with a spinach side salad and either a chilled Hard Core (my favorite brand of cider) or a glass of red wine.
Roasted Red Pepper and Asparagus FrittataClick thumbnail to view full-size
This vegetarian-friendly frittata is perfect for a light lunch. The bright red and green of the fillings make it a festive choice for a Christmas brunch, but this dish is a winner all year long.
6 large eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 T flat-leaf parsley, finely minced
1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 cup asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces, tough ends discarded
1/3 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1. In a large liquid-measuring cup, combine eggs, salt, pepper, and parsley, beating lightly with fork just until well-mixed. Set aside within reach of the stovetop.
2. Warm olive oil in an ovensafe, 8-inch, nonstick skillet over med-low heat. Add garlic and asparagus. Cook for 5 minutes or till garlic is fragrant and asparagus is softened. Do not allow garlic to burn.
3. Preheat broiler to 450 degrees F, making sure the top rack is placed about 5 inches from the top. Add roasted red peppers to the skillet and cook 1 minute. Using a heatproof rubber spatula, spread out peppers and asparagus so that they are evenly distributed throughout the skillet. Give egg mixture a final stir and pour over the peppers and asparagus. Cook for 10 minutes or till bottom is set but top is still wet, running spatula around the edges and gently lifting up to let excess liquid run beneath as necessary.
4. Place skillet under broiler and cook 3 minutes or till top is just set. Remove from broiler and sprinkle Parmesan over the top. Return to broiler for 2 minutes or till cheese is golden and bubbly (watch carefully to prevent burning!). Slide onto a serving plate, cut into wedges and enjoy. Serves 4.
A note on fillings: One of the best things about frittatas (or any of these dishes) is that you can throw just about anything into the mix. A frittata is a great way to get rid of odds and ends haunting the fridge or to take advantage of a bountiful backyard garden. Consider this excerpt from Susan Herrmann Loomis's Italian Farmhouse Cookbook:
When I asked Josko (an Italian-Slovenian farmer) for a recipe that he felt was most typical of the farms of his region, this is the one he gave me. His instructions for making it went like this: "Find yourself an Italian-Slovenian grandmother and go with her into the fields. Follow her and pick everything that she picks. When she is finished, go home, cook the greens of the field, and mix them with eggs for this frittata."
Traditional folded omeletteClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mise en place, or having everything for your recipe ready and set before you go, is always important, but the lightening-fast nature of this particular recipe makes it utterly necessary. Don't get started until all of your components, both equipment and ingredients, are lined up and ready to use. Remember to pre-cook any fillings that you wouldn't want to eat raw!
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1-2 T unsalted butter (1 T should be adequate with a nonstick pan, but I prefer a little extra)
1 T finely chopped herbs such as parsley, chervil, tarragon, thyme, etc. (optional)
1/4 cup fillings such as shredded or diced cheese, meat, or sauteed vegetables (optional)
- In a liquid-measuring cup or small bowl combine eggs, salt, pepper, and herbs (if desired), beating with a fork or whisk just till combined. Set aside within reach of the stovetop.
- Make sure you have a heatproof rubber spatula ready and your game-face on. Melt butter in an 8-inch nonstick skillet over med-high heat. Carefully tilt pan so that the melted butter coats the sides and entire bottom of the pan. As soon as the butter begins to color (do not let it burn!), pour in the egg mixture. Hold the handle of the pan in your left hand and the spatula in your right. Immediately begin stirring the eggs with the spatula as you jerk the skillet back and forth at a slight angle over the heat. You will stir for a matter of 15 seconds as the eggs begin to coagulate, or thicken. Stop stirring and allow the bottom of the omelette to set, as you gently run the spatula along the edges, lifting up as necessary to allow excess egg to flow beneath. This should take another 15 seconds or so.
- At this point the bottom should be barely golden and the top should be wet. Sprinkle or spread fillings over the top (if desired) and use the spatula to gently lift up one edge of the omelette and fold it over so that you create a semi-circle or half-moon (you can also do this entirely by jerking the skillet at an angle so that the edge of the omelette curls up the side of the pan and folds over on itself, but it may take a few trys). Hold the folded omelette in the pan for a few seconds more to warm the fillings. Slide onto a plate and enjoy!
Rolled, Stuffed Omelette
- Prepare omelette, following steps 1-2 from traditional folded omelette above. This time you will not sprinkle or spread the fillings over the top.
- Using the spatula, loosen the omelette from the pan, and gently fold two opposing edges into the middle so that they overlap, as if you were tri-folding a letter. Carefully slide the omelette from the pan to the serving plate so that the seam-side is facing down.
- Using a sharp chef's knife or paring knife, make about a 3-inch incision in the top of the omelette, making certain not to cut through to the bottom. Carefully spoon in sauce or filling. Serve immediately.
Baked Stuffed Omelettes
- Butter a 9x13 baking dish and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Follow procedure for Rolled, Stuffed Omelette, except this time you will create six omelettes and slide each one seam-side down into the prepared baking dish instead of onto a serving plate. Line the omelettes up in the dish so that they create a single, even layer. After making your incisions and spooning sauce or filling into each omelette, sprinkle 1 cup of grated or shredded cheese over the top, and bake for 15 minutes, or till the fillings are warmed through and the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serves six.
Country of origin
8-inch ovensafe nonstick skillet
8-inch ovensafe nonstick skillet
8-inch nonstick skillet
typically folded or rolled and filled
Cooked on both sides?
over med-low burner
start over burner, finish under broiler
over med-high burner
30 seconds-2 minutes
Number of eggs used
Fillings mixed into beaten egg?
Fat used for cooking
potatoes, onions, Spanish chorizo, salt cod, Serrano or Iberian ham, Manchego cheese
Fontina or Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, pancetta, mint, sage, spinach, leftover bread or spaghetti
Gruyere cheese, cepes (porcini mushrooms), truffles, leeks, chicken livers, fine herbs
Tools of the Trade
Tips, Terms and Tidbits
- Skillets by definition have sloping sides, which is ideal for these dishes. If your pan is straight-sided, it is a sauté pan.
- If using a smaller or larger pan than called for, adjust number of eggs accordingly.
- The larger the pan, the more challenging it will be to flip or fold your creation.
- Eggs are called huevos in Spain, uove in Italy, and oeufs in France.
- One large, uncooked egg contains approximately 75 calories, 6g protein, 25mg calcium, 61mg potassium, and 318 IU (International Units) Vitamin A, making it not only one of the most versatile foods available, but also one of the healthiest. Source: Nutrition for Foodservice and Culinary Professionals (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)
- Don't feel that you have to stick to the flavor profile of a particular country or region. I often give these European dishes a Mexican or Southern (US) comfort-food flair. In fact, the omelettes pictured above were filled with pepperjack cheese and leftover Chicken-Tortilla Soup. Feel free to mix it up!
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