Perfect Omelet

Yield: 1 serving
Prep and cooking time: 5 minutes
Difficulty: Intermediate

I’ll wager that few people have ever eaten an omelet anywhere outside of France.  Now, I know we’ve all eaten things called omelets.  You’ve no doubt had a mixture of scrambled eggs poured onto a griddle and folded up like a business letter.  It tastes like one too.  It’s chewy and dry, and typically stuffed with ham and peppers to compensate for its shortcomings.

Surely you’ve been fed a heavy, custardy thing like a quiche without the crust, filled with onions, mushrooms and cheese, and essentially steamed in the pan.  A ghastly staple of suburban brunches, it tends to be slimy and depends on extraneous ingredients to make it palatable.

And I’d be very surprised if you hadn’t eaten a frittata, an Italian disgrace which is essentially a ruined omelet.  Typically, it’s tough like a sponge and loaded with juicy ingredients like tomatoes and zucchini that weep with water.  When you chew it, you can feel the water being squeezed out of the leathery, overcooked egg.  It truly is an abomination.

The genuine omelet is virtually unknown outside of France, although it’s surprisingly simple to make.  Like most of the best dishes, it’s very straightforward, relying on good ingredients and proper technique rather than piles of condiments.  In texture it resembles a soufflé: it’s exceptionally light and tender, and needs only the simplest garnishes of salt, black pepper and grated cheese in order to shine.

2 whole eggs
1 tsp unsalted whole butter
Pinches of salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinches of grated cheese (farmhouse Cheddar, Parmesan, or Gruyère)

1. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly with a fork until the yolks and whites are amalgamated. Avoid working in air: you’re making an omelet, not a sponge cake.

2. Add the butter to a small skillet, and cook it over moderate heat until the foam subsides and the milk solids begin to darken. Watch closely: the pan is at the ideal temperature when the milk solids just begin to take color. The butter provides all the guidance you’ll need: if the milk solids are white or pale yellow, the pan is too cool. When they turn dark brown, it’s too hot. When they’re a light golden brown color, the temperature is perfect.

3. Pour in the beaten egg and leave it undisturbed for a few seconds. As the layer of egg on the bottom begins to set, pull it toward you with a spatula, tilt the pan forward, and let more liquid egg fill the open space. Again, don’t disturb it; leave it alone for a few seconds before continuing in the same manner. Letting the egg set briefly is what prevents it from sticking, even in an ordinary metal pan. It’s not necessary to use a non-stick skillet. (Notice that in the companion video, I use a copper pan with a plain, stainless-steel lining, yet there is no suggestion of egg sticking to it.)

4. When about two thirds of the egg has set, it’s time to form the omelet. Flip the near edge forward, then fold in the sides with a spatula, and finally roll it like a burrito. You can use gravity if you like, tilting the pan and shaking it, or you can use a spatula. In either case, what you want is a stubby cigar shape.

5. As soon as the omelet comes together, flip it. It’s crucial that you not overcook it: what you’ve got is little more than protein and water. As the protein cooks, it loses elasticity, contracts, and, like a sponge, expels the water. That creates the tough, watery-tasting omelet that most people are accustomed to. It’s essential that you get it out of the pan while the protein is still elastic and the water is still suspended within it. This means undercooking it slightly. You don’t want it runny inside, but you don’t want it firm, either. There’s a sweet spot just between, which you’ve got to learn to identify.

5. Press it lightly with your finger. If it fails to spring back under gentle pressure, it’s not ready. If it springs back immediately and completely, it’s overcooked. But if it springs back lazily, and not all the way, it’s perfect. (Be prepared to get it wrong a couple of times, but after a few attempts, you’ll get the hang of it.)

6. When it’s barely set but not firm, slide it onto a warm plate and garnish it with a small pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and a light sprinkling of grated cheese. I prefer a mature farmhouse Cheddar. A cheaper and more readily available substitute would be Parmigiano Reggiano. Gruyère is also very good. For color, you might sprinkle on a bit of chopped chive, scallion, or parsley, and add a few halved, lightly-roasted cherry tomatoes. Finally, add a slice of toasted crusty bread.

Omelets are best served immediately, but they can be held, with tolerable if not brilliant results, in an oven at about 140 F for up to fifteen minutes, which is plenty of time for you to bang out four or five. With a little practice, you’ll be able to work two pans at once, which makes it easy to do eight omelets before the first ones begin to deteriorate noticeably in the oven.

When you get it right, the finished omelet will be marvelously tender and delicate, and absolutely delicious in its simplicity: moist but not watery, while the flavor of the egg, butter, black pepper, and cheese come together in perfect harmony. This is not a recipe so much as a technique. You might be surprised how often fine food comes down to a simple thing executed properly. And here we have an ideal example: tender and moist, and delicately, and delightfully, flavored.

As with anything simple and good, lashings of condiments are unnecessary—indeed, unwelcome. A bad omelet is like a bad pizza or a bad hamburger. It’s nasty to begin with, so you’ve got to load it with fillings and pile it with condiments to salvage it. But if you use quality ingredients and handle them with respect, even the simplest dish can become a little masterpiece.

If you’re new to this, I’d recommend viewing the companion video and then going straight into the kitchen to make a couple of omelets. Don’t get discouraged if they turn out wrong. Taste them, judge them carefully, and try to identify what’s off. Then re-read this recipe and review the video sketch, and chances are you’ll spot the point where you went wrong. Usually, omelets fail because they’re cooked at too high a temperature, or for too long a time.

Using whole butter is essential: it’s a basic element of the flavor, especially as it browns slightly. It also colors the omelet, which improves its appearance. But there’s an important practical reason as well: you can literally see how hot the pan is, which enables you to cook the egg at the right temperature. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to “read” the pan, so to speak, if you use oil or clarified butter.

As for the appearance, you should aim at a fat cigar shape like a little football. The only people I know who can do that consistently and with ease are cooks who work the brunch shifts at hotels and hack out two hundred a day. But so long as you’re getting the proper delicate texture, you needn’t worry much about aesthetic niceties. If it tastes fabulous and melts in your mouth, who cares if it looks a bit rustic?

That’s all there is to it. It takes a bit of practice, but it’s something that any journeyman cook can master. And once you’ve done that, you’ll find your new skill very much in demand.


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