A Spanish Classic
Eggs, potatoes, onion and olive oil are the main ingredients of the Spanish omelet. Tayo Acuña/©ICEX
Author: Ian Cowley/©ICEX
At first glance, tortilla española appears incredibly simple - potatoes, eggs, salt, olive oil and the optional onion are the basic ingredients that when cooked together make up this culinary treat. But scratch away at the surface, and a whole world of uncertainties surrounding the tortilla's preparation unfolds.
A burning issue in Spain and a discussion as common as the merits of Real Madrid versus Barcelona is the seemingly eternal question: should the tortilla be prepared with or without onion? And the doubts don't end there. What quantity of potato to egg is needed? How should the eggs be beaten - one by one, all together, or the white separately from the yolk? How should the potato be chopped? When does the salt go in? The list is endless and it is difficult to find agreement amongst Spaniards on any of these points.
To try and make sense of some of these issues and to witness the creation of a Spanish omelette at the hands of an expert I visited El Alambique cookery school in Madrid to speak to manager María Llamas and her sister, author and chef Gabriela. Founded in 1978, El Alambique doubles as a fantastic kitchen appliance store containing every kind of utensil one could possibly require to prepare food. Classes are given by top chefs from Spain and beyond to a variety of would-be kitchen whizzes from around the globe in both Spanish and English although the vast majority of the dishes being taught are firmly Spanish in both origin and product.
Loving care and vigilance
But back to the tortilla, and Gabriela's tips on making the best one - "cariño (loving care)," she tells me is the most important element; utmost vigilance is needed when making a tortilla, particularly being careful it doesn't burn or overcook. Extra special attention is also required when flipping it over so it doesn't end up in a mess on the floor.
"Prime quality ingredients are also vital," she says. Preferably fresh, free-range eggs and yellow, 'waxy' potatoes with relatively thin skins - not the white 'floury'-type which can contain too much starch. Olive oil should again be of quality and whenever possible extra virgin, which despite being pricey will not go to waste as it can always be re-used after draining from the frying pan. As for quantity, she recommends four mediumsized potatoes to six eggs and one medium, or half a large onion.
As mentioned before, the onion debate is a contentious one. There are those who like it with and those without. Gabriela is definitely of the 'yes' crowd. "It adds jugosidad, (moistness)" she says; an important factor for all chefs is that the tortilla does not dry out - although there are of course many who don't like it to be too 'liquid' and the balance between the two is a fine line. She also suggests that the best way to chop the onion is in halfmoons, thus making sure it is evenly cooked.
The importance of the cut
The potato is peeled and cut into similar-sized pieces. It is here that Gabriela reveals two of her closely guarded secrets. Firstly, she uses a mandoline rather than a knife to slice the potatoes into even shapes, and secondly she will usually let the potato sit in a bowl of water for several minutes. Not only will this prevent it from browning but it will also help release the starch, although she says that if the potato is of good quality it shouldn't be too starchy anyway.
Next, she takes a thickbottomed high-sided iron pan about eight inches wide across the base - if the pan is too big it will make turning the tortilla unmanageable - and begins to heat the oil. Firstly she tosses in the onion, giving it about two minutes on medium heat before adding the potato. At this point, she will add more oil if required, making sure that both the potato and onion are fully covered. Depending on the quantity, she will gently fry the mixture on medium heat for around ten to 15 minutes. The thinner the potato is cut, the shorter it will take to cook. Here, she tells me the secret is that although the potato and the onion are frying, they are also at the same time 'stewing'; in the oil, preventing the potato from going hard on the outside which does not make for a good tortilla.
Once this is cooked, drain the oil and reserve. Meanwhile, she takes five or six eggs and whisks them in a bowl. It is here that she prefers to add the salt, although she says it's possible to add it to the potato when cooking, or directly to the mix. She adds the potato and onion and lets the mixture sit for a while in order that the potato slowly absorbs the egg. Some people will break up the potato when adding to the egg at this point, but Gabriela prefers to keep the potato whole, making for a 'layered' effect in the finished product.
Cooking and flipping
She drizzles the empty pan with a smidgen of oil and adds the mixture. The temperature of the pan at this point should be around 80ºC and the egg will turn white quite quickly around the edges if the pan is at the right temperature. Now she lets the mixture cook on medium heat until it begins to set. Here, it's important that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan or indeed burn. To ensure this doesn't happen, you can 'shoogle' the pan a bit. When the tortilla starts to come away from the bottom and the egg is nearly set comes perhaps the most vital part in the process - darle la vuelta a la tortilla (flipping over the tortilla so that it cooks on the other side).
It's important at this stage to have an utensil at the ready to help turn it over. Many will use a plate, but Gabriela tells me this is not ideal as it can slip out of your hands. She preferably uses the lid of a saucepan, which should be about 2 cm (0.75 in.) larger in circumference than the frying pan and have a handle. Place it over the pan, flip the content into the lid then slide it back into the frying pan, uncooked side down. Once the tortilla has been turned over it cooks for a further five minutes or so until set. It should be golden brown on the outside yet still moist and juicy in the centre.
A dish for all seasons
Despite it's fairly recent origins (the tortilla is first documented in Navarra during the 19th century Carlist wars although similar dishes have been present in Spain since Roman times), tortilla española is the universal Spanish dish par excellence. It's so versatile that it can be eaten not only at main meal times in Spain, but also as breakfast, aperitif, mid-morning snack and placed between two slices of crusty bread serves as the staple sandwich for most Spaniards at any time.
It's a dish that one never grows tired of and is appreciated by the humble housewife and internationally-renowned chef alike. Indeed, molecular gastronomy maestro Ferran Adrià pays homage to the classic tortilla by cooking each individual element separately and reducing it to one-part potato foam, one-part onion purée and one-part egg-white sabayon and has also fathered a fastfood version of the Spanish omelette made with good quality potato crisps.
Gabriela Llamas cooks me up her own version of the tortilla too, filling individual silicon moulds with the potato/onion/egg mix, topping it with a specially cut slice of bread and placing in a hot oven for ten minutes or so. "Ideal for cocktail parties," she tells me. "Delicious," I reply, as I begin to count just how many different ways this magnificently multifaceted dish can be prepared and eaten.
Ian Cowley is a Madrid-based British Journalist. He contributes pieces on Spain to a variety of publications and broadcasters.