You can always judge a chef by his omelet. What seems like a simple task — just scramble eggs and then cook them back together — is in fact one of the most respected feats of the serious cook. A basic omelet has no shortcuts or fancy ingredients to hide behind. There is no time for a recipe and utterly no margin for error: only three eggs, butter, a hot pan and at most, 90 seconds. The omelet is certainly among the most difficult and courageous dishes to master. Anyone who thinks otherwise is really just making scrambled eggs.
Omelet variations abound. The stuffed half moon, the flipped flat omelet, the baked frittata and the rising omelet soufflé are all variations of the same concept. But among culinary sets one omelet stands apart from the rest, distinguished by its simplicity, tenderness and minimalist panache. The classic French omelet is the best of both worlds: a firm exterior rolled into a tight shell, with a creamy core suspended in a liminal state somewhere between liquid and solid.
Ingredients and Equipment
The basic French omelet requires three eggs, a heaping spoonful of butter, a generous pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Often chopped fresh herbs such as chives, parsley, chervil and tarragon are mixed with the eggs to brighten the flavor and aesthetic. However, as a rule, when cooking a dish that showcases but a few ingredients, it is of the utmost importance that those ingredients be of the highest quality.
Buy the freshest eggs available. Egg grades reflect quality at the farm, which deteriorates over time. Check the sell-by date, which is usually a month after the packing date. Once cracked, you can tell a fresh egg by its yolk, which stands firm and rounded over a thick, cloudy white. As eggs age the yolks cower and the whites run clear. Words like organic, free range, hormone-free and grass-fed often say more about the quality of marketing than ingredients. However, if you take the time to research local farms and find honest purveyors, these marketing idioms can certainly connote quality and freshness. Eggs from the farmers market, CSA or your neighbor’s dubiously lawful chicken coop are all the better.
Never cook eggs in a sticky pan. Make omelets in a heavy ten-inch nonstick skillet with gradually sloping sides, using a fork or rubber spatula. The traditional cast aluminum omelet pans are useless if not used often; even omelet oracles like Jacques Pepin and Julia Child made the switch to nonstick.
Imagine a velvet smooth curd, rolled into a perfect torpedo, cooked just enough to bind but not brown. Perfection will certainly dodge your first shot, but you should keep your eyes on the prize.
Preparation: The perfect French omelet requires shrewd preparation, mastery of heat, impeccable timing and a sculptor’s hand — in that order. Prepare by bringing the eggs and butter to room temperature, which will encourage even cooking, and preheating the pan on low for several minutes to create even heat. Crack eggs on a flat surface to ensure no bacteria or shell is introduced to the omelet. Beat the eggs at a fast, rhythmic clip with salt, pepper and any herbs, until no stringy whites remain. Turn up the heat to just shy of high, take a deep breath, and drop the butter in the pan.
Step I: When the butter has melted and starts to smell nutty, but before it has browned, pour the eggs into the pan. Scramble vigorously with fork or spatula until the curd forms a coherent mass – perhaps fifteen seconds – at times scraping the egg from the walls to avoid burning. The proper technique is to swiftly scramble in small circles, while briskly shifting the pan back and forth over heat to keep the mass of eggs moving. This movement produces the fine curd characteristic of French omelets. For those poorly versed in patting the head while rubbing the belly, it is best to practice ahead of time.
Step II: This is the moment when eggs face the existential question of whether to become omelet or scrambled eggs. Tilt the skillet forward, collect the curd in the front of the pan and defiantly demand omelet. By pooling the curd at the front edge of the skillet you begin to form a curved skin while tenderizing the core, and persuade the omelet that it ultimately wants to be rolled.
Step III: The back of the pan, which you hold elevated, still contains a thin layer of coagulated egg. Scrape this free with your utensil and fold it over the mass below. As the rest of the eggs set – by now they are very close – give the pan a shake to loosen the omelet from the surface.
Step IV: Set down the utensil and lift the pan off the stove, still tilting forward. With a closed fist thump the base of the handle. This movement prompts the omelet toward the edge of the pan, curling the omelet’s lip back over the core. Don’t be shy; a successful thump requires abrupt force. The roll begins to take form.
Step V: The final step is to plate the omelet. Grip the pan underhand, palm facing up and thumb pointing out. Hold the plate inverted over the top of the pan. In one steady motion flip both plate and pan, rolling the omelet onto the plate. Reform the omelet into a torpedo if necessary, using utensils or a towel. For extra luster, brush it over with melted butter.
Fillings are cooked separately and carefully spooned into the open crevice of the omelet just before plating. As the omelet is rolled onto the plate it lands seam side down, sealing the fillings inside the pouch. Of course, before introducing stuffings it helps to master the naked omelet, which is no small feat.
When you are ready to diversify, an endless catalogue of fillings await: tomato compote, mushroom duxelles, sautéed spinach and feta, fried eggplant, artichoke hearts poached in oil, grilled zucchini and goat cheese, steamed asparagus and lemon butter, cannellini beans, olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, horseradish crème fraiche, crab salad, rare tuna, anchovies, bacon, pork belly, pancetta, chorizo, blood sausage, or any number of grated cheeses, to name a few.
While decidedly delicious, the rolled French omelet is finicky, technical and notoriously frustrating. Proficiency as an omelet chef takes practice, patience and more than a few broken eggs. But this is a skill worth your Saturday morning. I suggest buying a bottle of wine and a couple cartons of eggs, and spending a few hours practicing. Those on the receiving end of your omelets will be forever grateful, and those who witness your omelet cookery always impressed.
If you insist on a by-the-measure omelet recipe, check out Mark Bittman’s Simple Cheese Omelet Recipe on Food Republic.