Tortilla de patatas (a.k.a. Spanish omelet or Spanish tortilla)
Spanish cuisine varies widely from region to region, but the tortilla de patatas unites them all.
Made with a few staple ingredients—oil, potatoes, eggs and sometimes onions—tortillas are deceptively simple. Although the ingredients are basic, making a tortilla can be daunting. Especially if (like me) you don’t have a lifetime of tortilla memories in your brain, packed with visual and tactile cues, as many Spaniards do.
While it doesn’t take a pastry chef’s precision, several factors can make or break the tortilla. One is the potatoes. As they poach, will they disintegrate? Or will they hold together just enough, without remaining hard at the core? Much depends on the quality, texture and age of the potato you use. This is perhaps the biggest wild card, as you don’t always know how your potatoes will behave until they’re in the oil.
The fat, too, is also important, of course—a mild flavored olive oil is generally best—but this factor is easy to control before you begin.
The most unnerving step for relative tortilla novices like me is the flip. As the Spanish expression dar la vuelta a la tortilla suggests (it literally means to flip a tortilla, and figuratively to turn a tide), the flip involves a decisive reversal. And, like turning a tide, it also requires premeditation: you must have a truly nonstick pan and a plate or lid of the right size, or the flip will fail.
The ideal tortilla de patatas
In Spain, what constitutes the ideal tortilla de patatas is the subject of eternal debate.
With or without onions is the main point of contention. Spaniards can generally be divided into three tortilla camps: vehemently pro- or anti-onion (the concebollistas and sincebollistas, respectively) and those, like my husband, who can go either way.
Other existential differences include how the potatoes are sliced (thin, thick, or diced) or fried (to a crisp or slowly poached); the proportion of potato to egg; how set the eggs in the center are; and on and on. Usually, the tortilla one’s grandmother or mother makes is the gold standard.
Just as you can find a bad croissant in France, you can also find bad tortillas in Spain. A dry or cake-like texture, burned eggs, potatoes that are more al dente than tender—these are all defects of a bad tortilla.
Plenty of epic tortilla fails like the one pictured above made the rounds of social media in Spain under confinement last spring, when those who normally leave the tortilla making to their moms took to the stoves to prepare their beloved comfort food.
Ultimately, the ideal tortilla de patatas is a matter of taste. I’m with José Capel, the food critic for El País, on this one: me gustan todas, con y sin , a condición de que sean buenas (I like them all, with or without [onions], as long as they’re good).
Can I add chorizo?
While modernist chefs have deconstructed the tortilla de patatas, and Ferran Adrià has famously made a tortilla with potato chips, if you venture beyond the three to four classic ingredients, you’re making a different dish.
In other words, you’re free to add what you want, but don’t call it a tortilla de patatas (unless you want your ten minutes of fame in Spanish newspapers and Twitter feeds).
Adding chorizo is one of the main crimes we Anglosajones commit when making a Spanish omelet.
As this Spanish writer says, “Chorizo is a fantastic invention, but tossing chorizo into a beer does not make it a Spanish beer.” The same goes for omelets.
I’m sure those egg dishes are delicious, but they’re not tortillas de patatas.
So yes, tortillas are simple. But there are certain unwritten rules to follow. And there’s a bit of magic that occurs in the skillet as the humble ingredients come together into an excellent tortilla. That magic comes with observation and, above all, practice.
Let’s get to it!
Tortilla de Patatas
- 2¼ pounds (1 kg) waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold
- Mild olive oil or sunflower oil for poaching the potatoes
- ½–1 medium onion very thinly sliced (optional)
- 4–5 large eggs at room temperature
- Peel the potatoes, then cut them in half lengthwise and place flat on the cutting board. Cut into thin half-moon slices crosswise (about ¼-inch thick). Alternatively, you can hold the potato over a bowl and cut off thin, slightly irregular slices with a paring knife, as my mother-in-law does.
- Rinse the potatoes in several changes of cold water until the water is clear when you swish them around. Drain and pat dry.
- Pour about 1½ inches of oil into a medium skillet and heat it over high heat until shimmering. If you drop a piece of potato into it, it should sizzle upon contact. Add the potatoes, a few pinches of salt, and a little more oil if needed to cover. Stir to coat the potatoes, then lower the heat to medium. Cook until the potatoes are completely tender, all the way to the core (15-20 minutes)—you’re looking to poach them rather than fry them, although a little browning around the edges once the potatoes are fully cooked won’t hurt (depending on who you ask). Rotate them delicately from time to time as they cook, and don't worry if they begin to break apart a bit (you just don't want an oily puree). If you're adding onions, add when the potatoes are partially cooked, about halfway through the cooking time.
- Using a slotted spatula or spoon, transfer the potatoes to a colander set over a bowl to let them drain. Taste for salt and sprinkle with a bit more if you wish. When the oil has cooled, strain it through a fine-mesh sieve and save it in a jar to make your next tortilla. Wipe the skillet clean.
- Place the eggs in a bowl and add one pinch of salt per egg. Whisk until well blended. Add the potatoes and gently stir until coated.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the potato-poaching oil in the skillet over medium-low heat and pour in the potato and egg mixture. Using a flexible spatula, tuck the egg in around the edges of the skillet to make a rounded side and to ensure the tortilla isn’t sticking. As the tortilla cooks, shake the pan a bit to prevent sticking. Cook until the egg is set and lightly golden on the bottom but still a bit runny on top (about 5 minutes).
- Okay, here it comes. Invert your plate of choice over the skillet and place your hand firmly over the top. Grab the skillet handle in the other hand, lift it off the burner, and flip it over quickly and decisively. If all has gone well, your tortilla is now on the plate. Return the skillet to the burner and slide the tortilla back in with the uncooked side down. Tuck in the edges again and continue to cook for 4 to 5 more minutes, until the tortilla is just set in the center, or done to your liking.
- Either flip or slide the tortilla out onto a clean, dry plate.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges or mini squares.