Photo: Con Poulos
An omelet is an exquisitely simple, satisfying meal on a winter night. But as Bob Spitz learned, it pays to know a few tricks so your omelets turn out less like Silly Putty and more like the fluffy, glorious specimens they're meant to be.Every winter, as soon as the temperature begins to drop and the comforter comes out of mothballs, I start dreaming about omelets. Not a day passes that I don't contemplate a three-egg beauty for breakfast. Or for lunch. Or a midafternoon snack. They are a snap to make and a surefire antidote to holiday excess. Besides, an omelet is like one of those old cardigans hanging at the back of your closet—homey, not too heavy, and a great winter standby. Best of all, you can whip one up in no time, at any hour of the day, using the most basic ingredients: just a few eggs, a pinch of salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil, a chunk of butter, and you're in business.
Or, if you're feeling adventurous, the omelet gives you license to improvise. Onions, mushrooms, ham, cheese, spinach (or all of the above)—just about any vegetable, herb, meat, or seafood you have in the fridge can be folded into an omelet with ease; most ingredients, like bacon or shallots, need a quick sauté first, while cheese or avocado can be thrown in at the last minute. Lately, I've been stuffing mine with a generous combo of chopped chorizo and jalapeños before slathering guacamole and spicy salsa on top. At the other extreme, my wife, the purist, just rubs her omelet with a little melted butter, which seems a bit blah to me. Sometimes I convince her to go wild with a slice or two of Muenster melted inside, but for the most part her theory is that nothing improves the taste of egg.
Here's the good news: You don't have to be Mario Batali to make a delicious omelet. You do, however, need to learn the proper technique. I always assumed that meant beating a few eggs, plopping them into a pan, jacking the heat up to high, and flipping the eggs over when things no longer looked like soup. But that's the kind of omelet you master at Ralph's Cooking Academy and Auto Repair Institute; it has the weight and density of a Styrofoam cup. The classic, well-pedigreed omelet demands more respect than that. Legend has it that the dish dates back some 2,000 years, when the Roman epicure Apicius experimented by heating an egg mixture with milk, honey, and pepper and cooking it into a custard-like substance that resembled cottage cheese. Over the centuries, the French got hold of the idea, and before long that custard became a dish revered around the world.
According to Julia Child, a real omelet is an accomplishment, an art of the highest magnitude, and getting it right requires some practice. In the introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she explains that she spent "eight pages on making a simple omelet." But I had never bothered to learn the proper technique until my recent pilgrimage to Europe to train in classic French cuisine with master chefs. After perfecting my foie gras au torchon, pistou, and coeur à la crème in a series of Michelin-starred restaurant kitchens, I visited Yannick Alléno, a three-star chef at the Hotel Meurice in Paris, hoping he'd teach me his signature duck in a crust of Indian spices nesting on a roasted peach half. Instead, he ordered me to the stove and said, "Make me an omelet." This was a mean stunt. In France, where culinary matters inspire a degree of passion normally reserved for the Mona Lisa, Jerry Lewis, and Simone de Beauvoir, chefs get hired based on how they make an omelet. "If you can't do this with flair and expertise," Alléno told me, "you don't deserve to work on anything more difficult."
He put me through the paces, and it took me 23 tries before he grudgingly gave my effort an approving nod. I suspect he enjoyed tormenting me, an upstart American who'd invaded his temple of haute cuisine, but I have to admit that last specimen was a beauty. My previous efforts were nice Greek-diner specials, but number 23, mon dieu, number 23 had soul. It was everything an omelet should be: fluffy, creamy, and with a slight spring, almost like pastry in your mouth.
After he shared his secrets and I got the technique down, the process was a snap. (I also consulted Julia Child's cookbook, which reinforces the instructions with step-by-step line drawings.) Start with a base: three eggs at room temperature, broken into a small metal bowl. It is important to beat them with gusto, dipping a fork into the bowl and lifting the eggs high into the air. You want to get a good amount of air into them, beating until a fine spray of bubbles froths along the surface. This gives an omelet its light, spongy texture.
While you wait for the pan to heat up, sprinkle the eggs with a generous pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Then film the pan with olive oil; add a tablespoon of butter, and when it has melted, immediately pour in the eggs. "It's all in the wrist," my chef-tormentor instructed, gripping the pan handle and waving it back and forth with diabolical dexterity. As the mixture started to firm, he ran the underside of a fork back and forth under the edges to nudge the liquid toward the center. Then he tilted the pan away from him so that the omelet began to slide a bit, just an inch or so toward the edge. With a quick forward-then-back flick of his wrist, the omelet folded over itself and simply rolled out onto an awaiting plate. Voilà!
In truth, all it takes is about two or three tries to master the technique. Practice for a friend; rest assured they won't mind eating your failures. Or donate to charity: In my house, the family dog was well fed (although he turned up his snout at a sautéed broccoli special).
My omelets more consistently approached the gold standard after I bought a new pan. For the longest time, I'd been cooking them in the same old model I used to fry fish and tacos. Mostly, I wound up scraping egg off the bottom. A friend suggested I buy a small nonstick pan, around 7 to 9 inches in diameter, to use exclusively for omelets. And never use soap to clean it—simply wipe the pan with a paper towel and hide it from the other sautéers in your house.
Now that I've perfected the basic omelet recipe, I continue to experiment like mad. Sometimes my efforts fall flat, for instance, when I tried adding anchovies to the mix. And take it from me, there's no reason on earth to marry lamb chops and eggs. My latest fantasy is to incorporate my beloved pulled-pork recipe into a nifty dinner omelet. When that day comes, according to my wife, I'll be dining alone.
Bob Spitz's recent books include The Beatles: The Biography (Little, Brown) and The Saucier's Apprentice (Norton).