A tortilla is
a savory Spanish baked potato-onion-egg concoction, sort of a baked omelet,
or crustless quiche.
It has no English translation, so we
simply call it a Spanish Tortilla, to distinguish it from the Mexican/Central
American/Southwest U.S. tortilla, which is a thin, flat griddle cake (pancake)
made from (corn or wheat) flour. (The word tortilla is derived
from torta, which means loaf or cake: something which is baked.)
"Spanish Omelet" is a crude
term, as eggs are a necessary but not primary ingredient. And tortilla
de patates is a redundant term, since classic tortillas are made
with potatoes by default; although variations are given a descriptive
name, such as tortilla de champiñones (mushroom tortilla)
to distinguish them from the classic.
In South America (below the Equator),
tortilla refers to the Spanish tortilla.
The tortilla's closest culinary relative
is the Italian frittata. In fact, this recipe is well known in Italy,
where it's called frittata di patate or frittata spagnola.
As with many famous dishes, the tortilla has humble, peasant origins.
Most peasants had ready access to potatoes, onions, and eggs; usually
more of the first two ingredients than the last. The tortilla and its
variations uses ingredients that the Spanish found in abundance in the
New World (such as potatoes, onions and pimientos),
but omits ingredients that Spain sought but did not find in the New World
and remained out of reach of the common man (such as black pepper and
other spices). This is why you will not see black pepper in any genuine
Thus, the tortilla is one of the West's greatest culinary inventions.
It uses few, simple, unexotic ingredients found in (almost) any household;
it requires no special tools, gadgets, equipment nor expertise; and it
results in a delicious dish which can be served at any meal, as a main
course or appetizer, at any temperature (except frozen), fresh or leftover,
from breakfast to late night snack. It's even good in a sandwich! It's
amazing that it hasn't supplanted the pizza in the USA and Europe.
Yet, like the Spanish people who invented it and eat it almost every
day, the tortilla is an enigma. It is both easy and difficult to prepare.
It's both simple and demanding. And even if you screw it up, the results
will still be good.
The reason for this is that while the ingredients and equipment are simple,
the preparation is exacting, not in technique, but in procedure. The tortilla's
grace is that you don't need experience or expertise to prepare it correctly;
you only need to know how to follow directions. And if you don't (or won't),
you won't have to throw it away, though I wouldn't recommend you serve
it to a Spaniard.
The benchmark of any Spanish eatery is the quality of its tortilla. If
it's bad (by "bad" I mean good but incorrect), it doesn't matter
how great the other dishes are -- no one will eat there, and the restaurant
will fail. Even Chinese restaurants in Spain have tortillas on their menu.
It's the culinary standard of Spain, from Galicia to Catalunya, Basque
Country to Sevilla.
You will find hundreds of recipes for tortillas on the Web. Most of them
will work (edible). Fewer of them will be good (make-again). And a small
number of them will be authentic (really good). Unfortunately, too many
of them omit, gloss over, or incorrectly state the simple but vital tips
for making an authentic and superior tortilla.
Carol has tried many of these recipes to try to recreate
the authentic tortilla we enjoyed in Spain. She also consulted with our
Spanish friends here in San Diego. And spent some time at Borders and
Barnes & Noble. This is what she came up with.
Tip 1: Use low-starch potatoes. Red-skinned, Yellow Finns, news, white
rounds, and purples work best (though the smaller they are, the more you
will have to peel). In Spain, this is not an issue, as the high-starch
russets, Yukon Golds, and Caribes are less common there.
Tip 2: Use fresh eggs. Fresh eggs are less likely to stick to the pan.
And they must be at room temperature.
Tip 3: Cook the potatoes and onions slowly, over medium heat, watching
closely so that they don't brown or caramelize.
Tip 4: Strain the cooked potatoes and onions and allow them to cool somewhat
before combining with the eggs.
Tip 5: Don't overbeat the eggs.
Tip 6: The tortilla uses no hot or cold ingredients (see Tips 2 and 4).
Only the pan will be hot (see Tip 7).
Tip 7: The tortilla pan must be very hot.
Tip 8: Make this dish ahead of time. It stores easily. (Many cooks prefer
it when it's a day old.) It takes a couple of hours to prepare anyway
(less if you've made it a few times), so make it the day you buy the eggs
and new potatoes and refrigerate it. It's easily reheated, and is just
as good served chilled or at room temperature.
Tip 9: While this dish can be prepared with basic utensils, it will be
easier if you have a mandoline to slice the potatoes (as in Ciro
Potatoes) and a deep non-stick skillet.
Tip 10: Tortillas are flipped like a frittata or an omelet to brown the
other side. This can be tricky (and risky). But if you have a good broiler
(and you watch the tortilla closely), you can broil the top without having
to flip it.
The serving size (and number of servings) depends on how the tortilla
will be served.
*Serves 4 or 12*
28 oz (1¾ lb, or about 5 medium) low-starch potatoes
1 T coarse salt
14 oz (1¾ c) vegetable oil for frying (not extra-virgin)
3 medium diced yellow onions (about 2
10 large eggs
- Peel and slice the potatoes into thin slices. Pat dry and sprinkle with salt.
- Heat the oil in a deep skillet to medium-high. Dice the onions while the oil is heating.
- Test the temperature of the oil with a single slice of potato. It should sizzle.
- Carefully add the potatoes and onions to the hot oil. Reduce heat and watch closely,
turning repeatedly so that the potatoes do not brown and the onions do not caramelize.
- Remove when potatoes are tender and onions are transluscent. Drain in a collander with
paper towels and allow to cool to warm. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.
- Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a whisk or fork. Do not overbeat. Test seasoning.
- Add potatoes & onions to eggs and combine gently.
- Heat the skillet to medium-high again. Add a little oil.
- When the skillet is hot, add the potato-onion-egg mixture.