TortillaRick Cooks HomeTortilla

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 tortilla recipe.

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.

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*Serves 4 or 12*

28 oz (1 lb, or about 5 medium) low-starch potatoes
1 T coarse salt
14 oz (1 c) vegetable oil for frying (not extra-virgin)
3 medium diced yellow onions (about 2
10 large eggs

  1. Peel and slice the potatoes into thin slices. Pat dry and sprinkle with salt.
  2. Heat the oil in a deep skillet to medium-high. Dice the onions while the oil is heating.
  3. Test the temperature of the oil with a single slice of potato. It should sizzle.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a whisk or fork. Do not overbeat. Test seasoning.
  7. Add potatoes & onions to eggs and combine gently.
  8. Heat the skillet to medium-high again. Add a little oil.
  9. When the skillet is hot, add the potato-onion-egg mixture.