For someone who loves eating, thinking about, and talking about food as much as I do, I’m admittedly not much of a cook. I’m not terrible per se. I’ve never set anything on fire and my meals turn out at least mostly edible. But I certainly don’t possess a natural skill for it. It’s not always intuitive for me. I tend to over- or under-season, over- or under-cook. I’m still searching for the equilibrium where all the magic happens and I’m optimistic that it will come with time and practice.
For this reason, it’s been really important for me to practice in the kitchen this past year. I’ve picked up some skills and discovered some new favorite recipes that I now make on regular rotation. But I’ve realized recently that I haven’t learned much about the ins and outs of cooking Spanish food. In Madrid, there are plenty of inexpensive alternatives to spending an afternoon learning how to prepare a dish, if you know where to look. But instead of bringing home souvenirs from my year in Spain, I’d prefer to take back recipes.
This weekend, I started my adventures in Spanish cooking with what I knew best: the tortilla de patatas, or Spanish omelette. I’d seen it made in a small, modest kitchen my senior year of college in a class on food in the Spanish-speaking world. I’d tasted plenty of tortillas from restaurants and supermarket refrigerators with varying results. I knew all about the dreaded flip, which could make or (literally) break the tortilla. All things considered, it was finally time to give it a try.
The Humble Tortilla
When I first learned about the Spanish tortilla, I was a little baffled. Coming from the US, I had a very specific idea in mind of what the word tortilla referred to, and this was not even close. The Spanish tortilla, while translated as “omelette” and often likened to a quiche or frittata, is entirely its own thing. The egg mixture is cooked in a large skillet with potatoes and onions until they all but melt together. Once finished, the tortilla is sliced like a pizza and served in wedges, often with bread. Its flavor can be rather bland or surprisingly intense and delicious, depending on how it’s prepared.
The history of the tortilla is debated, but it seems to have originated in the highlands of northern Spain. The first known documentation of the tortilla de patatas was written in 1817 by Cortes de Navarra. While in Pamplona (the small city best known for the Running of the Bulls), he noted that peasant women were able to turned two or three eggs into a meal for five or six people by adding potatoes and onions to the mixture before cooking. In other words, it was created out of necessity. Despite the lack of resources, women used cheap and easily-accessible ingredients to create a nutritious meal that satisfied an entire family. In fact, some believe the tortilla was invented in this region during times of war to literally feed armies. This theory, while not confirmed, certainly doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities.
Today, the tortilla is typically a quick and easy meal that can be found in just about every traditional Spanish restaurant or bar in Madrid. While they’re usually quite similar in composition, there are a few variations. For example, some prefer to leave the centers soft and runny. Occasionally, you might find a tortilla filled with ham, peppers, spinach, cheese, or various other ingredients in addition to the potatoes and onions. In some contexts, the tortilla has even been elevated to a sort of art form.
For example, a few months ago I wanted to get my hands on a tortilla from Taberna Pedraza, known for its reimagined approach to the dish. When we arrived one night, we found a note on the door. The restaurant was closed for the evening because it was competing in Spain’s National Competition of Tortillas. Casual.
When we finally got a table a few days later, we found that it was well worth the wait. The tortilla “with eggs from young, uncaged chickens” was unlike any other I’d tried. The outside was barely cooked, not browned at all, and the inside was like a perfectly runny yolk. The potatoes were diced so thin they resembled potato chips. Containing only three ingredients (eggs, potatoes, and salt), this humble tortilla was delicious in its simplicity. I was thrilled to taste it for myself, and it came as no surprise that the chefs at Taberna Pedraza won the title of Best Tortilla in Spain in 2016. And as of my visit back in October, they’d served over 31,000 of them!
Here Goes Nothing
Before getting started, I browsed through a couple of online recipes to compare proportions, timing, the works. It all seemed doable. Slice the potatoes thinly and fry them for 20 minutes on low heat. Caramelize the onions. Beat the eggs together and add the potatoes and onions. Fill the skillet with the mixture and let the bottom and sides set before flipping.
I decided to use the recipe on the blog Spanish Sabores. The author, Lauren Aloise, is the founder of a popular food tour company called Devour Tours and has been writing about Spanish food for many years. The measurements in her recipe were simple and the introductory pep talk encouraging. I was ready to go.
I started by washing and peeling the potatoes and cutting them lengthwise into quarters. Then I diced them up into thin slices and fried them in two batches on low-medium heat in a large pan. Once they were frying for about 10 minutes, I added the onions to a second, smaller skillet and started frying them on low heat until they were caramelized. While those were cooking, I placed the eggs in a large bowl and whisked them together. I added the potatoes and onions to the eggs, added salt, let them sit, and poured half of the mixture back into the smaller skillet.
All was going swimmingly. The egg mixture was melty and gooey and sizzling pleasantly. After about 10 minutes, I tested the edges of the pan to see if it had solidified. I could easily separate it from the sides of the pan but opted to wait just one more minute. Oops. I smelled it before I could see it: the bottom was burning. I followed the directions I had read to flip the tortilla, now a little worried that I had already screwed it up. I placed the plate on top of the pan and quickly flipped the tortilla onto the plate.
The tortilla defied gravity and, despite its weight, stuck to the upside down pan. Some of the gooey parts on top fell onto the plate, but the rest stayed stubbornly attached to the pan. I had loosened the edges of the tortilla but I’d forgotten to loosen the bottom of it. Rookie mistake. Luckily, this wasn’t the end of the world. And it was all captured on video (please excuse the language…).
On my second try, after dislodging the tortilla from the pan, I was able to flip it over onto the plate again. Then I slid the sticky mixture back onto the pan and tucked in the edges so it would stay rounded.
“It’s so nice!”
“It looks like potatoes and eggs.”
The tortilla was a little browner than I would’ve liked, but all was not lost. After 5 minutes or so, I slid the finished tortilla onto the plate and let it cool before impatiently diving in.
It was good but not great. I typically over-salt my food, so I was trying to be a bit more conservative than normal. In the end, it definitely needed more. Also, the potatoes could’ve been cut even thinner and cooked at a lower heat for longer. They weren’t falling apart the way I wanted them to. Finally, the center of the tortilla was completely solid. This isn’t a terrible outcome. Some people certainly prefer it this way, and the majority of the tortillas I’ve eaten in restaurants were cooked all the way through as well. But my favorite tortillas are the ones with a gooey center. So, while I avoided complete disaster, I had a couple of solid notes for the next time around.
Luckily, I had only used half the mixture on the first tortilla and was able to make a second one right away. For the sake of experimentation, and also to satisfy my own personal cravings for a hearty, American-style breakfast, I added jamón serrano, cheese, and spinach to the second tortilla. As I mentioned before, it’s not unheard of to enhance Spanish tortillas with extra ingredients like ham and veggies, but it’s much less common than the tried and true original.
I was able to adapt from the mistakes I had made during the first attempt. I let the tortilla cook at a lower temperature, I loosened the entire thing before flipping with much better results, and I shortened the cook time of the flipped side to keep the inside a little more runny. While the potatoes were still a bit chunkier than I would’ve liked, the second tortilla turned out much better! The salt from the cured ham elevated the flavor and the cheese added to the melty gooey center.
Technically, the tortilla should not sink in in the center the way this one did. Still, it was delicious and the texture was much better than the first, in my opinion. At that point it was past 10 pm (a typical dinner time in Spain). I was full from all the small but filling samples of the two tortillas and ready to call it a night. I let them cool and stowed them in the refrigerator and have enjoyed them for breakfast for the last two mornings!
What did we learn today?
When compared to the tortilla rated #1 in all of Spain, mine seemed like they were from an another dimension. They were wildly different. But in comparison to tortillas I’ve eaten elsewhere in Madrid, the ones I managed to make myself were at least on par. The first, while pretty bland and unremarkable, wasn’t terrible. The second, while not exactly authentically Spanish, turned out great and I was really proud of the result. Neither was perfect, but that was never the goal. I simply wanted to test the waters and see what I could do with a little reading, time (a whole afternoon and evening, to be exact), and a little luck. I made some silly mistakes, but I have some ideas for making the next one better, namely:
- I prefer the potatoes cut as thinly as possible. This allows them to fall apart and mix together with the eggs and onions. Also, I’ll cook them for longer on a lower heat next time for the same reason
- Salt is my friend
- To avoid burning, I’ll flip the tortilla as soon as the sides and bottom have set
- USE THE SPATULA TO UNSTICK THE BOTTOM OF THE TORTILLA FROM THE PAN BEFORE FLIPPING you dingaling
- Finally, let the flipped side of the tortilla cook for a shorter time so there’s still some ooey gooey goodness left inside
Though I know it’ll take some more practice, I’m hopeful that I’ll slowly but surely work my way towards a more perfect tortilla.