The Food Lab's American Omelettes (and Why You Should Salt Your Eggs in Advance)

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

Fluffy, hearty diner-style omelettes. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt. Video: Serious Eats Video]

Just as with scrambled eggs, there are two major types of omelette: the hearty, big-as-your-face, stuffed-to-the-brim, fluffy, folded-in-half, light-golden-brown diner-style omelette, and its refined French cousin, the moist, tender, pale-yellow variety, gently rolled like the world's most delicious cigar. And, just as with scrambled eggs, the method by which the eggs are heated and stirred is the primary factor that determines what you end up with.

I'm not going to weigh in on the controversial subject of which style is better (because I'd prefer not to end up exchanging fisticuffs with Daniel), but let's just say that both of them have their time and place, and leave it at that.

Daniel recently showed you how to make French omelettes, so today I'm showing you my technique for diner-style omelettes, excerpted from my book. The faster you agitate your eggs as they cook, the finer the curds they end up forming, which is why you want to vigorously shake and stir French omelettes throughout the entire time they cook. American diner-style omelettes, on the other hand, should be fluffy as opposed to creamy, with large, rustic curds, which means that minimal movement is what you're after.

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The key is to start the beaten eggs in hot butter: The browned butter solids help the eggs take on a nice golden color, while higher heat leads to larger, fluffier curds. Then, rather than shaking the pan and breaking up the large curds, the best course of action is a move called the lift-and-tilt: Use a silicone spatula to lift up the edges of the omelette and push them toward the center of the pan, while tilting the pan to allow the raw egg to run underneath. Repeating this technique means that nearly all of the eggs can be set with minimal stirring.

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You'll still end up with a slick of raw egg across the top surface, which is easy to take care of: Remove the skillet from the heat, add whatever toppings you like (ham and cheese are my favorites), cover the skillet with a lid, and let the residual heat from the eggs gently cook the top through. Then fold it in half and serve.

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When Should I Salt My Eggs?

Here's the scenario: You've just beaten a few eggs with a pinch of salt, getting ready to scramble them, when suddenly the dog gets stuck in the toilet, your mother-in-law calls, and the UPS guy rings the doorbell to deliver your brand-new digital thermometer. Thirty minutes later, you get back to those eggs and realize they've completely changed color. Once bright yellow and opaque, they're now dark orange and translucent. What's going on? And, more important, will it affect the way they cook?

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Salt affects eggs by weakening the magnetic attraction that yolk proteins have for one another (yes, egg proteins do find each other attractive). Egg yolks are made up of millions of tiny balloons filled with water, protein, and fat. These balloons are too small to see with the naked eye, but they are large enough to prevent light from passing through them. Salt breaks these spheres up into even tinier pieces, allowing light to pass through, so the salted eggs turn translucent. What does this mean for the way they cook? To find out, I cooked three batches of eggs side by side, noting their finished texture.

SALTING EGGS

SALTING TIMING RESULTS
15 minutes prior to cooking The least watery and the most tender, with moist, soft curds
Just before cooking Moderately tender and not watery
Toward the end of cooking Toughest of the three, with a tendency to weep liquid onto the plate

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Turns out that salt can have quite a drastic effect on how eggs cook. When eggs cook and coagulate, the proteins in the yolks pull tighter and tighter together as they get hotter. When they get too tight, they begin to squeeze liquid out from the curds, resulting in eggs that weep in a most embarrassing manner. Adding salt to the eggs well before cooking can prevent the proteins from bonding too tightly by reducing their attraction to one another, resulting in a tenderer curd and lower likelihood of unattractive weeping. Adding salt immediately before cooking helps, but if you want the full effect, the salt must have time to dissolve and become evenly distributed through the mixture. This takes about 15 minutes—just enough time for you to get your bacon cooked or your omelette fillings ready!

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