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I've been learning about omelettes for as long as I can remember. When I was four, my family went down to Boca Raton or Fort Lauderdale or one of those chintzy Gold Coast places to visit my great-aunt Myrtle and uncle Pat. One morning, Uncle Pat, who looked exactly as you'd imagine a Jewish Florida retiree circa 1982—white polyester suit, pastel dress shirt, chunky diamond-studded rings, and thin gold chain necklace, all capped with a terrible gray toupee—took me to breakfast at his local country club. I ordered an omelette, which, at the time, I thought automatically came with cheese. When a plain flap of eggs arrived, I was crushed. Uncle Pat got the chef to make me a new, cheese-filled one, and the chef delivered it himself. Before he headed back to the kitchen, he pointed to his forearm, flexed one of its muscles up and down, and told me there was a mouse inside.
I was awestruck. First, because I'd just seen a guy who possibly had a rodent living in his arm, and second, because I'd discovered, to my horror, that some people ate omelettes without cheese.
It'd be years before I'd develop an appreciation for a plain egg omelette, and even longer before I'd learn that something called a French omelette—simple, delicate, and pale gold—existed, and that it was the best of all possible plain egg omelettes. The French omelette, I came to realize, is also the best of all possible omelettes, plain or with cheese or anything else.
How do French omelettes differ from American ones? Let me try to explain it without editorializing. Nah, forget it, I'm giving you my opinion: Rustic country omelettes, or half-moon-shaped, American diner–style omelettes, often overstuffed, with their lumpy, browned surfaces and fully set interiors, are inferior to French omelettes. (It doesn't help that, more often than not, these browned omelettes are not just cooked but overcooked, puffed up with faintly sulfurous gas, not unlike Uncle Pat the morning after stuffed-cabbage night at the country club.)*
* Don't worry, American-omelette lovers. We're also planning a guide on how to make really great American diner–style omelettes, if that's what floats your boat.
A French omelette, on the other hand, is a tidy package of finesse and delicacy. Its exterior is smooth as silk, its inside moist and creamy, a sheet of tender egg cradling a filling of those very same eggs, softly scrambled. Baveuse, the French say. It means "runny," although I appreciate the word most because it also describes someone who's slobbery with drool.
The Classic Technique
The French omelette looms large in kitchen legend, and the story you'll most often hear is that it was the dish chefs would use to test prospective cooks. They chose an omelette of all things because, in a matter of minutes, it could show a chef everything he needed to know about the cook. Did he make an egg-splattered mess or keep things clean? Was he wasteful, or did he scrape every last bit of egg into the pan? Did he handle the pan correctly, seasoning the traditional carbon steel to give it a perfect nonstick surface? Was he quick, deft, efficient? And, after everything, did he produce that textbook almond-shaped package? Was it baveuse?
By the time I entered professional kitchens, the omelette test was no longer customary. It wasn't until I left the restaurant industry and started writing about food that I was forced to prove my mettle. I had been assigned to write a story about how to make the perfect French omelette, so I set up a meeting with the legendary French chef André Soltner. He and I spent an hour in the kitchen together as he plied me with stories. He told me about eating omelettes in a France devastated by war, and how precious eggs were, which explained his exacting method for cracking each one and scraping out the last traces from the shell with his thumbs. He discussed the rationale for using the omelette to audition cooks back in the day. And then he walked me through the process, demonstrating it over and over.
I'd been making French omelettes for years at that point, but the depth of detail he gave in each step made it all seem new to me. The heat had to be high the whole time, with temperature controlled by moving the pan on and off of it. The pan had to be just hot enough that you couldn't press the back of your fingers on it for more than half a second. The butter had to foam but not brown. The eggs had to be beaten just until the last trace of whites vanished—but no more than that—and salted lightly at the last second. The pepper had to be white, to avoid little black flecks.
He scrambled the eggs rapidly with the back of a fork, shaking the pan to whip them around, then rolled the sheet of egg down on itself, punched the handle with a fist to jump the omelette in perfect little hops to the edge of the pan, and closed the overhanging lip with his fork. He turned it out onto a plate, the whole process appearing completely effortless. (We took a video at the time—you can watch him in action here, and you've probably seen Jacques Pépin's video demonstrating the same process.)
Then Soltner looked at me and said, "Now you try." I'm not sure I've ever been as nervous as when I cooked my omelette under his solitary gaze. It didn't matter that I'd made hundreds, if not thousands, of French omelettes during my restaurant career. My hands shook and my fingers trembled; my heart thumped up, pressing its way into my neck. All my moves became timid and uncertain as I realized I'd just been cast into that fabled omelette test. I had one shot to earn the approval of a godlike chef.
"It's not bad," Soltner said, inspecting my omelette after I'd plated it. Not exactly high praise, but I took it. I'd passed. Afterward, I practiced the method feverishly, subsisting on omelettes day and night. I got pretty good at it, though I'd probably crack just like before if I had to demonstrate it for Soltner again.
Today, I do it almost the same way, but not exactly. I've changed one or two things based on tests I've conducted, the main ones being that I'm no longer concerned about when the salt is added, nor about the heat being high (in fact, I now prefer a more moderate heat). Read on to learn the method I use today.
Before You Begin: Choose the Right Tools
Back when Soltner and his peers were auditioning their potential hires with the omelette test, part of what they wanted to observe was whether the cooks knew how to properly handle a carbon steel skillet, a common pan in restaurant kitchens (and one of my favorites for home, too). Like cast iron, carbon steel can be seasoned to create a nonstick finish, making it a great choice for eggs, especially before the advent of nonstick cookware.
The challenge with omelettes is that they demand the most perfect of nonstick finishes, more so than other delicate proteins, like fried eggs, scrambled eggs, or fish. Even the slightest sticky spot can lead to trouble when making an omelette. In a lot of restaurants, they'd reserve a couple of carbon steel pans exclusively for omelettes, just to protect the flawless seasoning from damage. Using one of those pans for anything else—searing fish, sautéing vegetables, et cetera—was a major blunder.
That's why today, even in restaurants, modern nonstick skillets are almost always the preferred choice for omelettes. Here's the thing, though: Nonstick cookware works great...until it doesn't. And, in most cases, it doesn't take more than a couple of years for the nonstick finish to start losing its efficacy, and the pan to require replacement. That's why I always recommend buying inexpensive nonstick cookware—I'm talking the cheapo aluminum deals. Just make sure the metal isn't too thin, or the pan may warp under high heat (three millimeters in thickness should be enough). This one fits the bill perfectly, although, if you cook on induction, you'll need something with a steel base. Having a good, fresh nonstick coating on your pan is possibly the single most important key to French omelette success.
An eight-inch size is perfect for three-egg omelettes, the classic number of eggs for one serving. It turns out an omelette that's just big enough to fit comfortably on a plate.
The other tool you need is something to stir the eggs. Traditionally, that'd be a fork, held with the tines up to avoid scratching the pan. But even when the tines are pointing up, the metal will still degrade the pan's surface faster than other materials. So, the last time I was in San Francisco, I spent several hours with Kenji on a mission to create a pan-friendly omelette fork; we drove to a machine shop in Alameda and dipped forks into soft silicone. Later, Kenji had the far more convenient idea to just use a disposable plastic fork. I also have a reusable bamboo fork at home that works well.
Truthfully, you can use all sorts of utensils, even chopsticks (although they probably take a little practice to master for this specific task). Still, for the purposes of this tutorial, I'll stick with a plastic fork.
Basic French Omelette, Step by Step
Step 1: Beat Eggs
Begin by cracking three large eggs into a mixing bowl, season them with salt and pepper, and, using the same fork you'll use to cook the omelette, beat the eggs just until no traces of visible white remain.
The old-school wisdom was to add the salt only at the last minute, because the belief was that salt thins eggs, making them watery. The truth, though, is that salt actually helps eggs retain moisture. Pre-salted eggs take on a translucent appearance that can suggest wateriness, but they cook up anything but. (You can read up on our tests with salted eggs here.) The overall effect is subtle, so it's not worth beating your eggs way in advance, but you also don't need to be afraid if they end up sitting with salt for several minutes. Nothing bad will happen.
As for the pepper, if appearance is truly important to you, go for white, since you'll see it less in the finished omelette. Otherwise, there's really nothing wrong with black.
Step 2: Heat Pan, Melt Butter, Add Eggs, and Stir
According to the classic technique, you should use high heat for the entire cooking process, in order to set the egg very rapidly. The benefit, if you get the technique right, is that you can form a very thin skin of cooked egg, with a bigger core of soft-scrambled eggs within. Plus, in restaurants, high heat translates to high speed, which is invaluable during a busy service. I suspect high heat was also traditionally used because carbon steel pans are not quite as nonstick as modern nonstick pans; high heat would help the egg set before it bonded with the metal.
In practice, though, especially for home cooks, working with high heat just makes the process more stressful than it needs to be. Moderate heat slows down the cooking, giving you more time to scramble the eggs and some breathing room to get it right. You may end up with a slightly thicker exterior of cooked egg, but I actually prefer the way it gracefully transitions to a perfectly cooked, soft, and creamy center. Too often, the high-heat method produces a center that still has an unappetizing dose of uncooked egg. (I've even seen respected chefs make omelettes that exude raw yellow liquid onto the plate.)
Moderate heat also reduces the chances that your omelette will prematurely brown once you stop stirring, which isn't nearly as easy when the heat is cranked and the pan is ripping-hot.
To do it, set your pan over moderate heat and melt a tablespoon or so of butter in it, swirling constantly. When the butter is fully melted and foamy, it's hot enough. Now add the egg to the pan.
Take the fork now, and, with its tines up, start stirring quickly, working it all over the pan to break up large curds that form on the bottom. Simultaneously shaking the pan back and forth with your other hand helps keep the egg in motion while you stir—the more the egg moves around in the pan, the more evenly it cooks.
This part of the process really is just like softly scrambling eggs. In fact, I've come to think of an omelette as something like a scrambled-egg pancake: You scramble the eggs just enough that they get creamy and custardy, but stop when they're still loose enough to fuse into a solid sheet on the bottom. The key is to not scramble them to the point of forming separate curds that will never come back together again. Learning to find that sweet spot of doneness is the single most important skill in omelette-making; it may take a few practice runs before you get a good feel for it, but it's something anyone can learn. This is a case in which folks with gas flames have a distinct advantage over those with electric-coil or induction cooktops, as a gas flame will heat around the sides of the pan as well, making it easier to get a clean, well-defined edge to your eggs.
As soon as you've hit that perfect point, stop scrambling and use your fork to smooth the egg out and scrape down any wispy bits around the edges. You can even give the pan a few taps against the cooktop to help settle it all down, running the fork around the edge to loosen up the lips of the omelette. Some chefs like to tilt the pan while the eggs are still quite runny, letting the bulk of the egg collect in the bottom curve of the pan, which creates a more extreme contrast between the set edge and the very soft center.
At this point, if the egg on top of your creamy little pancake looks like it needs to cook a hair more, just let it linger over the flame an extra moment or two. Don't worry yourself too much about browning. While it's true that the platonic French omelette has no trace of browning on its surface, a little bit won't hurt. (Plus, like I said before, that moderate heat will ensure that the omelette doesn't brown too quickly.)
Step 3: Fold Omelette, Push Toward Edge of Pan, and Close Lip
Next, tilt the pan up by the handle, and, using your fork, roll the omelette down in half over itself. At this point, you can move the pan off the heat, unless you're still trying to cook some of the egg.
This is the part where the pros do the fist-bump on the handle to jump the omelette toward the lower edge of the pan. Feel free to try that if you want (heck, it's fun!), but don't get scared off thinking it's a necessary move. You can just as easily use the fork to wiggle and prod the omelette down into the curve of the pan. A good nonstick finish will make this easy.
Try to push it far enough that the lower lip of the folded omelette juts out of the pan, then use your fork to push it up, closing the omelette.
Step 4: Flip onto Plate and Adjust if Needed
Now push the omelette a little closer to the edge of the tilted pan, let the pan hover directly above a plate, and tip the pan to roll it out. The seam should be on the bottom, and the omelette should be almond- or cigar-shaped.
If it doesn't look quite right, you can always use a couple of forks—or a clean kitchen towel, laid over the omelette—to adjust the omelette's shape and position on the plate.
Some folks will brush it with melted butter to make it gleam at this point, but at home, I don't often bother.
If you need to make more omelettes, you can wipe out the pan with a dish towel and immediately repeat with the next one.
How to Deal With Add-Ins
Now that we've got the plain egg omelette out of the way, let's get to the fun part: add-ins. With French omelettes, I take a three-pronged approach, mixing some ingredients into the beaten egg, scattering some on top of it before folding, and mounding some on top after plating. Here's how.
Seasonings and Herbs
Spices, seasonings, and delicate herbs all get mixed right into the beaten eggs before cooking. This distributes them evenly throughout the omelette, guaranteeing their flavor in each bite. Plus, it can look pretty.
Shown here is a classic fines herbes omelette, which means I've mixed in a tablespoon or two of minced fresh parsley, tarragon, chives, and (if you can find it) chervil. There are countless other options beyond herbs, though. You could try a spice, like toasted caraway seeds or smoked paprika, or add a splash of a savory liquid, like dashi or hot sauce.
Some people mix grated cheese directly into the beaten eggs just as they would herbs, but I like the effect of a melted-cheese center. To do that, make your omelette following the directions above, and, as soon as you've stopped scrambling and have formed that egg pancake, scatter grated cheese all over the top. Here, it's Gruyère.
Once you fold up the omelette, all that cheese will get rolled into the center.
When it comes to chunky fillings, French omelettes are decidedly different from American ones. Instead of the fillings getting tucked inside the omelette, they're heaped on top. The trick is to slice the top of the omelette lengthwise, open it up, and then load it with whatever you've got. In the photos here, it's a chilled shrimp salad, but you could use hot sautéed mushrooms with thyme or sage, or even something rich and meaty, like shredded braised short ribs in a red wine sauce.
Mostly, though, I keep things simple at home, whipping up a plain three-egg omelette for breakfast or a light lunch or dinner. After spending years mastering this technique, it's the simplest version that gives me the most pleasure. I didn't know it when I was four, but it isn't the cheese that makes the omelette.