Why It Works
- Beating the whites fills them with tiny air bubbles; when cooked, those bubbles swell for a puffy result.
- Covering the omelette helps set the top, so you don't end up with soupy raw egg foam at the end of it.
Answering the age-old question of whether the chicken or egg came first is easy—evolutionary biology tells us it was the egg. But trying to figure out the order of appearance of the soufflé omelette versus the more classic soufflé is a bit harder.
According to David Lebovitz, the Norman restaurant La Mère Poulard claims the soufflé omelette was invented by its original proprietor, Annette Poulard, in 1888. Or, at least, it claims she invented the specific soufflé omelette recipe served there, which, if that's the case, isn't much of a claim at all. That would put it about a century after Antoine Beauvilliers, who is sometimes called the "inventor of soufflé," was alive and about 50 years after the life of Antonin Carême, one of the founding fathers of classic French cuisine, who made dozens upon dozens of soufflé recipes of his own.
Meanwhile, in On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee republished Vincent La Chapelle's even-earlier "omelette soufflé" recipe from 1742, which calls for veal kidneys and sugar. It's all a bit muddled (as are kidneys and sugar—what the hell were they thinking?).
Common sense is almost definitely in favor of the soufflé omelette coming first, simply because it's the simplest explanation. While the soufflé we know today involves incorporating eggs into a base like béchamel or pastry cream, the soufflé omelette is, at its most basic, just eggs.
Instead of beating them whole and pouring them into a hot pan, as one does for a traditional French omelette, the eggs in a soufflé omelette are separated first. The yolks are beaten in one bowl and the whites in another, the latter until enough air has been incorporated to reach stiff peaks. Then they're folded back together to make a foamy mixture that cooks in a pan until browned on the bottom and just barely set on top.
The soufflé omelette is the easiest way to practice making any kind of soufflé, given the low barrier to entry. If you have some eggs and a few extra minutes to beat the whites, you can do it. No need to prep a soufflé dish or preheat an oven, and no need to make a béchamel or pastry cream base, nor bake it until puffed and browned.
Even better, once you've successfully made a soufflé omelette—which you will do on the first try, because it is easy—you will then be free of any lingering doubt you might have had about whether you are capable of making a classic soufflé, since the challenge of one is the challenge of the other, and it isn't much of a challenge at all.
But while the soufflé omelette can be a confidence-booster for making classic soufflés, it's also a valid dish all on its own, delicious as a light breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The steps are as follows: First, beat the yolks with a generous pinch of salt. Adding the salt early is important because you don't want to deflate the mixture later while trying to evenly distribute it into the beaten whites. You want to add a little more salt than it might seem like the yolks need, since you'll want enough to also season the whites.
Next, beat the whites to stiff peaks, which means they won't slump over when lifted with a whisk. Just as with the classic soufflé, I'm a proponent of putting in a little elbow grease to beat the whites by hand. It gives you more control and makes it easy to spot the right moment when the eggs hit that perfect stage of firmness. It's not nearly as strenuous as some people make it out to be. That said, you're free to use a hand mixer or a stand mixer, if you prefer.
Fold half the whites into the yolks to loosen them. Don't worry too much about deflating this first addition of whites; it's more important to get a well-mixed, loose base.
This is the point where I'd mix in any flavorings, like herbs or cheese, which I strongly recommend—a plain-egg soufflé omelette is not nearly as tasty as one might imagine. It's as if the incorporated air brings out a kind of raw-egg aroma. (This is something that often bothers me about meringues, too.) Cheese manages to cover that flavor up.
After that, you can gently fold in the remaining whites until they're just incorporated.
I've seen recipes for soufflé omelettes that either do or don't call for covering the pan. I've tried both methods and had terrible results with the uncovered version, which left too much of the top layer soupy and raw (and I'm a guy who likes a runny omelette). I had much better results when I covered the pan just long enough for the eggs to barely set the top and for any extra cheese you may have scattered on top (why wouldn't you add extra?) to melt.
Then slide it out of the pan onto a plate, folding the fluffy behemoth over itself. It's an impressive sight and even more fun to eat, so tender and light.
Regardless of which type of soufflé was first invented, this is the one that'll be first on your list of soufflés to make with any frequency, because it's so darned easy.
3 large eggs, separated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces (55g) grated Gruyère or cheddar cheese, divided
Minced fresh chives (optional)
1 tablespoon (15g) unsalted butter
In medium bowl, beat egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper until well mixed.
In separate large mixing bowl, using a whisk, electric hand blender, or stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat egg whites until firm, glossy peaks form.
Add half of the beaten egg whites to yolks and stir well until whites are thoroughly combined and soufflé base has a looser consistency. Mix in half the cheese as well as the chives, if using. Add remaining beaten whites, and, using a silicone spatula, gently fold them into the soufflé base just until well combined.
In a 9- or 10-inch nonstick skillet, melt butter over medium heat until foaming. Scrape soufflé base into pan. Using spatula, spread soufflé base into even circle and smooth out the surface. Cover and cook until bottom of omelette is browned and top is just barely set (or even a little loose still, if you prefer). Scatter remaining cheese on top; cover once more and cook until cheese starts to melt, about 1 minute longer.
Carefully slide the omelette out of the pan and onto a warm serving plate, folding it over itself. Serve right away.
9- or 10-inch nonstick skillet