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Recipes and Stories

9 August 2012: The Art of the Omelet

The Perfect French Omelet, where "butter and eggs go to be elevated to art."
On the eve of what would have been her 100th birthday, the indomitable, inimitable Julia Child has been on the minds of a lot American cooks, whether they knew her or not. There are many things that resonate with her memory, but for me, nothing speaks more plainly of everything that she taught and believed in than a classic French omelet.

A good omelet is, quite simply, where butter and eggs go to be elevated to art. Fluffy, yet soft and a little runny, buttery and rich, it is one of the most simple and yet satisfying things in all of gastronomy.

Best of all, the technique for achieving this perfection is not complicated; with practice even a child can manage it. But when Julia Child first began teaching it to Americans who were accustomed to flat, overcooked disks of egg dripping with an orange goo of cheese and overstuffed with a hodgepodge of virtually everything in the refrigerator, it seemed downright magical.

Fortunately, there’s no magic required: just good, fresh eggs, the best butter, and sound technique.

Many French cooks will use only eggs that were laid that morning for an omelet, but few of us will have that luxury. We’ll have to be content with eggs that are a few days old. One test for determining freshness is to break the egg onto a plate: if fresh it will hold its shape, almost standing up; if it’s old it will flow freely. For the best flavor, look for eggs from free-ranging hens—what we used to call “yard eggs.” Use the best quality unsalted butter you can find. Do not even think about the nastiness of margarine.

The right pan is almost as important as the eggs and butter. There are cooks who prefer nonstick pans for omelets, including Mrs. Child, but the problem with most nonstick finishes is that you cannot get them hot enough to properly do the job without damaging the pan over time. The fact is, almost any pan from black carbon to stainless steel can be conditioned to make omelets. The pan I use is un-coated aluminum. Yes, un-coated pans are more temperamental, and may not be used for anything other than omelets, but so what? It’s a small price to pay for perfection. For a simple 2 egg omelet, an 8-inch pan with sloping sides is a good size, but many cooks, Julia Child included, use a 10-inch pan with a 7-inch bottom surface, and that size does make a better 3-egg omelet.

To care for a well-seasoned, un-coated pan, wipe it after using with paper towels. Never do more than rinse the inside—if that. If anything should stick, rub it out with a little kosher salt, rinse, and rub the pan with oil. Heat it briefly, then wipe it out with a paper towel. With use over time, the surface of a well-conditioned pan will actually improve.

The Perfect Two Egg Omelet

Practice the technique with this size of omelet. Once you grasp the technique, you easily manage a 3 egg (or more) omelet.

Serves 1

2 large, very fresh eggs
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for glazing

1. Break the eggs into a 1-quart mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and beat with whisk until the yolks and whites are well mixed – about 30 to 40 strokes.

2. Put the butter in a conditioned 8 or 10 inch pan and turn on the heat to medium-high. When the butter stops foaming and is just beginning to color, it’s ready. Give the eggs 4-5 more strokes with fork and pour them into pan. Let them sit for about 5 seconds to form a film on the bottom.

3. Start shaking the pan in a circular motion so that the eggs are always moving, and keep at it until they form a soft, slightly runny curded mass, about 15 to 20 seconds. Stop the circular movement and jerk the pan quickly in a back-and-forth motion, throwing the eggs toward the sloped backside of the pan so that they fold in on themselves. Work quickly, and tip the pan a little if the omelet isn’t folding as it should.

4. Take up a serving plate in your free hand. Holding it at 45 degrees, put the side of the pan where omelet is resting against it. Tip pan up and let omelet roll over onto itself onto the plate, making an oval. Gently shape it with a spatula and, if you like, rub a bit of butter over it to give it a nice glaze. Serve immediately.
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