I have a mental list of culinary skills I want my children to possess before they go out into the wide world. I tell them they don’t have to become chefs or even love to cook, but they need to be able to competently feed themselves and their loved ones with at least a basic repertoire of tasty, healthful dishes. When their time of independence comes, they may rely on Hamburger Helper and takeout pizza, but if they do so it will be by choice and not necessity.
One skill I consider to be especially important is the ability to comfortably cook a good omelet. Eggs are nutritious, an inexpensive source of protein, available anywhere, and the ability to prepare them gives the cook a world of meal possibilities. Omelets are particularly versatile – they are perfect for any meal of the day, they can be made on anything from a hot plate to a commercial range, and they use up all manner of leftover bits for delightful fillings that can transform the same dish into something new and exciting. One could eat an omelet every day for a month and not have the same kind twice.
Some people are intimidated by omelets, but there is no need for that. Once practiced a few times, the technique is easily learned and becomes one of the best in one’s culinary bag of tricks. Wherever one may find himself after that – a guest in someone’s home, just-moved-into-a-new-apartment, vacationing in a cottage with the most basic of kitchen supplies – he will be able to quickly put a meal on the table for himself or multiple diners without need of recipe or complicated tools. In my cooking classes for children, omelet-making lessons are some of the most fun.
Following are instructions for making a two-egg omelet for one person. To feed more people, simply make more omelets – there is no need to wash any equipment in between omelets, and since each takes less than two minutes to make, you can make lots of them in a short amount of time.
First, assemble the equipment. You need a 10-12” skillet – nonstick is easiest. You also need a small bowl or cup to hold the raw eggs, a fork or whisk, and a heat-resistant spatula spoon or similar tool.
Then, get all of the ingredients together. The basics are two eggs, salt and pepper, and some fat – butter is my usual choice. With those, you can make a plain omelet, which is a fine thing to eat. If you like, you can add a filling, and here is where your creativity may soar, because the possibilities are limitless. Search the fridge for likely candidates – a piece of cheese, a couple of mushrooms, leftover pot roast or salmon, part of a bell pepper, a spoonful of cooked broccoli from last night’s supper, half a strip of bacon, or even a bit of au gratin potatoes or the last scrapings of a casserole (warmed up before use) can be folded into your omelet. Of course, you can prepare ingredients especially for it – you aren’t limited only to odds and ends – but whenever I’m tempted to throw away “just a spoonful” of something, I ask myself if it would be good in an omelet for my next day’s breakfast. Very often the answer is yes, and then I have something quick and tasty to look forward to.
Here, I am showing you how to make a mushroom, onion, bacon, and cheese omelet. I am demonstrating how to prepare part of the ingredients “from scratch” just for the omelet, but usually when I make an omelet I am pulling already prepped fillings from the fridge. When I do that, my omelet is truly fast food – less than five minutes from gathering ingredients and heating the pan to sitting down with my plate of food.
Remember, peel the onion, cut off the blossom end, and then cut it in half from pole to pole to give yourself a flat surface – safer and easier.
Make vertical cuts to but not through the root end.
Make cuts across the onion half to release the dice. Try to make your pieces as even as you can – that way they’ll all cook at the same rate.
Now for a few mushrooms. You may as well know right up front that I don’t wash mushrooms. I just flick off obvious clumps of growing medium – yes, I realize what it is – and give them a good wipe if they require it. They are going to cook over very high heat – all will be well, I promise.
Twist out or slice off the stem and set it aside – now you’ve got your flat surface for safer knifery work.
Ok. Slice your mushroom caps and chop up the stems, too – no need to waste them. Don’t forget to curl those fingers under on the hand holding the mushrooms. I have told you about curling your fingers under when you are practicing knifery, right? No? Well, here’s the thing: you need to curl your fingers slightly under. Yes, I know it feels unnatural and strange and not right if you haven’t been doing it already, but that’s fine – you are training yourself in terrific knife skills, and it will feel natural as you develop the habit of doing it consistently. I’m not going to go into the why of curled-under-fingers here, because this tutorial is already so long, but just trust me and do it. If you don’t want to do it, do it anyway. That’s an order. Here are a couple of photos of knifery with curled-under fingers to help you get the idea if you still have no idea what I’m talking about.
You could put raw onions and mushrooms into your omelet, yes you could, but you would have a watery finished product, an unpleasant texture, and possibly raging halitosis from eating raw onions for breakfast, so let’s sauté them first, ok? Heat up a skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in a good swirl of olive oil or a lump of butter while it gets hot. When the oil is shimmery or the butter has melted, foamed up, and the bubbles have begun to die down, add the prepped onions and mushrooms.
Stir or toss them to coat with the fat, add salt and pepper, and cook, stirring or tossing frequently, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and it has evaporated. It’s fine for everything to get a little brown, but stir more often if you get the barest hint of burning onions. Burned onions are a bad idea in practically every dish. It should take about five minutes to cook. Now your big heap of raw onions and mushrooms is a small heap of sautéed onions and mushrooms and your chances of driving loved ones away with your dragon breath has been greatly reduced, as well. You may not know it, but if you had minced your onions and mushrooms before sautéing them, you would have prepared something called duxelles, which is French for what you get when you sauté minced onions and mushrooms over high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Aren’t you clever? Now you’ve got something to add to your resume: “I know how to prepare duxelles.”
If you have another skillet to use for your omelet, just set this one aside for a bit. If you need this one for making the omelet, scrape the onions/mushrooms into a bowl and wash and dry the skillet.
What else is going into this omelet? I have a few strips of cooked bacon chasing around in the fridge, so I diced up a little of that:
Grate some cheese:
On to the eggs: Crack a couple of them into a cup or bowl,
Add a big pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Some people add a tablespoon of water or milk per egg, but I don’t. Use a fork or whisk to break up the yolks and combine them with the whites. Some folks say the eggs should be only lightly beaten, but I retain my childhood loathing of seeing white parts in my scrambled eggs, so I beat ‘em until they’re yellow through and through.
We’re getting to the fun part now. Line everything up near the stove – the beaten eggs, the filling ingredients, and your plate for the finished product – you don’t want to be scrambling around trying to locate stuff while you cook this baby. You also need your skillet, clean and dry – that’s important if you don’t want your omelet to stick – and something to manipulate the eggs as they cook. You can use a fork if you are careful not to gouge the nonstick coating on your skillet. I use one of these darlings, which have Most Favored Utensil status in my kitchen:
Time to cook! Set your skillet on the stove, turn the burner just below high, and drop in a lump of butter – a scant tablespoon. You need enough to swirl around the whole surface of the pan and even up the sides a little bit.
Stand right by the stove while the pan is heating. I mean it. There are three Potentially Tricky Moments in omelet cookery, and we have arrived at the first.
Potentially Tricky Moment #1: You’ve got to get the skillet to the correct temperature. If you are successful, your omelet is unlikely to stick and tear and turn into Scrambled Eggs with Extra Stuff Stirred In and make you cry. Fortunately, it is easy to be successful at getting the pan to the right temperature if you obey and stand right by the stove while it heats. While you are standing there, you will have the job of looking at the pan. I know what will happen while you stand and look at the lump of butter starting to melt in the warming skillet. You’ll think, “Why am I wasting time standing here and looking at melting butter? I know what melting butter looks like.” You’ll be tempted to wash a couple of dishes, or fill the dog’s water bowl, or even investigate the blood-curdling screams coming from your offspring in the next room. Don’t do it! Hold your position! Do your job! Look at the pan! The following will happen in this order:
1. The butter will melt. You will see pale cream-colored flecks in the liquid. These are the milk solids.
2. The butter will begin to foam up. Larger and larger bubbles will appear all over the surface of the butter. (This is when you should swirl the melted butter all over the whole surface of the skillet.)
3. The bubbles will begin to get smaller and smaller and the butter will seem to shrink in on itself.
4. Now your job is to focus on the milk solids. They will begin to brown. When you see the barest golden tinge to them, you must spring into action, because Correct Pan Temperature for Omelet Cookery has been achieved. If you don’t move fast, the milk solids will burn, and you don’t want that.
Snatch up the bowl of eggs and pour them into the skillet.
Let them settle for a moment. The edges will immediately begin to set.
Now we come to Potentially Tricky Moment #2, which isn’t tricky at all, but just takes a little practice. The part of the eggs which is in contact with the hot skillet will cook much faster than the part that is floating on top and not touching the pan, so you’ve got to get the top part down under so everything can cook quickly and evenly. This is much easier to do than it is to describe. What you do it grab your heat resistant spatula spoon and use it to drag some cooked egg from an outer edge of the skillet into the center, at the same time tilting the pan so the uncooked egg can run onto the cleaned off surface and get its chance to cook.
Continue in this fashion, going from outer edges toward the center of the pan as though you were following the spokes of a wheel, choosing whichever section of the egg appears most set as your next drag.
You will do this perhaps only 4-6 times, and it goes very fast.
With each pull to center there will be less liquid egg left to run onto the bare skillet.
Stop when you can tell there is only a little bit of uncooked egg remaining. The top will appear shiny and moist, but the omelet will be cooked underneath. From the time you poured your eggs into the skillet until now, only about one minute will have ticked by. Did I say this part goes fast? Yes, I did.
Now, quickly sprinkle or spoon your filling ingredients onto the half of the omelet that is opposite the skillet handle – if you are holding the handle in your left hand at 9 o’clock, the filling goes from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock in a half circle.
Give the skillet a smart shake or two to loosen the omelet.
Turn off the heat, and prepare for the last Potentially Tricky Moment of omelet making: getting the omelet out of the pan and onto the plate. Again, a little practice is all you need. Bring the pan to the plate and begin lifting the handle up as you gently shake the omelet to encourage it to begin sliding out of the side of the pan opposite from the handle. If necessary, you can use your spatula to nudge it, but try to get the feel of doing it without that.
As it scoots out of the pan, let the plate catch it.
Keep lifting the handle of the pan until it is straight up in the air and the filling side of the omelet is on the plate. Use the lip of the pan to help the unfilled half of the omelet fold over the top.
Voila! If it doesn’t come out quite perfectly, don’t sweat it. Every time you make an omelet, you will improve if you continue to follow these steps, particularly the one about heating the pan properly. If it comes out very badly, call it Scrambled Eggs with Extra Stuff Stirred In, cry if you must, and try again as soon as possible. I really want you to learn to make an excellent omelet. I don’t like to think of you out in the world without such a necessary survival skill.
Now, get up from the computer and go cook something.
An Omelet for One
2 large eggs
a big-ish pinch of salt
grinds of pepper to taste
Whisk these ingredients together with a fork. Heat a thick pat of butter in a 10” nonstick skillet with sloping sides over high heat, swirling the butter as it melts to coat the sides of the pan. When the foam is beginning to subside and the melted butter is just beginning to color, pour in the blended egg mixture. After a brief moment the mixture will begin to set up on the bottom. Use a spatula to pull the cooked portion of the egg toward the center of the skillet. Tilt the skillet to allow the uncooked egg to make contact with the bottom of the skillet. Continue doing this for several seconds until there is no longer enough uncooked egg to flow. (The entire cooking process should take under one minute.) Add desired filling to the half of the omelet which is opposite the skillet handle. Slide the omelet onto a dinner plate, folding it in half as you go. Serve at once.
Omelet fillings are limited only by the cook’s imagination and creativity. Some ideas:
•Diced, cooked bacon, ham, chicken, or fish (salmon is lovely)
•Cheese: cheddar, American, Swiss, goat, cream, jack, boursin, feta, gouda, fontina, and more
•Veggies: sauteed onions, sweet peppers, or mushrooms; green onions; shallots; roasted red peppers; steamed asparagus or broccoli; tomatoes; cooked potato
•Herbs and extras: basil, thyme, dill, oregano, parsley, chervil, cilantro, hot sauce, salsa, guacamole, sour cream
A couple of my favorite combinations:
1. Steamed broccoli, sauteed mushrooms, and cheddar cheese, with sour cream on the side
2. Steamed asparagus, slivered smoked salmon, tiny dollops of cream cheese, and dill
3. Roasted red pepper and goat cheese with fresh basil