The name omelet hit the west somewhere around 500 years ago in France. The dish however has likely been around as long as humans have been scavenging eggs, and had a round shaped area to heat and cook them in. That being said, the French did formalize the omelet in the west.
Many Asian cultures have been making them as well, possibly the most well-known being the tamagoyaki out of Japan. This is not to diminish khai chiao from Thailand or the very cool tornado omelets from Korea. These countries, along with almost every country throughout the world, have their style of cooked beaten egg dish.
We will look at French Omelets, American Omelets and Tamagoyaki. All omelet making is called both a marathon and a sprint. The marathon aspect of it comes from being patient enough, and keeping the heat low enough, to cook the egg ‘mostly’ done from the bottom heat surface. The sprint aspect involves some motion in the beginning, and then quickly getting the whole item off the heat to stop the cooking process.
We’re going to focus exclusively on egg dishes cooked in a skillet or similar pan. Our look at omelets will include those taken start to finish with the heat underneath. As tempting as it may be, we will not venture into the arena of eggs whites beaten stiff and folded back into the yolks then baking, or even adding flour, switching the dish to German pancakes, or such.
Basics of a Omelet Making
The most notable aspects of commonality with western omelets and tamagoyaki are one side only on the cooking surface, and a lack of air incorporated into the beaten eggs. The other common component that is especially important in making omelets is minimal color other than the egg itself. Specifically, watch the heat! Browning the egg should only happen in the American version of omelets, and then minimally.
The target temperature for a perfect omelet is 250-275 degrees. Classically a western omelet is cooked in butter so the temperature is extremely important since butter begins to brown up at 300 degrees. Tamagoyaki is typically cooked in light oil, canola for example, which will have more heat tolerance. However this dish is also traditionally prepared with minimal browning to the eggs, although there are some who do go for a browner look.
1. Classic French Omelet with Fine Herbs
Like all egg cookery, having your eggs at room temperature will yield better results. Choose a light cast iron skillet or non-stick pan that is proper for the number of eggs you want to use, 8” for two eggs works well for example. Whisk your eggs together until they are well blended, but avoid over mixing them. Too much whisking will incorporate air which causes them to cook less evenly.
Add a small amount of minced fresh delicate herbs (parsley, thyme, sweet basil, chives, or chervil), a pinch of salt & pepper, and stir together.
Put a tablespoon of butter into the preheated skillet. Let it ‘blossom’ with foamy bubbles as you make certain the entire pan is coated.
Pour the eggs into the skillet. Using a fork or spatula keep the eggs moving until curds start to form (little scrambled pieces) then stop. You want the eggs to be slightly loose on the top, so let the omelet sit for a few moments until the eggs are nearly set up. It is at this point you could add a little cheese or finely minced meat, or any filling, to the omelet.
Make certain that your omelet is loose in the pan. Tilt the pan away from you as you fold the back edge toward the center. Ideally you are folding it just over one-third toward center. At this point you can hold the skillet over the plate and ease the omelet out of the skillet, As that first edge hits the plate, use your spatula to roll the already folded section on top of that edge to end up in a cylindrical shape, or slightly ovoid, with the seam side down. You can throw a small amount of butter in your skillet and brush the surface of the omelet for a classic sheen to it, and sprinkle with a bit more herb.
2. American Diner Omelets
In general we like to stuff our omelets a little fuller, usually make them a little bigger, perhaps even the 12 egg omelet seemingly advertised in every city around! The two biggest differentiations from a French omelet will be more color from the skillet and folded in half for a half moon shape, as opposed to folding in thirds for a narrow oval shape.
It is rare that you will see American omelets with anything other than salt and pepper mixed into the eggs themselves before cooking, even though it is common in both the French and tamagoyaki styles. How we fill them and the resulting shape are also real differentiators.
Whisk your eggs carefully, let the butter get melted and get started.
Instead of moving the eggs while the curds form, you roll the liquid eggs around the pan.
Then use your spatula to create a rolled edge for a more defined shape.
It is common to flip an American omelet, which will really speed up the cooking process. This is not particularly difficult to do, the key is making sure the eggs have set enough that they will not fly around as a liquid. Usually the pan has enough residual heat that as soon as the eggs hit after the toss you add your filling(s) and immediately serve the dish up.
Flipped or not, you add the fillings, fold the omelet in half and serve with a sprinkle on top. The commercial cook will usually put the fillings along the side of the eggs that will be the bottom of the omelet, slide it from the skillet to the halfway point then flick the other half to cover and make the crescent shape. Like flipping this is another technique that is not really difficult. But many folks are more comfortable using their spatula to fold the eggs in the skillet, then slide the whole omelet onto the plate.
There are varying anecdotal stories about the origination of tamagoyaki (literally grilled eggs; tamago – egg, yaki – grill). The actual dish didn’t start showing up in cookbooks until the mid-1800s, along with references to the specific rectangular pan that is used to create this dish.Watch as we attempt making tamagoyaki in our omelet pan testing.
Since it is often served in sushi houses, as a hot or cold item, there is speculation that it was originated by them for a particular reason. With fish being sometimes seasonal, and sometimes impossible to even acquire, this was a dish that could always be available. Since WWII eggs have become more abundant and cheap globally, and in Japan, so this dish has become much more of a dietary staple.
Unique aspects of Tamagoyaki
The pan is perhaps the most identifying aspect of preparing tamagoyaki (although they can be cooked in a round skillet as we did, if you pour the eggs to help give you decent shaping). The rectangular shape is useful because it defines the final shape of the dish, the unique rolled tubular loaf like shape.
Over medium to medium-high heat, about one third of the beaten egg is poured into the well-oiled pan. The first layer of eggs congeals and is rolled into a flat tube shape, pull that close to the handle and add more liquid eggs.
The first ‘loaf’ is rolled, getting wrapped in the second layer of cooked egg. Repeat the process until all the egg is cooked and shaped into a loaf.
You can also cheat on the loaf shape, especially if serving the dish cold. Use a high quality plastic film and put your final product into it. Then you can roll it up to get a nice tube, or use a light board to flatten the sides, top, and bottom, to get the more squared off loaf shape.
This dish is served equally hot and fresh or chilled as part of a traditional bento lunch. It is usually made with a dash of soy sauce and mirin in the eggs.
Sugar can be added to make a sweet version. The savory versions can include with small bits of herbs or meat, and tamagoyaki are even considered high cuisine when dashi stock has been mixed in.
Venerated chef Alton Brown suggests soaking the eggs in hot tap water for 5 minutes. This gets them closer to the cooking temperature for a quick cooking speed with less coloration. At a minimum get them out of the fridge well ahead of cooking. When mixing the egg remember the goal is not to incorporate air into the eggs, the difference between whisking to mix, which we want, and whipping to make fluffy which is not the goal.
To help with yielding a better textured omelete salt the eggs about 15 minutes before cooking.
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.” –Serious Eats
From a simple cheese filling, to the Denver omelet with onion peppers ham and cheese, and everything in between, your imagination is the only limit to the choices. Your will get better results by pre-cooking the majority of the fillings you want to use, in particular hard veggies like onions and peppers, fennel and such. Soft vegies like spinach will get enough carryover heat that they can be added raw.
With meats it is better to have them warmed up when you fill the omelet. Feel free to use all your standard breakfast meats – bacon, ham, sausage – or spicy ground beef, savory chicken, salami or pancetta. Complimenting these with the right cheese makes a tasty meal. Swiss with ham, jack with some taco beef, cheddar with bacon, asiago with salami, and the list is endless.
Lastly, preheat whatever pan you are using, long enough to eliminate any hotspots. The expansion of a hot skillet will close down the pores in the metal to further diminish any egg sticking to the pan. You get even heating, less sticking and a much better process to achieve your best omelet.