The tortilla story

The tortilla española was a great mystery to me for the first few years I lived in Spain. At first I just couldn’t understand all the hubbub about a thick omelette with potatoes. Later, when I grew to love it, it took me a while to learn how to actually make it. Since it’s something you can count on finding in virtually every bar in the country, I never really made the effort. The prospect of deep-frying all those potatoes and the fact that so many people make good ones seemed to make my learning how to do it rather redundant (see photo below: the amazing tortilla con cebolla confitada at Juana La Loca).

I remember watching my Spanish roommates (most of whom had recently started living away from la cocina de mamá) make their first tortillas in my old flat. Once they had a little practice, they debated the virtues of slicing versus cubing the potatoes, using onion or not, and how to get the salt right. Tortilla-making, I learned, is actually something of a science. I made my first tortilla in that kitchen that had seen many an amateur tortilla maker and it was pretty bad. I had grown up in a household where salt was a no-no because of my father’s health and used little (or no?) salt in the omelette. I also hadn’t used enough oil to fry the potatoes and had sliced them too thick to cook well or to lie flat (see lumpy tortilla above).

Ultimately it was my American roommate in my new “grown up” flat who taught me the secrets of making a good tortilla—four years after my arrival in Madrid. She moved in to our completely unfurnished new place with a key utensil: a heavy, deep pan with rounded sides, almost like a wok, with a good quality non-stick surface (see left). Tortilla lesson number one: the pan is very important. Non-stick is great, and if not, you really need to make sure your pan is well-oiled (we lightly oiled the non-stick).

The way you slice the potatoes is also key. She’d cut them in half lengthwise, and then each half again lengthwise, and then slice them as thinly as possible. The size of the slice doesn’t matter much as long as they’re just really thin. If you’re going to fry the potatoes, you need to make sure to use plenty of oil. Cover the potatoes with it. Yeah, it’s a lot (more on this below) but you can do as the Spaniards do and reuse it. My roomie’s rule of thumb was to use a tablespoon of salt, which taught me not to be afraid of it, though now I don’t use quite that much. Another of her tricks was to cover the tortilla with a plate while it was cooking.

The tortilla I now make is a slight variation of my roommate’s, though she also invented the genius of the variation: boil or steam those thinly sliced potatoes. Eliminates the excess-oil conundrum and, at least to our American palate, you don’t lose too much in taste. And leave the skins on for crying out loud! They’re good for you. Spaniards will call me a heretic, but my Spanish friends love this tortilla. Here’s how I do it:

Tortilla de patata a la Katie (with steamed skin-on potatoes and caramelized onions)

1. Take anywhere from 3-5 medium onions and caramelize them. I use this method, with just the oil and salt.

2. While the onions are working their magic, get your potatoes ready. You need 4 or 5 medium-sized potatoes. I just use the ones that come in my veg box, and I’m not sure what kind they are. Cut them as I explained above: first lengthwise, then again (so you have quarters), and then slice their width as thin as you can. Boil or steam the sliced taters until they’re soft enough that they break when you stick a fork into them (15-20 mins).

3. While you’ve got the veg going on the stove, break four eggs into a large bowl. Add anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of salt, depending on your preference. Grind some black pepper in there, too, if you fancy. Whisk it all together.

4. Pour your caramelized onions and cooked potatoes into the bowl with the eggs. Stir to mix and let sit while you get your pan ready. Put a little oil on the bottom and get it over medium-high heat. When it’s warmed up a bit, dump the raw tortilla into the pan. Use a spatula to get it all together and then rest a plate over the spatula so that the tortilla is covered (and you can later remove the plate with the help of the spatula). The plate should be the size of the pan if possible.

5. Cook on the first side until you can see that the eggs on the bottom have cooked and you can slide the tortilla around in the bottom of the pan (the top half will still be very raw), about five minutes or so—I usually have time to wash some of the dishes I’ve gotten dirty. Remove the spatula so that the plate rests on the raw top of the tortilla, put a potholder over the plate (it will be very hot!) and flip the pan over the plate in a swift, sure motion (this might take a little practice, but it’s really not hard). Put the pan back on the burner, add a little oil if necessary, and then again, in a swift motion, slide the tortilla (raw side down) back into it. There’ll be a little goo left on the plate, but there shouldn’t be lots of chunks.

6. Cover the cooked side now with a clean plate with a (clean) spatula under it. Cook another 5 minutes or so. You can stick a knife in the middle to check how cooked it is. When it slides freely around the pan when shaken, you’re golden. Flip it onto the plate and let sit a few minutes before serving. Or even better, let it get to room temperature. It’s also really excellent after it’s been refrigerated (mmmm, tortilla leftovers).


Note: the last two photos are of the tortilla I made this afternoon and that inspired me to finally blog again. The green stuff is chopped spring onion greens that I had and threw in with the eggs. And yes, I did eat half of it for lunch.

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3 Responses to “The tortilla story”


  1. 1 saracita Saturday, 4 June, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you for unraveling a bit of the mystery of la tortilla española… after studying in Spain for a bit a few years ago, I attempted a few sad tortillas. I´m going back to Spain soon, but in the meantime I can´t wait to make another more educated attempt with the help of your recipe.

  2. 2 hrtfreeman Friday, 10 June, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    I love tortilla! It is one of the best typical Spanish dishes. very cheap and easy to make!
    Also, people eat tortilla on Maundy Thursday!

  3. 3 david Friday, 12 August, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Sorry, but i disagree with you..

    Best tortillas always come from worst pans. I mean, that old, unpainted and cracked pan that you might think is not worth a penny would give you best tortillas ever.

    Every good cook in Spain have its own tortilla pan and it’s always the oldest and ugliest one ;)

    Try and enter a kitchen from a spanish Mama whose son has promised to have the best tortilla at home, and then look for the worst looking pan and ask her “why don’t you throw away that ugly old pan?” and she may blame on you and all your ancestors… or she may take the challenge and prove to you that the pan really gives delightful tortillas :D


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