My love of cooking began as a teenager. To this day, I remember clearly flipping through the four channels that were broadcast in Houston at that time looking for something that was broadcast in color. We had just gotten a color TV. My dad had won it in a raffle.
I came across a cooking show on Channel 8, the PBS channel. A funny-talking lady was explaining how to make a French country omelet.
I learned later, the lady was Julia Child. She taught with such enthusiasm, I had to try cooking an omelet just as she had. Much to my surprise, my omelet came out just the way Julia’s did; just the way I had seen it in living color.
During the next few weeks, I cooked omelets for everyone I knew. None of my friends could make an omelet; they loved my omelets, and I was hooked. Right then and there, cooking became a passion for me that has lasted my entire life.
A few years later, I attended a three-day cooking seminar at Rice University led by Jacques Peppin. One full day of that seminar was dedicated to cooking different kinds of omelets. The chef repeatedly said that anyone could cook eggs, but it took a real chef to prepare a perfect omelet.
I learned that cooking omelets was a surrogate for culinary expertise. To this day, I am convinced you can accurately assess someone’s cooking chops by watching them prepare an omelet. Omelets are all about technique and temperature control.
The classic French omelet is the litmus test for chefs. It is made with 10% ingredients and 90% technique.
You begin with a really good pan. Chefs will use a dedicated omelet pan. I still have mine that I have used for decades. It is a stainless steel, 8-inch skillet with curved sides that has been polished to a mirrored finish.
To cook without a nonstick pan, the finish must be perfect; no knicks or scratches. If there are even the smallest scratches, the omelet may stick, and you do not pass the test. For the faint of heart, you can use an 8-inch nonstick skillet. If, however, you are the overachiever type, get yourself a real omelet pan and learn the classic way.
The ingredients are minimal: 1½ teaspoons butter, 3 large eggs, 1 tablespoon water. That’s it. No ham, bacon, peppers, onions or mushrooms. If you’d like, you can add some chopped fresh herbs and maybe a touch of gruyere cheese.
Using a fork, not a whisk, mix the eggs thoroughly with the water. We do not want to add air to the eggs, so a fork is the tool to use. At this point, I like to add a pinch of salt. This is a matter of debate. I believe the salt helps break down the eggs somewhat and makes a more tender omelet.
Heat the pan over medium to medium-low heat. We are not looking for scorching heat. The finished product should be uniform in color with no browning.
Add the butter to the preheated pan. Swirl the pan to make sure all surfaces, including the sides, are coated. When the butter stops foaming, it is time to add the eggs.
Pour the eggs into the pan. You should not hear the pan sizzle. Begin immediately shaking the pan using small circular motions. The pan is moved in this fashion for the entire cooking time.
After a couple of minutes, you will notice the eggs begin to come together and will glide across the bottom of the pan as a unit. The eggs will be slightly set but still moist. Now quickly slide the pan forward and, with a slight flip, pull the pan back quickly toward you. Perfectly executed, the eggs will slide up the back side of the pan and fold over themselves about a third of the way. This move takes a little practice, but once you accomplish it, you will feel like a star worthy of your own show on the Cooking Network.
It’s time to plate. Using your dominant hand with your palm facing up, grab the handle of the skillet. This may feel a little foreign, but it is critical to completing your task. Remove from heat and tilt the skillet forward so the folded part of the omelet slides to the front of the skillet. Let the omelet slide forward onto a heated plate. As the omelet slides forward roll the skillet forward letting the omelet roll over itself.
Top with freshly chopped herbs, I like chives and maybe a little bit of cheese.
The omelet should be moist and even a little runny. If you can do this well, rest assured that you can cook anything. How can something so basic be so challenging to master?
It takes a little practice. For the first couple of years after The PumpHouse opened, I cooked the eggs for Sunday brunch. Each Sunday, I would cook up to 80 dozen eggs. I got a lot of practice. You won’t need that much practice.
In a future column, I will deal with some easier egg dishes like the American omelet, the Italian frittata and the French souffle. Until then, practice, practice, practice.