The Spanish Tortilla Is at Least as Good as the Mexican Kind

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 10 2013 2:34 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Tortilla

totilla
An elegant variation on tortilla española

La cocina de Frabisa/Flickr

The word tortilla is a diminutive form of torta, one of several Spanish words for “cake.” Torta means different things in different countries—and this is true of its diminutive form as well. In Mexico and Central America, tortilla typically refers to the cornmeal- or wheat-flour-based flatbread Americans know and love. In Spain, it more commonly refers to a frittata-like dish of eggs and potatoes. The latter, unlike the former, can legitimately be described as a savory cake: It’s thick, rich, and indulgent.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

I would never say that the Spanish tortilla is superior to the Mexican tortilla: Each is important and necessary in its own way. But I do want to suggest that maybe, when we Americans hear the word “tortilla,” our minds should not automatically jump to the flatbread. Because we are missing out.

Advertisement

Consider the tortilla española, often translated as “Spanish omelette,” an English rendering that is wildly inaccurate and also does an injustice to both omelettes and tortillas. An omelette is fluffy, pliable, and ideally pale rather than browned. A Spanish tortilla is none of those things. Even to describe it as a potato frittata, as I did a couple of paragraphs ago, is to miss the mark slightly. Like a frittata, a tortilla is dense, substantial, and intended to be cut into wedges. But a tortilla is a much more specific thing than a potato frittata: You can’t merely boil some potatoes, pour some eggs over them, cook the thing, and call it a day. A tortilla is not a tortilla unless it’s made with potatoes that have been braised slowly in lots and lots of olive oil. This is not the same as frying—your goal is to cook the potatoes (with onions) until they’re extremely tender, not to crisp them up.

Once that’s done, most of the oil gets drained away. (You should absolutely save this onion- and potato-infused oil in the fridge and use it in other savory dishes—your roasted vegetables will be sublime for weeks.) But this draining doesn’t mean a tortilla is a low-fat dish. You’re not trying to rid the cooked potatoes of oil entirely before you add the eggs; don’t, God forbid, blot away excess oil with paper towels or anything like that. You need some of that residual fat to help crisp up and brown the surface of the tortilla.

Traditionally, you brown a tortilla on both sides by flipping it halfway through cooking on the stovetop. I am not a traditionalist in this regard. It is many times easier simply to bake the whole thing in the oven, where that residual fat will find its way to the top of your tortilla and give it a gorgeous brown sheen. (Pour off any oil that pools on the top of the tortilla before serving.)

In another regard, I am a traditionalist. A Spanish tortilla should contain peeled potatoes, onion, eggs, olive oil, and salt and pepper—nothing else. Ultra-orthodox types might challenge me on the pepper, which does interfere with the otherwise uniformly cream-hued interior of the tortilla. But eggs and black pepper are irresistibly harmonious, like Tegan and Sara. Don’t fight it.

Spanish Tortilla
Yield: 8 servings
Time: About 1 hour, partially unattended

Extra-virgin olive oil for braising
1½ pounds waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
Salt and black pepper
10 large eggs

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Put ¾ inch of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the potatoes and onion, season with salt and pepper, and stir well to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and onion are very tender, 30 to 40 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, break the eggs into a medium bowl, season with salt and pepper, and beat vigorously for about 1 minute. Put a large skillet over medium heat; when it’s hot, transfer the potatoes and onion from the pot to the skillet with a spatula or slotted spoon, leaving most of the oil behind. (Reserve the oil for another use.) Pour the eggs over the potatoes and onion, stir very gently just to distribute all the ingredients evenly in the skillet, and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. (Store leftover tortilla wrapped in foil in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.