Tortilla Española

How I learned to cook a beloved Spanish staple.

France has its quiche. Italy has its frittata. Spain has its tortilla; all are related dishes. The tortilla española is nothing like its Mexican cousin, except both resemble the literal meaning of the word tortilla: “little cake.”

The venerated and beloved tortilla española is a timeless classic in Spanish cuisine and as such it boasts legions of devoted fans who, naturally, debate what constitutes a “proper” tortilla … endlessly. Is it just potatoes and eggs? Or are onions acceptable? What about other vegetables? Meats? Is it best served “creamy” or fully set all the way through?

Photo of a golden-brown tortilla española on dark blue plate.
A tortilla española (with onion) prepared by the author for a Mother’s Day brunch at home.

History and lore clearly record that the classic tortilla (also known as tortilla de patatas) is a simple dish of eggs and potatoes. There’s no arguing that.

However, like so many classic regional dishes, every family, every Spanish mamá (or papá) and every abuela (or abuelo) has their own take on the dish. As do I, now, after spending a couple of years working on my own tortilla española.

I have been called a cebollista because I like to add onions, which is, itself, also a classic preparation. Less traditional recipes add artichoke or calabacín (zucchini) or jamón (iberian ham) or even chorizo, but those are distant runners-up to either potato-and-egg or potato-egg-onion. I encourage you to play with your tortilla and get creative. After all, isn’t that what cooking is about?

A trio of tortillas, one classic golden color, one dyed green with food dye, and one with visible green onions.
A trio of tortillas I prepared for a St. Patrick’s Day party. One in a classic golden color, one with visible green onions and one dyed green for the occasion.

I shared this photo in a Spanish cooking group on Facebook and hysteria ensued. Many praised the creativity while some were personally insulted that I had violated their national dish!

The next question: creamy or not? This is entirely a matter of personal taste. What some call “creamy” I call “runny” and runny eggs do not appeal to me. (I’m a thoroughly-cooked scrambled egg guy.) Hence, my tortillas are fully cooked all the way through and truly become like little cakes.

Legions of food writers and social media posters have hashed and re-hashed these questions to death so let’s move on to how I prepare my tortilla.

My Process

The first lesson I have learned is that this is a very forgiving dish to make. I started out trying to cleave tightly to published recipes, painstakingly measuring and timing everything. It finally dawned on me that this is not haute cuisine; it’s simple, everyday cuisine. It’s a staple that is prepared in countless Spanish home kitchens daily, so it is not meant to be overthought or complicated. It’s sometimes even made with leftovers. I’ve tried many different approaches, and like generations of Spanish home cooks before me, I have found my approach.

My ingredients are: eggs, potatoes, onion, salt, and pepper. And, of course, olive oil, — good quality olive oil, as the oil is a key component of the flavor.

The number of eggs and volume of potatoes and onions vary from tortilla to tortilla. I used to use a lot more eggs than I do now. One reason for this is that despite trying many different techniques, I have found that if the eggs dominate the potatoes, I typically end up with a noticeable “fold” inside the tortilla, making it more like a very thick omelette than a little cake. (Note: you will often see a tortilla referred to as a Spanish omelette.)

These days, I prefer my tortilla to be more potato-y than eggy. This not only produces a more cake-like dish, it also plays to my Irish and Lithuanian genetic predisposition to loving potatoes. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of eggs, but a nice firm dish of egg-soaked potatoes, with onions introducing some moisture and flavor, is divine!

One last note: the classic technique for preparing this dish involves cooking the tortilla in a relatively straight sided skillet, then using a plate to flip the tortilla over and slide it back into the pan. This is definitely intimidating but not as hard as one might imagine. I have used that method, but, for ease and convenience — and because I use them to help proportion ingredients, as you’ll read later — I usually use a purpose-built pan like this one made for cooking and flipping tortillas. (I have them in three different sizes.) Is this a cheat? Or is it simply an application of modern technology? Doesn’t cooking continually evolve to take advantage of new methods? Does a pizza *have* to be made in a brick oven to be a pizza? You decide for yourself.

OK, let’s head to the kitchen!

The Tools

I’m going to describe the process I use with the purpose-built pans described above; you can modify the approach to a single pan if you prefer. Do be sure that you use straight-sided non-stick skillet in the event you use a single pan. I typically use 8″/20cm pans. Also a large mixing bowl for combining the eggs and potatoes, a small mixing bowl and colander for draining excess oil from the potatoes, a whisk, and a sharp chef’s knife. A flexible rubber spatula/scraper is essential to the process, as described later. Finally, a wooden or plastic cutting board or a plate for turning out the final product.

The Ingredients

Potatoes (see notes on type below)
Good quality olive oil
Salt & pepper

The process

The pans: I put the pans each on their own burner and cover them with a generous pour of olive oil, to coat the entire surface, plus a bit more, just to get things started; I will add more later. Turn the heat on at a very low setting to get the oil warming.

Quantities: This will take some time for you to work out the proportions. Mine vary every tortilla as I eyeball the potatoes and onions. The goal is to *almost* fill each of the two pans. The volume will reduce by about half as you cook them, so when you mix them with the egg, the final result will fill one of the pans.

The potatoes: I usually use Yukon Gold-style potatoes and do not peel them, but any kind of potato will work. I have used Russet-style baking potatoes, too, but I do peel those first.

While the pans are heating, I cut up potatoes, anywhere between two and four, depending on size. I dice most of them, in a variety of sizes. I usually cut only one half of the potato into quarter-moons of varying thicknesses.

The reason I vary the sizes is so that some of the potatoes are more done than others, with some of the smaller-sized dices actually starting to break down. The quarter-moons should be the firmest, just being able to pierce them with a fork. The more broken-down potatoes serve as kind of a binder, with the rest bringing the visual and textural elements to the dish.

Once all the potatoes are cut up, I put about half in each pan, filling them to about 3/4 full. You want room to move them around in the pan without slopping over onto the stovetop. Remember, you’ll still be adding onions in the next step, and the end mixture of potatoes, onions, and eggs, has to fit into one of the pans. This will take some experimentation to make this work to your taste with your equipment.

The onions: I usually use Vidalia-style sweet onions, one medium or two small, rough chopped in small-medium pieces. Add half of the onions to each pan. Note: I have also used yellow onions and red onions; they each have their virtues.

Another generous pour of olive oil into each pan, and stir the mixture around to coat everything in oil.

Cooking the potatoes and onions: The pans have been on a low setting, now it’s time to raise the heat. You will need to work out these levels for your stove; I cook on electric at home and gas when visiting family, so this is a continuous balancing act. You do not want to fry the potatoes, you essentially want to poach them in the oil until they reach the desired doneness. Medium-low heat is the zone to work in. It’s okay if you get a little browning on some of the potatoes, but keep it minimized. If browning starts, lower the heat and stir the mixture up a bit.

Prepping the eggs: While the potato/onion mixture is cooking, crack between four and six eggs into a large mixing bowl. You will be adding the potato mixture to the bowl in the next step, so make sure it’s large enough to comfortably accommodate. Season with salt and pepper and whisk thoroughly. You will work out the number of eggs you prefer over time. Take into account whether you are using medium, large, x-large. For me, I want to make the potato/onion mixture eggy, I don’t want eggs with potatoes floating in them. You may differ — particularly if you want a creamy center — and that’s fine.

Combining the potatoes and the eggs: Set the eggs to the side while the potato/onion mixture finishes cooking. Set up a smaller mixing bowl with a colander in it to drain the oil from the pans.

When the potatoes are done, drain the two pans into the colander. Season with salt and pepper to taste. I’ve also tried paprika, and other seasonings here.

Stir the seasonings into the potato mixture in the colander, allowing the oil to drain out and the mixture to cool a bit, let some of the steam out, but don’t let it cool too much. (Note: here is where you might want to get creative, too: add bacon bits, ham bits, zucchini, or whatever else you like. Make sure all is mixed together well.)

Give the eggs one more quick whisk to make sure the surface is foamy; slowly add the potato mixture, stirring it into the eggs. The mixture should not be so hot as to cook the eggs instantly, but you do want a bit of pre-cooking to happen here. Mix well and cover with foil for 10-15 minutes.

Cooking the tortilla: Wipe out the pans, and reuse some of the oil you drained from the potatoes to oil them back up over low heat; keep the extra pan on a low heat so when you go to use it, it’s pre-heated.

Raise the heat on the first pan to a medium level; add the mixture. The objective is to fill the pan without overflowing. These pans are designed to give your tortilla its distinctive puck shape, so think of it as a mold, and fill it to the top.

The pre-cooking of the eggs in the bowl should cut down the amount of time you need to cook in the pan. Watch as the edges set all the way around the pan; if it is setting unevenly, turn the pan 180 degrees to even things out.

As you see an outer layer of set egg mixture, insert the flexible rubber spatula between the eggs and the pan and carefully run it around the edge, testing the doneness all the way around; you will not want to flip until the tortilla starts to spin a bit, indicating that the entire surface in contact with the pan has cooked. Also text the doneness of the center, you will feel it start to firm up.

THE FLIP: When it reaches your preferred level of firmness, grab the other pan, make sure it is slightly oiled, insert its tab into the slot on the bottom pan, grab both handles firmly and quickly flip it — over the sink. After the flip, I sort of gently bang/tap the pan a couple of times on the counter to make sure the tortilla releases into the pan before putting it back on the heat and removing the top pan. Have the spatula ready as you may need to tuck the edges back under.

Test the firmness of the center, just by pressing on it. I like mine to be firm. No wiggling. But you may like some give here if you want a creamy center.

Another personal preference: do you want your tortilla to be a pale yellow like the ones in the trio photo above? Or do you want it golden brown like the first photo? Your choice. You’ll have to find the cooking times that work to your preferences.

If you find when you flip the tortilla that is not dark enough for your taste, don’t worry, let the other side finish cooking until you can insert that spatula again and gently spin the puck in the pan; then cover and flip again. Once the puck shape is set all the way around, you can flip it as many times as you like to finish the outside to the darkness you want.

The finish: When it’s done, it’s time to turn it out of the pan. Cover the pan with a plate or a cutting board and flip the tortilla out over the sink. Let it set at least 30 minutes. While it’s fine to serve this warm, it’s more traditional to serve it room temperature. And while you can certainly refrigerate leftovers, the tortilla should not be refrigerated before it is served; before it is cut, the tortilla can sit, covered with a towel, several hours or even overnight.

The eating: Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and enjoy! Maybe make some mental notes about what you might want to do differently next time. Two years later I’m still in a process of continuous improvement on mine!

Note: if you prefer to try this using a the more traditional single-pan-and-plate method, you can find videos online covering THE FLIP. Do note that this method is a bit less forgiving from the flip-and-reflip perspective that I describe above, so timing is much more critical.

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