Today, an omelet in France is more than likely to be a simple one served plain or filled with ham, cheese, or mushrooms. The omelet will be served with fried potatoes or a green salad or both. These omelets, as described above, will be present on most of the brasserie menus in France. They are very common. Occasionally, a fine restaurant will serve an omelet in one form or another, either savory or sweet, but this omelet will definitely be a step up from those served in brasseries. Along with a few omelets prepared in homes, this is the extent of omelets appearing on the French table.
As I’ve perused French cookery books over the last few years, I’ve become aware of a disconnect between the frequency and variety of omelets today compared to how often they appear in old books. I can barely pick up a general-interest French cookbook and not find a plethora of omelet recipes, although recently published books present significantly less omelet recipes than those from fifty or more years ago.
Omelets have been a part of French cuisine for hundreds of years. One of the earliest texts about French cooking is a single large chapter in the manuscript called Le Ménagier de Paris. Written around 1393, Le Ménagier has two recipes for alumelles, thought to be an early reference to flat omelets. In 1653, François Pierre de la Varenne published his Le Patissier François with 22 recipes for sweet and savory aumelettes, many of which are almost identical to recipes published three centuries later.
The place of the omelet today in a French meal is not as a breakfast dish, but as an entrée (a first course) or a dessert. Add a little extra milk and sugar to a basic omelet preparation and you have a custard. Add a little flour and the omelet becomes a crepe batter. (The omelets we are concerned with in this article are those made primarily with eggs.)
Early omelets were served flat or rolled. Nowadays, they can be flat, rolled, folded, stacked, or souffléed. They can be savory or sweet. The filling can be mixed with the eggs or rolled inside the cooked eggs or spread across the top of the finished dish.
In former times, it was recommended that the frying pan used for omelets be only used for that purpose. Today, with the availability of nonstick surfaces, this is less important. More important is that the shape of the pan allows for easy removal of the finished omelet, usually by sliding it out of the pan.
There is a general consensus today that the eggs should only be beaten at the last minute and then only just enough to blend them. The beating should be done with a fork, not a whisk; although if you have to beat more than a half a dozen eggs at a time, the whisk is a lot easier and faster. I’ve seen cooks in French kitchens strain the eggs before cooking them, but the only cookbook I’ve seen straining suggested in was written in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Some books call for lifting the edges of the eggs as they cook to allow uncooked egg to flow underneath the cooked eggs. When the eggs are about two-thirds set, the whole mass is flipped so the cooked side is up. This produces a generally drier omelet than the other common method where the eggs are stirred with the flat side of the fork until they are mostly set. I like this latter method better because the eggs don’t have to be flipped and the result is soft and moist. If any holes develop in the omelet while it is cooking, some of the uncooked egg can be moved with the back of the fork to patch the hole. If I am making the omelet for someone who wants a drier omelet, I place the finished omelet in a warm oven for a few minutes to allow it cook a little further. The omelet should always be served on a warm plate.
Since I knew from the start that I would have a lot of omelet recipes to choose from for this article, I decided to limit the sources to older ones. They range from the earliest recipe I found that was called an “omelette,” first published in 1656, to some relatively modern recipes from 1938. The list is not exhaustive, but it does represent many of the major cookbooks written during that period. The recipes in the article are chronologically presented, rather than being listed by whether they are savory or sweet. Most of the recipes are common. For example, I could have chosen a recipe for omelette de champignon, mushroom omelet, from almost any of the books, not just one or two.
Ali-Bab. Gastronomie pratique: études culinaires. 5th ed. Paris: Flammarion, 1928. In French. Reprint, 1993.
Henri Babinski, writing under the pen name of Ali-Bab, starts his section on omelets by writing, “Il peut paraître banal de donner une recette d’omelette, car tout le monde croit savoir la faire. Cependant, en réalité, il ne manque pas de gens qui n’ont jamais mangé une omelette vraiment bonne.” Or “It may seem banal to give a recipe for an omelet, because everyone thinks they know how to make one. Actually, there is no lack of people who have never eaten a really good omelet.”
Possibly falling back on his background as an engineer, Babinski provides very detailed information about making a generic omelet for two people. Use a frying pan that’s 15 to 18 centimeters in diameter. Use four eggs that weigh about 70 grams each. Place the eggs in a bowl, add 30 grams of milk, 4 to 5 grams of salt, and one-half gram of ground pepper. Beat the eggs for about a minute. Melt 50 grams of butter in the frying pan over high heat until the butter browns slightly and develops a nut-like aroma. Pour the eggs into the pan and wait about half a minute for the eggs to start to set. Then, using a fork, rapidly lift the edges all around and tilt the pan so the uncooked eggs runs underneath the cooked egg. Repeat this process a second time and then let the pan set until the eggs are cooked. The entire process should take about two minutes. The eggs are cooked when steam rises from the edges. The omelet is folded in half and slipped onto the serving plate in one, single motion. He then discusses the process of preparing an omelet filled with hot or cold ingredients. In the end, the only savory recipe he provides is for a plain omelet, although he lists a dozen or so possibilities.
In a similar vain, Babinski discusses sweet omelets and provides a dozen or so examples without providing specific recipes, except for omelette soufflées, which require a much different method of preparation. Babinski does recommend rolling sweet omelets instead of folding them as he did with the savory omelets.
omelette au naturel – plain omelet