NOTHING BRINGS out the dogmatic nature of cooks faster than a discussion of omelettes. Ask 10 cooks how they make omelettes and you'll get 10 Only Ways. There are people who stir the eggs just long enough to mix the yolks with the whites, people who whisk, people who roll and people who fold, people who never wash their omelette pans and people who always do.
The most famous omelette maker of all was the late Me re Poularde, who presided over a magnificent restaurant perched high above the sands of Mont St. Michel in Brittany. Her omelettes, legend has it, were ethereal, buttery and magnficent. How this modern legend made them that way is a subject for speculation. It could have been the creamy Breton butter or the just-off-the-farm eggs. It could have been the thorough whisking they got. It could also have been the view.
We don't have Me re Poularde's view, at least not in winter Washington, but we can have at least an approximation of the pan she used. The old classic French omelette pan was made of heavy-gauge carbon steel, and had a handle a couple of feet long. Since hardly anybody cooks over open fires any more, handles for nonprofessional modern cooks have been shortened to a more workable 8 or 10 inches, but the basic configuration of the omelette pan remains the same.
It comes in various diameters but is invariably shallow. If the pan is too deep, the omelette tends to slide back down into the pan as you try to roll it. The sides of a proper pan slope gently upward and outward, also to facilitate rolling. Heavy-gauge carbon steel is used because it can take high heat without buckling and it allows the layer of eggs to cook through without burning the bottom.
The perfect omelette pan also needs to be nonstick so that the omelette can be encouraged to slide into a roll. This doesn't necessarily mean it should have a nonstick coating like T-Fal or Silverstone, only that it should be seasoned well. The seasoning, which carbonizes fat into the surface of the pan to make it smoother, makes the pan nonstick as long as the seasoning is not disturbed.
The technique for making omelettes dictates the equipment needed. It's something like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. A thin layer of eggs is poured into a very hot, generously buttered pan and encouraged to form an even mass by shaking the pan back and forth and agitating the eggs with the flat edge of a fork at the same time. When the eggs have cooked on the bottom the sides of the omelette are pushed back here and there to allow uncooked egg to run onto the bottom of the pan.
While the top is still quivery the omelette is rolled or folded. Experts can do this by repeatedly jerking the pan sharply toward the cook so that the omelette rolls back on itself. Real virtuosos lift the pan by its handle, then give the handle a sharp rap so the pan bounces a little and flips the far edge of the omelette back onto itself. Ordinary mortals sometimes roll the omelette with the help of a fork. This is nothing to be ashamed of.
Old-fashioned steel pans, once the province of restaurant supply houses, are now widely available, in sizes from 20 to 32 centimeters. The 24-cm. size is about right for a one-person two-egg omelette. It costs around $20.
Before these pans are used they must be scrubbed to remove the protective coating, then seasoned by covering with generous amounts of vegetable oil and gradually heating over low heat or in a slow oven. Some cooks rub the pans with coarse salt after the hot oil treatment. The pan is then wiped clean with paper towels and is ready to use.
The crucial part is to find a way to keep the seasoning intact. It used to be fashionable to clap one's hand to one's forehead when the subject of washing the omelette pan was raised. If you use your pan frequently enough you can simply wipe it clean with paper towels. Coarse salt rubbed around will remove any stuck residue. Rancid butter with kitchen dust imbedded in it is no fun, however. So a little hot water is not amiss if the pan isn't used often. Soap is to be avoided if possible, as it will cut through your hard-earned seasoning. If water is used the pan should be dried thoroughly to avoid rust.
A well-seasoned pan gets better with use. Such a pan of my aquaintance has withstood being used by uncaring hands to make butterless scrambled eggs, then being plunged, hot, into cold water to soak. It recovered.
The advantage of nonstick coatings like Silverstone is obvious: nothing, at least at first, will stick to it. But manufacturers' directions with Silverstone recommend using it over moderate or low heat to protect the coating. If you use it over high heat, as you should for omelettes, you're on your own. The Silverstone pans also tend to be too deep. But if sticking is your bugaboo, or you need to cook without fat, Silverstone is a good alternative.
Heavy aluminum is also suitable for omelette pans but the right shape is hard to find. They are often too deep.
Although the omelette pan isn't exactly a sacred object, it's better not to cook things like onions or meat in it, mainly because they disturb the seasoning, but also because they can deposit their own flavors. Things like potato cakes, however, do wonderfully in a well-seasoned omelette pan, and not to the detriment of the pan, either.