Cheap Eats: Spanish Tortilla

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During my senior year of college I spent a semester in Spain. I lived in a large piso (a flat) in the heart of Madrid. There were six of us, all women—three American students and three Madrileñas, all from very different backgrounds. My priorities back then were quite different than they are now. I was determined to see as much of Spain as possible in my 5-month stint. But funds were seriously tight, and food became a lower priority than train tickets or a stay in a pension.

But great food can be had in Spain for the price of a beer, and I often found myself eating in bars, even for breakfast (tapas are a great thing, and you quickly learn who serves the yummy stuff). On the few nights that I stayed in, my meals would often revolve around some permutation of eggs and potatoes. Occasionally I would eat a bit of chicken with a squeeze of lemon. And if I got really crazy, I’d sprinkle Parmesan on top—a true luxury.

One evening I decided to teach my two American roommates how to make a Spanish tortilla (one of my top egg-and-potato standards, and one of my ultimate comfort foods). If you’ve never had it, a Spanish tortilla is nothing like a Mexican tortilla, but more like a frittata. Made from only a handful of ingredients—eggs, potatoes, olive oil, and salt—it is not only very cheap to make, but you probably have most of the ingredients in your pantry already. I would consider it the national dish of Spain, and you can find it in various forms throughout the country.

I’d been making tortilla for a while by the time I lived in Madrid, and it had already become a staple in the college-budget repertoire (I first learned to make an authentic tortilla prior to living in Spain from my college roommate Shannon who lived in Madrid for many years).


As I was saying, I decided one night to teach my American roommates how to make tortilla. My Spanish roommates found this hilarious. A young American trying to teach someone to make one of their most cherished dishes! In true Spanish spirit, they decided to make a party out of it. The music came on, the tapas and wine came out and we got to work. All eyes were on me and as I chopped and stirred and sautéed, I knew I was being judged. Finally, the tortilla was ready and the time had come. All was quiet as tortilla was passed around and sampled. The grins and the laughter and the “wows” told me all I needed to know. I’d passed the test.

I love telling that story. And I make tortilla so regularly now that it has become a favorite of many of my friends and family (in fact, my dad counts it as one of his all-time most loved foods). There are so many great things about tortilla: it’s super delicious; it’s made with very few inexpensive ingredients which you probably already have; it can be served hot, warm, room temperature, or cold; and it can be dressed up with a salad for dinner or sliced and served on bread as a sandwich on-the-go. Best of all, it’s the perfect night in: crack open a bottle of Rioja, make a tortilla and a simple green salad, and save some dough.

Spanish Tortilla

Serves: 4–6

2 lb russet potatoes (about 5 small), preferably organic
2 medium yellow onions
Olive oil
3 large eggs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Fill a large bowl half full of cold water. Peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise, then slice them crosswise into thin slices (about 1/8 inch thick). Put the potatoes in the water to remove some of the starch and keep them from browning.

2. Halve the onions lengthwise, peel, then slice them about 1/4-inch thick. Put in a large frying pan with lots of olive oil (at least 1/2 cup) and saute over medium heat until starting to wilt. Drain the potatoes, then add them to the frying pan. Cook, stirring, until the potatoes and onions are tender.

Saute onions in skillet seasoned with olive oil

3. Drain the potatoes and onions in a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Reserve the olive oil. In a large mixing bowl, add the eggs and about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Whisk together the eggs, then add the potato mixture and gently toss together to incorporate the egg.

Drain the potatoes and onions in a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl

4. Over medium heat, warm a frying pan (I usually switch pans at this point and use nonstick; it’s about the only time I’d recommend nonstick, but you will not regret it) and add about 1 tablespoon reserved olive oil, swirl it around, then add the potato mixture.

5. Flatten it out into with the back of a spatula, and use the spatula to keep the tortilla round while it's cooking. Cook for about 5 minutes, gently shaking the pan back and forth to keep the tortilla from sticking.

6. Invert a large flat plate over the top of the tortilla and then invert the pan and tortilla onto the plate. Put the pan back over medium heat, add another tablespoon of reserved olive oil, swirl the pan, and slide the tortilla, uncooked side down, into the pan. Use the spatula again to keep the tortilla round.

7. Cook for about another 5 minutes, gently shaking the pan back and forth to keep the tortilla from sticking. Invert a large flat plate over the top of the tortilla and then invert the pan and tortilla onto the plate. Serve!