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Family Recipes: Tortilla De Patatas

Bruce McCain
Elena Bisabarros holds a tortilla de patatas or spanish omelet. Her family has been making them for generations and this simple recipe holds a special place in her heart.

Elena Bisabarros grew up in the Northern part of Spain in Basque Country. The region is home to a distinct people, culture and language that struggled for years to be recognized in its own right.

“Basque is one of the oldest languages in the world … the culture, the music, the philosophy … is totally different than Spanish,” she explains.

Olive oil is an essential ingredient in Basque cooking. It’s the magic elixir that transforms the potatoes and onions in Bisabarros’s family recipe — tortilla de patatas.

Also known as a “Spanish omelet,” tortilla de patatas is served throughout Spain. This savory cake consists of whipped eggs mixed with fried potatoes and onions. It's then cooked on the stovetop until golden brown.

This savory cake consists of whipped eggs that are mixed with fried potatoes and onions and then cooked on the stovetop until golden brown.
Credit Bruce McCain

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It’s a simple recipe, but the preparation is not without drama. Flipping the thick and heavy omelet from the hot pan requires conviction and a bit of daring to do. It goes like this:

Pour the egg, potato and onion mixture into a hot nonstick pan. After the omelet has cooked a few minutes and the edges start to brown, rest a plate on top of the pan. Place your hand on top of the plate to secure it. Then, in a single, quick movement invert the pan and the plate.

Credit Bruce McCain
Elena prepares to flip her omelet for the first time. She does this process three to four times to get a firm center.

Next, slide the omelet back into the pan so the uncooked side of the omelet can brown.  Repeat this move three to four times depending on how firm you want the center of your omelet to be. Some people prefer the inside of their omelet to be soft and slightly runny. Bisabarros likes her omelet firm with a golden crust on both sides.

In Spain, tortilla de patatas is cut into small squares and then served on top of bread. This makes the dish perfect as an appetizer or as an addition to a brunch buffet. It’s delicious hot or served at room temperature.

Larger portions of tortilla de patatas can also make a satisfying meal when paired with a green salad.

Credit Bruce McCain
The omelet is usually cut into squares and can be served by itself or on top of bread.

Adventurous cooks may be inspired to add cheese, crumbled sausage or chopped vegetables since the recipe is easy to adapt to current food trends. But for Bisabarros, traditional is best.

“A family recipe is in your heart,” she says. “And it brings you memories that nothing can do. So if you change it, it won’t bring you the same memories. It has to be the original. The one that my mom made over and over and over, year after year.”

Traditional Spanish Omelet (Tortilla de Patatas)


Credit Bruce McCain
Some may be tempted to add additional ingredients to the omelet but Elena says to capture the history of the omelet, it should be kept simple.

  • 6 medium potatoes, peeled
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 liter of olive oil
  • 1 pinch of sea salt

*Feeds up to six people


Step 1: Cut the potatoes and onion into small pieces.

Step 2: Place a nonstick frying pan on the stove at a high temperature with the olive oil.

Step 3: When the oil is hot put the cut potatoes and onion in the pan. Cook them until tender and brown.

Credit Bruce McCain
Olive oil is the key to unlocking the flavor of the onions and potatoes.

Step 4: Beat the eggs in a bowl until foamy.

Step 5: Take the potatoes and onion from the pan. Strain the olive oil and place them in the eggs.

Step 6: Place the used olive oil in a container so you can use it again. It has a wonderful flavor from frying the potatoes!

Step 7: Pour a little bit of that used olive oil on the frying pan. When it is very hot, pour the eggs with the potatoes and onion into the pan.

Step 8: Move the pan back and forth so it doesn't stick. When the omlette has formed a crispy bottom, place a plate over the pan and turn it over. Place the omlette back into the pan to cook the other side. Do this process a couple of times reducing the heat so the middle of the omelet gets cooked.

Credit Bruce McCain
For a runnier center, flip the omelet twice. For a firmer center, Elena recommends flipping three to four times.

Step 9: When the omlette is nice and brown, place it on a clean plate and cover it for 10 minutes. Then cut it in squares or slices and serve it with a nice bread.

Editor's note: Family Recipes is produced by Lucien Jung, a long time contributor to Lake Effect. In Family Recipes, Lucien visits the kitchens of Milwaukee-area residents as they prepare special family dishes they remember from childhood.

Lucien Jung is a Milwaukee-based video and radio producer. His research in the IP-based distribution of multimedia has been presented at the Broadcast Education Association’s annual conference as well as the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. Lucien is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications master’s program in Television-Radio-Film.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.