Key to cooking eggplant β€” it’s all in the salt

Key to cooking eggplant β€” it's all in the salt

To salt or not to salt β€” that is the fundamental eggplant question.

Conventional cooking wisdom holds that you should always salt (and drain) eggplant before cooking.

And there is some merit to this. Eggplant, a member of the nightshade family, has a tendency toward bitter. Salting removes much of this bitter flavor.

According to The Science of Cooking at Exploratorium.edu, the bitterness may be caused by phenolic compounds found in the seeds of the eggplant.

Larger, more mature eggplant tends to have more seeds.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach notes that improper storage can also lead to bitterness and suggests selecting eggplant with uniform color and smooth, glossy skin. Eggplant should feel heavy for its size and be free of soft spots.

So when should you salt eggplant?

Most cooking experts (and food scientists agree) eggplant that will be fried benefits from salting regardless of its age. This is because salting removes excess moisture from the eggplant, which keeps it from soaking up so much oil while cooking. Less oil means better flavor and texture (not to mention fewer calories).

But moisture isn’t the only reason eggplant tends to soak up oil like a sponge. Like, well, sponges, eggplant are full of air pockets. To remove the air, one needs to compress the eggplant.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt tested a variety of methods for removing both the moisture and the air at Serious Eats; you can read all about it here: arkansasonline.com/817eggplantcompression/

Or just follow the method he deemed the best:

Peel and slice the eggplant as directed in the recipe. Lightly season each slice on both sides with salt. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on a large, microwave-safe plate lined with a double layer of paper towels or a tea towel; top slices with a double layer of paper towels or a tea towel. Place a second large, microwave-safe plate on top. On the second plate, repeat layer of towels, eggplant and more towels. Top with a third large, microwave-safe plate. Microwave on 100% power for 3 minutes or until eggplant is easily compressed. Careful! The plates and steam from the paper towels will be hot.

Working with one piece of (possibly very hot) eggplant at a time, press firmly between paper towels until compressed and dry-ish. Set aside on a large tray. Repeat microwaving and pressing steps until all eggplant slices are compressed.

We used globe (American) eggplant in all of the following recipes because that’s what was available at our grocery store, but feel free to use other varieties if you have access and prefer them.

Other common and not-so-common varieties include Italian eggplant, Japanese eggplant, fairy tale eggplant and white eggplant.

Globe or American eggplant are the largest and are most commonly available in supermarkets. They are easily recognized by their blackish purple skin, green caps and large bulbous shape.

Italian eggplant are similar to globe eggplant, but are smaller and have more of a tear-drop shape.

Japanese eggplant are long and slender. Their color can range from dark- to medium-purple.

Fairy tale eggplant are even smaller, topping out at about 4 inches. They have pale purple and white streaked skin.

White eggplant are exactly what they sound like β€” eggplant with snowy white skin.

Photo Unbreaded (and Gluten-Free) Eggplant Parmesan (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) In this take on Eggplant Parm, there’s no breading, making it ideal for gluten-free and carb-conscious diners. Skipping the breading also streamlines and speeds up the recipe.

Unbreaded (and Gluten-Free) Eggplant Parmesan

  • 2 pounds eggplant, sliced ​​¼ inch thick
  • Salt
  • Olive oil, vegetable oil, or a combination, for frying
  • 1 ΒΌ to 1 Β½ cups tomato sauce (jarred or homemade)
  • 8 ounces fresh or low-moisture mozzarella, grated or torn into small pieces
  • Leaves from 1 to 2 sprigs fresh oregano
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, optional for serving

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly season each eggplant slice on both sides with salt. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on a large microwave-safe plate lined with a double layer of paper towels or a tea towel; top slices with a double layer of paper towel or a tea towel. Place a second large, microwave-safe plate on top. On the second plate, repeat layer of towels, eggplant and more towels. Top with a third large, microwave-safe plate. Microwave on 100% power for 3 minutes or until eggplant is easily compressed. Careful! The plates and steam from the paper towels will be hot.

Working with one piece of (possibly very hot) eggplant at a time, press firmly between paper towels until compressed and dry-ish. Set aside on a large tray. Repeat microwaving and pressing steps until all eggplant slices are compressed.

Add enough oil to a large large cast iron skillet to fill ΒΌ to Β½ inch and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, fry eggplant slices until browned on one side, about 3 minutes; turn and fry until golden on second side, about 2 minutes more. Transfer fried eggplant to a paper towel-lined half sheet pan and sprinkle very lightly with salt. Repeat with remaining eggplant, adding more oil to the pan as needed.

In a 1 Β½ to 2 quart-baking dish, arrange a layer of eggplant slices. Top with a thin layer of tomato sauce, followed by a third of the mozzarella. Continue layering eggplant, sauce, cheese.

Bake until bubbling and browned on top, about 20 minutes. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes to reabsorb juices before slicing and serving. Sprinkle with oregano leaves and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, if desired, and serve.

Makes about 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from Serious Eats

Photo Roasted Eggplant, Feta and Lemon Pasta (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) Roasted eggplant, sweet peppers and creamy feta cheese are the backbone of this simple pasta dish adapted from “Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want” by Ruby Tandoh. If a milder dish is preferred, ricotta can be used in place of the feta. The recipe calls for slicing the eggplant into rounds, however, if your eggplant is large, for ease of eating, you may wish to cut each round in half or quarters.

Roasted Eggplant, Feta and Lemon Pasta

  • 1 small to medium eggplant
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 whole, unpeeled cloves garlic
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces fusilli or other short curly pasta
  • Handful fresh basil leaves
  • 3 Β½ ounces crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 lemon, halved

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the eggplant into ΒΌ-inch thick rounds. Cut the bell pepper into long strips.

In a large bowl, combine the eggplant, pepper strips, garlic and olive oil; season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Scatter mixture evenly in a roasting pan or 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Roast 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender and browned.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Cook pasta, according to package directions, until al dente. Drain.

Very thinly slice the basil leaves into thin ribbons.

Squeeze the garlic from its papery husks into a small bowl and mash well with a fork. Add the juice from Β½ lemon and whisk to combine.

In a large bowl (or the pot you used to cook the pasta), combine the cooked and drained pasta, the eggplant and peppers (along with any oil/drippings in the baking pan), the cheese and lemon-garlic mixture. Season to taste with more salt, pepper and/or lemon juice.

Serve immediately sprinkled with the basil ribbons.

Makes 2 generous servings.

Recipe adapted from “Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want” by Ruby Tandoh

β–  β–  β– 

Some people might describe this fried eggplant as burnt. We call it perfection β€” crisped on the outside but silky and tender on the inside.

Crispy Air-Fried/Roasted Eggplant

  • 1 medium to large eggplant
  • kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic paste OR ΒΌ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Β½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ΒΌ teaspoon ground black pepper

Using a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove most, but not all of the skin from the eggplant, and then cut it into ΒΎ- to 1-inch cubes.

In a colander, toss the cubed eggplant with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Place the colander over a bowl and then place a weighted bowl (I used a few cans of beans) on top of the eggplant and let stand at room temperature for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Heat oven or air fryer to 425 degrees.

Turn the eggplant cubes out onto a tea towel or several layers of paper towels and pat cubes dry, brushing away any salt clinging to the cubes.

Combine the olive oil, garlic, paprika and black pepper in a large bowl and mix well. Add the eggplant cubes and toss until completely and thoroughly coated.

Arrange the cubed eggplant on a baking sheet or the frying basket/tray of an air fryer. Air fry/roast for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring or shaking occasionally, until cubes are deep golden brown and crisp on the edges.

Serve immediately.

Makes 2 generous servings.

Photo Beef Stuffed Eggplant (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) We opted for beef in this recipe, but ground lamb or turkey would also be good.

Beef Stuffed Eggplant

  • 1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use, plus more as needed
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, divided use
  • Β½ small red onion
  • ΒΌ to Β½ cup fresh herbs such as parsley, cilantro and/or mint
  • 1 (5.3-ounce) container (about ΒΎ cup) plain Greek-style yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons tahini, optional
  • Β½ pound ground beef
  • Β½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 to ΒΌ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 to ΒΌ teaspoon sumac, optional
  • Generous pinch red pepper flakes, optional
  • Β½ cup pomegranate arils OR golden raisins

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Trim stem end off eggplant. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise. Using the tip of a paring knife, score the flesh in a shallow 1-inch crosshatch pattern.

Place eggplant halves on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with about 3 tablespoons oil. Toss eggplant or rub to coat. Season generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Arrange halves cut sides down on baking sheet.

Roast eggplant until flesh is deep golden brown, about 25 minutes. Using a flexible spatula, turn halves cut side up, scraping pan to release eggplant if necessary. Continue to roast until very tender and flesh is collapsed, another 15 to 20 minutes.

While eggplant is roasting, prepare the filling ingredients and yogurt sauce.

Peel and set aside 1 garlic clove. Smash the remaining cloves with the flat side of your knife and remove loosened skin and then coarsely chop.

Peel and finely chop the onion; set aside.

Coarsely chop the herbs; set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the yogurt, tahini (if using) and 1 tablespoon oil. Using a Microplane, grate the reserved garlic into the bowl; season with salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside.

In a large skillet, cook the beef, breaking it up into crumbles as it cooks. Season with salt and pepper. Drain off most but not all of the fat. If there is very little or no fat, add a bit of oil to the pan. Push the beef to one side of the skillet and add the onion and chopped garlic to empty side of skillet and cook, tossing the onion and garlic often, until onion is translucent and mixture is browned in spots, about 3 minutes. Add the cumin, cinnamon, and if using the sumac and pepper flakes, stirring everything together to combine; cook, stir, for 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

On a large serving platter or individual plates, smear yogurt mixture across platter or plates. Arrange warm eggplant cut sides up over yogurt. Spoon beef mixture over eggplant.

Scatter the pomegranate arils or raisins and herbs over beef.

Makes 2 servings.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

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