Help! Eggplant Is Healthy, but How Do I Make It Tasty?
You say eggplant, I say aubergine. Here’s how to actually cook with the nightshade that’s more than just a fun emoji.
So you’ve brought home a shiny, nearly black eggplant from the grocery store. Or your farmer tucked a few striped, egg-size eggplants into your CSA box. Or you picked up a few slender, neon-purple eggplants at the farmer’s market. Now what?
The good news is that whichever variety you choose, eggplants can be used interchangeably. Some have more tender skin, some have fewer seeds, some have a slightly less bitter flavor, but they all share one thing: spongy flesh that readily absorbs flavors and can be transformed from toothsome to silky.
Whether purple, white, black, green, yellow, or orange, you really can’t go wrong. There are dozens of heirloom varieties, and luckily, there are just as many ways to cook them. Here are a few types you might encounter:
- Globe, the giant that might as well be called the “grocery store eggplant”;
- Its similar-looking and slightly smaller cousin, Italian;
- Graffiti (also called Zebra or Sicilian), which is large with purple and white streaks;
- Asian (Chinese or Japanese), long and slender, differentiated by their shades of purple, but likely lumped together;
- Black Beauty, shaped like a gourd or squat pumpkin;
- Fairy Tale that fits in the palm of your hand;
- Patio Baby that fits in a child’s palm;
- White, which tastes the same, and some varieties are actually the size and shape of an egg;
- Thai, small and green, almost like tomatillos without the husk.
Eggplants are part of the nightshade family (along with peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes), which have a reputation for being deadly. That rep isn’t without merit, as nightshades do contain trace amounts of the toxin solanine, which causes that bitter taste. (Tom Brady avoids them, as he claims they cause inflammation, but the claim doesn't really bear out.) But fear not—you’d have to eat a lot of eggplant to feel even the slightest, gastrointestinal effects of solanine.
The better news is that eggplants are nutrient dense, meaning you get a lot of nutrient bang for their low-calorie buck. In addition to fiber—and protein!—they offer manganese (essential for normal growth), folate (necessary for proper DNA development and cell division), potassium (important for kidney and heart function), and vitamins K and C (K for blood clotting and healthy bones, C for the immune system). And because of that fiber, they can help fill you up—and thus, promote weight loss. Fiber can also have beneficial effects on blood sugar.
Eggplants also possess antioxidants, which can help protect against chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Additionally, the antioxidant responsible for that purple hue, an anthocyanin called nasunin, can play a role in protecting cells against free radical damage. Early research further suggests both raw and cooked eggplant may reduce cholesterol and protect the heart.
Choosing a Good One
Select an eggplant that feels heavy for its size, with smooth, taut, shiny, blemish-free skin. It shouldn’t be hard, nor should it be squishy. Gently press it—if it springs back like a rubber ball, it’s good to eat. Look for a stem that’s firm and bright green (with a few varietal exceptions—ask the farmer); if it’s brown, papery, or moldy, skip it. In general (though not always), smaller varieties will have thinner skin, fewer seeds, and sweeter flesh.
And whatever you’ve heard, there’s no such thing as a “male” or “female” eggplant. The shape of the scar at the bottom doesn’t actually indicate whether the fruit has more seeds or fewer. (Go ahead and search online. You’ll find “old wives” telling tales that eggplants with both the longer, dash-like scar as well as the rounder dimpled scar contain fewer seeds.)
For storage, if your kitchen isn’t overly hot and/or humid, go ahead and set your eggplant on the counter for a couple days, away from things like bananas and onions. Otherwise, the fridge is fine. Either way, use it within a couple days.
Because of its spongy nature, eggplant will absorb anything it’s cooked with, especially oil. If you’re grilling or sauteing slices or other large pieces, brush the oil onto the flesh. If you add oil to the pan instead, you’ll see just how quickly those pieces will suck it up. You can try a light coating (flour, cornmeal, dried breadcrumbs) as a barrier between the eggplant and the oil, but your best bet for pan frying is to use a nonstick skillet.
That said, another trick for keeping the oil slick to a minimum is to “sweat” the eggplant first. It used to be that we salted eggplant in order to draw out some of the bitterness. That’s not really necessary anymore, with so many varieties available (and some being bred to be less bitter). Sweating works under the same principle as dry curing poultry or a cut of meat. The salt draws out the moisture from the cells, via osmosis, making the cells smaller; smaller cells can’t take in as much oil. Set slices or cubes in a colander, sprinkle with kosher salt, set aside for 30 to 60 minutes, rinse, and pat dry before cooking.
But salt could leave behind some sodium as well as flavor—and it takes so much time! Instead, theKitchn suggests microwaving eggplant on a paper towel–lined plate for a few minutes—just enough to parcook it. Microwaving collapses the cell structure (aka, the sponginess), which again, keeps the eggplant from absorbing too much oil. You can achieve the same effect by gently smashing the slices, either with your hands, a rolling pin, or a meat tenderizer.
If you’re still concerned about bitterness, choose smaller and younger eggplants that have fewer seeds—which harbor most of the bitterness. You can also cut them out, if it’s easy to do so and doesn’t lead to a lot of food waste. Anecdotally, a half-hour soak in milk or a saltwater brine could temper the bitterness, but the eggplant will soak up either liquid and it will lend a certain creaminess to the finished dish (which you may or may not want).
Basic Cooking Techniques
While eggplant skin is edible, larger eggplants may have tougher, more rubbery skin that’s less palatable. I like to go middle of the road and use a vegetable peeler to slice vertical stripes on a globe eggplant that I intend to thickly slice for the grill. It’s pretty and it helps the slices hold their shape. Simply cut off the stem end and start peeling from there.
As for cooking, this is where a bit of kitchen know-how comes in handy. Is your cooking method hot and fast, like grilling and stir-frying? Or is it moist and slow, like roasting? Smaller, thinner-skinned eggplants will fare better under hot and fast conditions, while larger and thicker-skinned varieties will do better with low and slow, regardless of whether you peel them.
Eggplant is also a very forgiving fruit—in fact, it’s better to overcook it than under. While it certainly can be eaten raw, here are some ways to go about cooking it:
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High heat, a sheet pan, and a drizzle of olive oil will brown cubes or strips of eggplant to delicious glory. Use a silicone baking mat to keep the oil to a minimum.
A little bit lower heat, and perhaps a breading, is ideal here. Great for strips to make eggplant soldiers (to dip in tomato sauce) or sliced for eggplant parmesan.
Smaller varieties, like Fairy Tale, are perfect for stuffing. Go with Patio Baby for bite-size apps that will be nearly too cute to eat. Use a melon baller or spoon to remove some of the flesh and add it to your stuffing mixture; bake until the eggplants are mushroom-soft when gently squeezed. Alternatively, bake larger eggplant halves until soft, but not totally collapsed, then top with a stuffing or grain salad for a main dish even meat eaters will devour.
Similar to stewing, braising involves cooking something partially submerged in liquid. Often it’s finished in the oven. A classic example for eggplant would be ratatouille.
A nonstick skillet will cut down on oil needed. Brush the eggplant pieces with oil and cook over high heat, stirring frequently. Add to pasta and salads.
Bite-size cubes or the coins from an Asian eggplant work best here. The high heat will cook them quickly, making them a chewy counterpart to whatever crisp-tender veggies you’ve got in there.
Thick slices, brushed with oil, hold up well over the grates and allow you to get beautiful grill marks. Oil the grates first, and the eggplant will let you know when it’s ready to be flipped. (If it doesn’t release easily, let it alone.) Use as a “meaty” sandwich or as the base of a mozzarella and tomato stack. Or skewer thick cubes for amazing kabobs. Drizzle with pesto or a balsamic reduction.
Perfect to set on the coals of a campfire, or toss it in the oven. Cook the eggplant until the skin is black and deflated, then scoop out the creamy flesh to mash or puree into dips or spreads.