It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!
My wife hates baba ganoush, the Middle Eastern dip of roasted eggplant mixed with olive oil, sesame tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. And honestly, I don't blame her. I used to hate it too. I mean, what gives? Eggplants are the bane of any child's existence, with their mushy texture and bitter aroma, on top of the fact that they're the only vegetable that's really a fruit that's named after a gamete. (This was a serious concern for me as a child).
All that was true. Until, that is, I had my first taste of truly excellent baba ganoush.* It was made by a good friend of mine, an Israeli line cook who'd take time out of her afternoon to hover over the eggplants slowly charring over the open flames of the kitchen's burners, waiting until they were meltingly tender, before recruiting me to carefully peel them before she'd mix them up with lemon juice, tahini, garlic, and olive oil. The resulting dip was simultaneously smoky, savory, bright, and creamy...and I was addicted.
*and even then, the gameatiness of it didn't change
Could I say it was the best thing I'd ever had? No. Could I even say it was the best baba ganoush I could imagine? Uh-uh. But what I had in that first bite was the promise of greatness, and I've been seeking that greatness ever since.
Like many great dishes, baba ganoush is extraordinarily simple in concept: roast some eggplants, scrape out the flesh, mix them with some garlic, lemon, tahini, and olive oil, and serve. It's in the details where things get a little more complicated. Let's take a little look-see, shall we?
First things first: the type of eggplant. Big ol' globes are usually the eggplant of choice, but I find that smaller Italian eggplants tend to be more intensely flavored, have fewer seeds, and are smaller (and therefore quicker to cook) to boot.
The goal when cooking the eggplants is threefold. First, we want to develop some nice smoky flavor. This comes from the charring of the skin, and requires the intense radiation of a broiler or a direct flame. If you've got an open gas burner or an outdoor grill, that's your best bet, carefully turning the eggplant directly on the flame until it is soft and charred. Otherwise, a broiler will do.
If there's one thing you should know about making baba ganoush, it's this: Cook your eggplants until they're done, then cook them some more. Your eggplants should be deeply charred and completely tender, collapsing at the slightest touch and giving no resistance when poked with a toothpick or knife. When you lift them from their stem caps with a pair of tongs, they should hang completely limp like a deflated hot air balloon. A good rule of thumb? Cook them until you think they're burnt beyond saving, and that's when you're good to go.
Some recipes, like David Leibovitz's or Ellie Krieger's suggest pricking the eggplants with a skewer or fork before cooking them. On paper, this makes sense: if concentration of flavor is our goal, then we want to get rid of as much excess moisture as possible. More holes = more channels for steam to vent out = denser cooked flesh.
But when I actually went and tried it out, I was surprised to find that the exact opposite was the case: eggplant cooked without poking the skin actually lost about 10% more of its water weight on average then pricked eggplant did. What the heck? How is that even possible?
It's because of this:
See, pricked eggplant starts losing its moisture slowly and steadily right from the very start of cooking. Steam escapes from the vents, taking away some heat and moisture with it. Un-pricked eggplant, on the other hand, will instead slowly start to inflate, the skin pulling away from the flesh and puffing out like a balloon as its steam gets trapped inside. What's more, that steam helps it retain energy. This leads to faster cooking and hastier release of moisture from the actual flesh of the eggplant.
Eventually—and you'll know when it happens—that steam will build up so much pressure that the eggplant skin will pop with an audible bang. The steam then very rapidly escapes into the oven, leaving behind concentrated flesh.
There's an added advantage to not poking: It makes the eggplant mush easier to peel.
I rank peeling charred eggplants up there with peeling Hatch chilies or cleaning my dogs ears in the "things I don't want to have to do ever again" department. But by cooking them with no pokes, the eggplants practically peel themselves, their skins puffing out and coming away in long strips.
Go for a Spin
Next step: drainage. In Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty, he suggests transferring the scooped eggplant flesh to a fine mesh strainer to drain off excess liquid. This is a good idea—the dip I made with drained eggplant flesh had a much better creamy texture than the version made with undrained flesh—but it's time consuming, taking up to an hour to drain completely. Could I hasten the process?
I tried squeezing the eggplant in cheesecloth or pressing it into a chinois with a ladle. Both methods work, but are a bit messy. Instead, I reached for my salad spinner, laying the fat chunks of eggplant flesh around its perimeter, took them for a gentle spin, and watched as the brown, watery juices flowed out of them. I was left with eggplant as dry and concentrated in flavor as if I'd let it rest for a full hour, in just about 30 seconds.
With our eggplant cooked and packed with intense, smoky flavor, we're in the home stretch here. Baba ganoush is a simple dip, and there are really only four more essential flavoring elements: garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. How we add them is what's important.
The garlic and lemon juice—both largely water-based additives—are easy: Just stir them right in. I go with a whole clove of garlic and about a tablespoon of lemon juice per eggplant, which is higher than what most recipes call for, but I like my baba ganoush bright and hot (feel free to start with less and add more to taste).
The tahini and olive oil, on the other hand, are fat-based additives. What does this mean for our dip? Well as we all know, fat and water don't play together very nicely. Dump your tahini and olive oil directly into the eggplant and stir it in and your dip ends up with a greasy aftertaste. Some recipes overcome this effect with the use of power tools: a food processor will quite easily get that oil to emulsify with the liquid, resulting in a smooth, hummus-like texture.
But I like my baba ganoush to have some more textural interest to it, interspersing tender chunks and strips of eggplant bound together in a creamy dip. How do you get that?
The best way I know of is a method another old friend, Paula, learned from her Lebanese mother-in-law: pretend you're making mayonnaise. After all, on a microscopic level, baba ganoush and mayonnaise are not all that different; Both are oil-in-water emulsions. The key to a smooth, stable emulsion is to slowly introduce the oil. I start by whipping up my eggplant, garlic, and lemon juice with a fork as if I were scrambling eggs, breaking down the eggplant into a rough paste.
Next, I add the tahini and whip it in vigorously until incorporated. Finally, I slowly drizzle in olive oil (and plenty of it—a third of a cup for my three eggplants) whisking hard the whole time.
The end result is a baba ganoush that's lighter, creamier, and more intense than anything I've had, with a savory, smoky aroma, bright acidity, a hint of garlicky heat, and plenty of good olive oil flavor (you did remember to use your best olive oil, right?)
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.