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I hated eggplants up until my early 20s. I think it's because I never had them cooked well. Unless treated right, eggplants are mushy, greasy, and insipid.* But when done right, they're meaty and substantial, with a subtle spicy bitterness and and unparalleled ability to absorb and complement other flavors. They also happen to be dirt cheap.
The best time of year to get 'em fresh is at the end of the summer (local varieties are still good even now), but unlike, say, inedibly bland winter tomatoes, even winter eggplants are perfectly serviceable. I cook with them pretty much year-round.
Shopping and Storage
Eggplants come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whatever variety you use, look for unblemished, smooth, firm skins, and a hefty weight. As eggplants get too large, they become less dense, less flavorful, and more difficult to cook.
The most common varieties are:
- 1. Globe: Large, deep purple, and relatively spongy, this is the most common variety and a great all-purpose choice. Excellent for dishes like Eggplant Parmesan, where wide, substantial slices are desired. They can also be roasted whole.
- 2. Italian: Smaller, denser, and more flavorful than their larger cousins, firm Italian eggplants are the best choice for sauteeing or grilling.
- 3. Japanese: Like the Italian, but with a longer, more slender shape. In Japan, the classic preparations include deep frying, grilling, or broiling with a sweet miso-based glaze.
- 4. Chinese: Long, skinny, and light purple in color, these dense eggplants are best after being par-steamed for braises and stews.
- 5. Thai: Small, green, and crisp with an apple-like texture, Thai eggplants are one of the few varieties that are good eaten raw. If cooking, they're best added to dishes like curries and stir-fries right at the last minute and cooked just until heated through.
Because of its high air content and sponge-like texture, eggplant can be especially challenging to sear or sautée. Add it to a skillet with oil, and it immediately soaks it up, causing it to stick and burn, and giving the final dish a greasy texture. How do you get around it? Luckily, there are a couple of tricks.
- Salt and press it. By lightly salting eggplant slices for about 30 minutes, moisture is drawn out from the interior through the process of osmosis. This causes the cell structure to collapse somewhat. Afterward, all you've got to do is firmly press them in a clean towel (or paper towels) to press out excess moisture and air. The flattened eggplant slices are then ready to cook.
- Microwave it. This is my go-to method, since it's faster, and lets you better control the salt level of the finished dish. Lay slices or cubes of eggplant on a plate with a couple of layers of paper towels. Lay some more paper towels on top followed by a heavy plate, then microwave on high for 5 to 10 minutes until the eggplant has given up excess moisture through steam and completely collapsed. Continue to cook as desired.
- Steam it. It's a method that's reserved solely for stews or braises where silky smooth, tender eggplant is the goal. Just like the other methods, par-cooking the eggplant by steaming for about 10 minutes collapses the cell structure, giving it a texture more similar to other cooked vegetables.
Now if only there were similar tricks to help Kid Icarus get past those invincible eggplant wizards.
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