Use an Air Fryer to Make a Lighter (but Decadent) Eggplant Parmesan

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Classic Italian-American eggplant Parmesan, when done right, is a thing of cheesy, saucy, comforting beauty. But, just because it’s heavy on the vegetables and suitable for meatless Monday doesn’t make it healthy. Not that comfort food needs to be healthy, but if there’s a way to keep the comfort while lightening things up, then why not? Enter air-fryer eggplant Parmesan, featuring panko- and Parmesan-crusted eggplant slices crisped to perfection in the air fryer then layered with plenty of mozzarella and a flavorful sauce made with Tuttorosso tomatoes.

Air fryers, which are basically small convection ovens with a fan blowing around hot air, are the hot kitchen appliance of the moment, thanks to their ability to cook crisp food without deep-frying. Because of their compact size, you won’t save any time by air-frying your breaded eggplant slices as opposed to frying them in oil, but you will save a whole lot of calories. Plus, the eggplant comes out perfectly crisp, never soggy, and you don’t have to contend with splattering hot oil.

But no matter how you make it, eggplant Parmesan is only as good as the sauce. When we want to take our tomato sauce to the next level, we reach for Tuttorosso tomatoes, where quality you can see is quality you can taste. As the best selling Italian-inspired canned tomato brand in the US, there’s no artificial stuff or GMOs in sight. Its makers use color sorters to ensure only the richest, reddest tomatoes are included in every can. Once they’ve selected the perfect tomatoes, they use the brand's Steam Sealed Flavor-LocTM system to protect the fresh, delicious, vine-ripened flavor of tomatoes with no metallic can taste.

This sauce has layers of bright tomato flavor, thanks to Tuttorosso Peeled Plum Tomatoes packed in juice, Tuttorosso Tomato Puree, and Tuttorosso Tuscan Herb Petite Diced tomatoes (prepared with onion, garlic, and rosemary). The sauce simmers for about an hour while you prep the eggplant to develop an even more robust flavor. And the recipe purposely makes a little extra, so you can toss it with pasta to serve alongside the eggplant Parmesan.

As we’ve discovered, the other secret to perfect eggplant Parmesan is to purge the eggplant of its extra liquid, and the best way to do this is in between plates and layers of paper towels in the microwave. Pressing the eggplant slices before breading yields the crispiest pieces you could hope for, which stand up all the better to the sauce and cheese.

You can make eggplant Parmesan entirely in the air fryer by spooning dollops of sauce and cheese on each individual slice, which is certainly an option, particularly if you’re looking to cut calories even further. But there’s no replicating the full eggplant Parmesan experience baked in the oven until the sauce and cheese are bubbling. Mangia!

Air-Fryer Eggplant Parmesan

Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Active Time: 1 1/2 hours
Total Time: 2 1/2 hours

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
6 cloves garlic, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
1 (28-ounce) can Tuttorosso Peeled Plum Tomatoes packed in juice, crushed by hand
1 (28-ounce) can Tuttorosso Tomato Puree
2 (14.5-ounce) cans Tuttorosso Tuscan Herb Petite Diced Tomatoes
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
Kosher salt
2 1/2 pounds Italian eggplant (about 3 or 4 medium), sliced into 1/2-inch slices lengthwise
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs, thoroughly beaten
6 ounces panko-style bread crumbs (about 2 cups)
4 ounces finely grated Parmesan (about 2 cups)
2 teaspoons oregano
Olive oil spray
1 pound grated whole milk mozzarella (about 4 cups)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until butter is melted. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add crushed Tuttorosso whole tomatoes, Tuttorosso tomato puree, Tuttorosso diced tomatoes, half of parsley, and half of basil. Bring to a simmer, turn heat to low, and cook until reduced by half, about 1 hour. If you like a supersmooth sauce, you can use an immersion blender to puree; otherwise leave as is with a little texture. Stir in half of remaining parsley and basil, and season to taste with salt. Set aside.

2. Season eggplant slices lightly on both sides with salt. Place double layer of paper towels or clean kitchen towel on large plate, and lay single layer of eggplant slices on top. Top with 2 more layers paper towels or clean kitchen towel. Top with second large plate and place another layer of paper towels and eggplant on top. Top with third large plate. Microwave on high power until eggplant is easily compressed, about 3 minutes (be careful, plates will be hot).

3. Working with one piece of eggplant at a time, press firmly between paper towels until compressed. Set aside on a large tray. Repeat microwaving and pressing steps until all eggplant slices are compressed.

4. Place flour in one wide mixing bowl; eggs and 1 teaspoon salt in second wide mixing bowl; and breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup Parmesan, and oregano in third bowl. Working with one slice at a time, dredge eggplant in flour, dip in egg, and coat in seasoned breadcrumbs. Transfer breaded eggplant to rimmed baking sheet.

5. Preheat air fryer to 350°F (180°C) for about 3 minutes. Spray the basket and, working in batches, place breaded eggplant slices in an even layer (the pieces can touch but shouldn’t overlap). Spray the top with olive oil spray and air-fry for about 5 minutes, until crispy and golden brown. Carefully flip, spritz with olive oil spray, and air-fry for another 3 to 4 minutes until the second size is crispy and golden brown. Transfer to a baking sheet and repeat with remaining eggplant.

6. In a 9-by-13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish, spread about 1 1/4 cup tomato sauce over bottom. Add 1/3 of eggplant slices in single layer (they may overlap a little bit). Press down to form even layer. Add another 1 1/4 cup tomato sauce and spread evenly. Evenly spread 1/3 of mozzarella and 1/3 of remaining Parmesan over sauce.

7. Repeat with two more layers each of eggplant, sauce, and cheese, reserving 1/4 cup of Parmesan at the end (there will be some sauce leftover, which is perfect for tossing with accompanying pasta). Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake until light golden brown and bubble on surface, about 20 minutes longer.

8. Remove from oven and sprinkle remaining Parmesan over top. Allow to rest for 15 minutes; sprinkle with remaining parsley and basil to serve.

Notes

Cooking times will vary depending on the air fryer model, so keep an eye on the eggplant; batch size will vary as well.

To purge eggplant without using microwave, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Shingle the eggplant slices on top of the towels and top with another double layer of paper towels. Place a second rimmed baking sheet on top. Bake until eggplant slices are easily compressed, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Working one slice at a time, press between paper towels until compressed. Continue with step 4.