Ah, eggplant: It is a fickle lover indeed. When treated right, it’s creamy and earthy—a standout star in dips and purées, as well as roasted and grilled dishes. But don’t give it the love it demands, and you’re left with a bitter, insipid, and limp veggie that’s picked over instead of devoured. (As proof of this, BonAppetit.com editor Matt Gross feels so ambivalent about eggplant that he’s never ordered eggplant parm; there’s just always something that looks better to him on the menu.) But with it being prime eggplant season, we talked to Bon Appétit assistant food editor Claire Saffitz (who happens to love eggplant) about how we can make the most of these aubergine beauties. It’s time to bring this purple wonder back into the spotlight! It’s time to treat it right! It’s time to stop making these eggplant common mistakes.
1. The Bigger the Better
The most common eggplants (and the most easily found in grocery stores) are the giant globe variety. But there’s a whole world of eggplant out there, including a chubby round Thai variety; a smaller, slender Japanese eggplant; and the darling of markets everywhere: the dainty lavender and white-flecked fairytale. Some of the smaller varieties are sweeter, explains Saffitz, and, depending on your recipe, might be a better fit than the globe. Saffitz likes using Thai or Japanese eggplants for stir-fries, but prefers larger eggplant for parm or baba ghanoush.
2. If It Ain’t Squishy, It Ain’t Ripe
How do you know if an eggplant is ripe? It’s all about visual cues. Discerning farmers’ market shoppers may be used to sniffing and gently squeezing produce to suss out what’s ready for the taking, but if an eggplant is squishy or its skin dimples with a little pressure, it’s past its prime. Ripe eggplants at the peak of perfection are firm, with shiny and taut skin. To keep yours fresh and perky, definitely store it in the fridge, but there’s no need to fuss over it with damp paper towels or a prime spot in the crisper: They’re so hardy that senior associate food editor Alison Roman just stores ‘em on a shelf and calls it good.
3. It’s Gonna Be Bitter!
We’ve long been told we should be salting eggplant before cooking it to pull out the moisture and to temper the bitterness of the veggie. (Truth told, this cumbersome step has stopped this writer from preparing it on more than one occasion.) But wait! While you may want to suck out a little excess moisture—more on that in a minute—there’s really no need to combat bitterness, says Saffitz. Most of that unpleasant flavor profile has been bred out of eggplants, and current varieties are totally palatable as-is. So if you’re in a rush, or just don’t want to go through the bother of salting your eggplant, you are totally allowed to skip this step.
4. Fry, Fry Again
Fried eggplant is great—but proceed with caution. “Eggplant is like a sponge,” Saffitz explains. If you don’t treat it right, you’ll wind up with a soggy mess that tastes exclusively of oil, and is definitely not crispy. Left to its own devices, this veggie will absorb an enormous amount of fat, so take preventative measures: Coat the cubes or slices with egg and breadcrumbs to form a barrier between the oil and eggplant, or lightly coat them with oil and broil until browned and crispy. Here’s an instance where sucking out a little moisture with a pre-frying salt treatment might be helpful, but, says Saffitz, “I never do. You really don’t need to.” Also, we must note that test kitchen contributor Alfia Muzio has a soft spot for oil-logged eggplant, and actually finds it preferable to all other varieties. (“I kinda love that,” she says, describing squishy cubes of fried eggplant with a cascade of salt.) If that’s your jam, we’re not judging.
5. Suffocate It in a Snowy Mountain of Cheese
Oh man, do we love a good eggplant parm. But that red-checkered tablecloth version trapped under a half a jar of marinara sauce and a caked-on, congealed mess of mozzarella cheese? Yeah, we’re not so into that. Eggplant has great flavor, says Saffitz, so when cooking with it, you should really focus on showcasing the veggie. Any additional seasonings and ingredients should enhance, not mask its earthy goodness.
6. Go Indian or Go Italian or Go Home
While we’re on the subject of flavor, take a cue from Saffitz, who prizes eggplant’s versatility. “It’s able to hold its shape or melt down into a dip,” she says, making it perfect for just about any application or cuisine. Sure, it shines with a sprinkling of garam masala or a hit of oregano, but you can use it in just about any stir-fry, dip, salad, or pasta your heart desires—in just about any cuisine, too. Grilling eggplant really intensifies the flavor, and in the summertime when kitchens are hot and charcoal’s smoldering, it’s one of our favorite ways to prepare it.