Eggplant is a fabulous staple to keep on hand to make a host of vegetarian entrees and side dishes — as long as you know how to properly prepare it.
Its hearty texture makes it a perfect star for meatless Mondays — one that even the carnivores won't complain about. From fast and healthy eggplant Parmesan to a garlicky eggplant stir-fry, this pretty, purple vegetable is a show-stopper. Like most fresh produce, it can be roasted, fried, sautéed, grilled and even pureed for a fun party dish like eggplant "meatballs" or a healthier Mediterranean dip like baba ganoush.
But it's important to know how to tackle each cooking method properly to achieve the best results for your desired dish. To master the eggplant game, TODAY Food spoke to TODAY food stylist and founder of The Quarantine Collective, Katie Stilo.
"Fun fact: Eggplants are not a vegetable, they are fruits because they have seeds!" said Stilo. "They are a member of the nightshade family, which also contains tomatoes."
See: We're learning new things already!
How to prep an eggplant
One of the secrets to cooking tender-but-never-mushy eggplant is salt. First, Stilo cuts her eggplant into the desired shape (rounds, cubes, planks, etc.), and then sprinkles the eggplant evenly with a generous amount of salt.
"Don't worry about the amount of salt you are putting on the eggplant; you will be rinsing 90% of it off! I would use about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per medium eggplant," Stilo told TODAY. "This will help to draw out the moisture in the eggplant since they contain so much water."
After it's salted, let the eggplant sit in a colander placed over a large bowl or on a wire cooling rack to allow the water that is being released to drain for at least an hour. After about 15 to 20 minutes, Stilo said "water beads" will begin to surface.
After about an hour to an hour and a half, gently run the eggplant under cold water to remove the excess salt from the surface. Pat it dry and use as directed in the recipe.
While this step makes this spongy veggie wonderfully tender, especially when frying it, Stilo recommended skipping the salt for a dish like ratatouille, pureed eggplant or any other stew recipe.
How to cut an eggplant
Cutting an eggplant really depends on the dish you're cooking; however, Stilo advised a few techniques for some of the most popular types of eggplant meals. For most anything, she said the skin can stay on or be peeled, as it's typically a personal preference.
- For an eggplant lasagna, which requires layering eggplant like noodles, or a dish like fried eggplant with tomato and goat cheese, she recommended cutting the eggplant lengthwise into thin planks.
- For a classic eggplant Parmesan, she typically cuts the eggplant crosswise into medallions.
- For dishes like pasta alla Norma, where the eggplant is tossed into pastas with tomato sauce, or a stir-fry, Stilo cubes the eggplant into ½-inch pieces.
How to roast an eggplant
Eggplants are almost all water, so flipping them throughout the roasting process is imperative to keep them from steaming, according to Stilo. Another key to avoid steaming is to not overcrowd the pan.
First, simply dice or slice the eggplant however you choose, then drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper before transferring to the oven, which Stilo said is best at a higher temperature (400 to 425°F).
"You want the eggplant to cook quickly so it does not get mushy. or ‘mushad’ (pronounced ‘moo-shad’ aka 'mushy, gross, not delicious!'), as we in the TODAY kitchen say," Stilo said.
Roast the eggplant, tossing or flipping halfway through, until it's golden brown and tender. Bake time will vary depending on the size.
Similarly to a root vegetable, Stilo said eggplants can also be roasted whole for purees and dips.
"Simply poke the outside with a fork to allow steam to escape while roasting," she told TODAY. "Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 400°F oven (until) a paring knife can easily slide into the center. The time will vary depending on the size of the eggplant. Allow to cool slightly before handling."
How to sauté eggplant
Follow Stilo's foolproof recipe for a beautifully sautéed eggplant:
- Cut the eggplant into ½-inch cubes.
- In a medium-sized skillet, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering and hot, add the eggplant. Season with salt.
- Cook, stirring often, until eggplant is tender and golden brown. This may take some time since the eggplant will first release all of its water before beginning to brown, so have some patience with this.
How to grill eggplant
Preheating the grill and lightly oiling the grates are key parts in making sure the eggplant cooks evenly and doesn't stick. Stilo advised grilling on moderate heat, as too high of a temperature will char the outside before the inside is cooked through.
Just add seasoned and oiled eggplant slices or medallions of eggplant to the side of the grill, flip halfway through and cook until it's tender and lightly charred on all sides. Again, cook time varies on the eggplant size, so watch it carefully to determine when it's done.
How to puree eggplant
One of the best parts about pureeing eggplant is that you can use any of the cooking methods advised above.
Once it's cooked, let the eggplant cool slightly before adding to your food processor.
"Add eggplant in batches and pulse until desired consistency is reached," Stilo said. "You can then turn this into a number of dishes, the most popular being baba ganoush! Simply add in olive oil, lemon juice, tahini and garlic and puree until smooth."