There’s a lot of confusion around eggplant. Maybe it’s the color. Perhaps it’s the shape or the texture or a bad experience with one that was past its prime. Whatever the reason, people often don’t know what to do with this earthy-flavored ingredient.
Trust me, the possibilities are endless.
First, let’s get something straight. Eggplant, or aubergine as the French call it, isn’t actually a vegetable. Part of the nightshade family that includes potatoes and tomatoes, eggplant is a fruit—and specifically a berry. Pretty wild but kind of an academic point, as we’re not likely to serve cubed eggplant over ice cream anytime soon. There are so many varieties of eggplant, ranging in color from dark purple to white and in size from 2 inches to 12. Some are round; others are oblong. Some have stripes while others are deeply and uniformly purple.
Some of the most common types are
Globe eggplant: the most common type of eggplant in the U.S., it’s large, purple and shaped like a cylinder with smooth, glossy skin.
Italian eggplant: a mini-me version of the globe but with a more delicate skin and milder flesh
Japanese or Asian eggplant: range in color from solid purple to striped with a tender skin and slightly sweet flesh
White eggplant: often found shaped like an egg with a tougher skin but smoother firmer flesh
Whatever type of eggplant you pick, make sure that it’s firm, has a smooth, unblemished skin and feels heavy for its size. Go for smaller sized eggplants. The bigger the fruit, the more bitter it tends to be.
Which brings me to the two most common complains about eggplant: it’s bitter and it soaks up oil like a dry sponge. In the old days, eggplant was pretty much guaranteed to be bitter. But these days, modern growers tend to pick the produce younger, making the flesh milder and sweeter. If an eggplant is bitter now, it’s usually because it’s a little too old.
To combat the bitterness, people used to salt and dry eggplant before cooking. It wasn’t a bad idea. The salt draws out the bitter juices. It also firms up the flesh, so the eggplant won’t absorb so much oil during cooking (taking care of the second complaint). Many chefs disagree on whether salting is necessary now. But if you have a large eggplant that’s been hanging out a little too long in the fridge, it’s still a good idea, especially if you’re planning on using it in a stir-fry or casserole.
Here’s what you do:
1. If the eggplant is older, the skin will become tough. Peel stripes off of the eggplant skin, leaving a little on the fruit for flavor.
2. Quarter, slice or cube the eggplant and sprinkle salt generously over the piece.
3. Place in a colander and drain for at least an hour. You may see moisture beading up on the surface of the eggplant.
4. Rinse the salt from the eggplant. Place the pieces between sheets of paper towels and press gently to remove more juice. You’re ready to use!
Italian, Japanese and white eggplant don’t need salting. Quick-cooking and milder in flavor, they are a great choice for stir-fries. If you’re roasting or grilling, there’s also no need to salt the eggplant first. Just prick the eggplants all over with a fork, coat with olive oil and place in a preheated grill, broiler or oven. The skin will blacken and the flesh will ooze into a smoky, creamy goodness that’s perfect for making homemade spreads like this Roasted Eggplant Dip with Crispy Pita Chips.