With one notable exception, okra is a savvy self-promoter. It puts on a show in garden and field, producing striking flowers that give way to pert emerald-green (or wine-colored) pods, with cross-sections that resemble eyelets.
Okra has a sweet, grassy flavor that takes on more depth with longer cooking and a texture that can be crisp and juicy or dense and creamy. But here's that infamous exception: The okra's cells release juices – gooey, slippery, viscous, sticky – that cling to knives and cutting boards and, under certain conditions, leave the okra and any culinary companions in gelatinous suspension.
Okra mucilage has its admirers: In West Africa and the southern United States it is valued as a culinary tool, used to thicken gumbos and lend body to other soups and stews. But where this quality is not beloved (or considered useful or even appetizing), cooks have devised myriad ways to stymie it.
In India they swear by high heat, often sautéing or frying okra before combining it with wetter ingredients. In Greece, whole pods are bathed with vinegar and sometimes salt before being rinsed, dried, pan-seared and then combined with tomatoes (more acid) to bake or stew. In “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen,” Paula Wolfert described a Syrian cook who sliced her okra and left it to dry for a day before cooking. In the U.S. South, cooks often batter and fry it, braise it with tomatoes and onions, or boil it, to serve dressed in vinaigrette or to dip in butter or hollandaise. Popular guidance urges buying the smallest pods available, cooking them whole and keeping them dry.
But most American cooks seem unconvinced. Find any crowdsourced list of least-liked vegetables and okra will be on it. Thinking about how many more fans okra could win without its texture getting in the way, I took a close look at which measures are most effective at toning down its viscosity and which would best translate to a variety of preparations.
My takeaway? The two key elements are high heat and acid.
The high-heat methods were the most effective. When okra's interior gel reaches high temperatures, its viscosity thins, said Katherine Preston, a botanist, associate director of human biology at Stanford and co-author of “The Botanist in the Kitchen” blog. High-heat cooking helps reduce extreme gumminess to something merely full-bodied.
Dry high heat – from roasting, grilling or frying – worked even better. The okra remained juicy and tender while attaining an airy crispness, and its delicate, grassy flavor took on more depth. In an email, food-science author Harold McGee (“On Food and Cooking,” “Keys to Good Cooking”) explained why: The okra cells break and the gel dissolves in the cells' moisture, causing some of the liquid to evaporate – and concentrate. “That concentration makes it more viscous, and therefore more stuck to the okra structure itself,” McGee wrote. “And that means there's less that can be freed by chewing and delivered to our tongue and palate to register as sliminess.”
The acid-centered approaches were less effective than high heat, but more effective than nothing. Viscosity peaks at neutral to alkaline pH, Preston said, which is why exposing okra to acidic ingredients, such as vinegar or tomatoes, tones it down. Some African cooks, she said, go in the other direction, adding baking soda (which raises pH to a more alkaline level) to okra soup to augment its thickening effect.
Drying cut pieces of okra overnight only slightly diminished viscosity on its own, but I liked how the process concentrated the okra's flavor, and how well the pieces seared as a second step.
Less-effective approaches included simply leaving the okra whole – as if, Preston said, “slime were a misfortune visited upon the okra from somewhere outside.” True, if you cook okra whole, you can avoid spilling viscous juices into the rest of the dish. But if you don't pre-treat it – sear or soak in vinegar, for example – before adding it to a liquid-based dish, you'll still get a mouthful of gooey juices with each pod.
Buying smaller pods proved fruitless, which makes botanical sense: The gel “buffers the plant against water loss during the day,” Preston said. “As the plant matures, it's shifting priorities away from mucilage production.” Instead, it gets woodier and drier. Smaller pods are more tender and have smaller seeds, but just as much of the sticky gel.
Keeping okra dry during preparation is relevant only when using dry, high-heat methods. If the okra is going into a soup or another saucy preparation, keeping it dry won't cut back on the volume of juice the okra releases into the pot. But the more liquid you have in proportion to okra, the thinner its juices will be. So try adding a relatively small amount to soups and simmering it long enough to disperse and dilute the juices, and the gumminess will barely register.
Ultimately I favored a combination of methods: drying the okra overnight and then searing it before adding it to a quick braise, for instance, or soaking it in an acidic medium, then baking it with more acid, such as tomatoes or tamarind.
For the dishes here, I'm highlighting methods that nearly eliminated okra's slippery quality or cut it back substantially while enhancing its taste or texture.
To make pan-seared okra coins, I dusted the okra in cornmeal and sautéed it quickly so that the edges browned and the insides stayed juicy and crisp. For another dish I split the pods down the middle, coated them in chile, garlic and cumin, and roasted them nearly until they crackled. And for a ragout of onions, corn, okra (dried and then seared) and cherry tomatoes, I let the milk from the corn do the thickening. With its sunny flavors and shades of yellow, green and gold, it tastes like a poster child for September – part celebration, part protest to summer's close.
Pan-Seared Okra With Cornmeal and Red Chile
Pan-searing preserves okra's brightness and crunch without muting its flavor, making this preparation a light alternative to battered and fried okra.
A thin coating of cornmeal echoes okra's nutty element, and fresh hot chiles add fruity heat. The color and fruity aspect of the red chile is especially nice here, but green chile may be substituted instead.
8 ounces fresh okra
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons peanut oil (may substitute safflower or sunflower oil)
1 serrano or jalapeño chile pepper, seeded and minced (preferably red; see headnote)
Trim and discard the cone-shaped tops of the okra pods, then cut the pods into 1/2-inch slices, toss with the salt in a mixing bowl; let them sit for 10 minutes. (This will help to produce enough moisture that the cornmeal will adhere to the okra). Add the cornmeal and toss to coat; you may not need the full amount.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wide, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add half the okra (no more than will cook in one layer); cook for 5 to 7 minutes, tossing occasionally until bright green, crisp, and lightly browned in spots.
Add half of the serrano or jalapeño, toss for a few seconds, and turn out onto a serving plate. Repeat with the remaining oil, okra and chile pepper.
Serve right away. Makes 4 servings.
Roasted Okra With Chile and Cumin
In this quick dish, the split pods are tossed with olive oil and spices and roasted until crisp-tender.
High, dry heat is one of the best ways to intensify okra's delicate, grassy flavor while minimizing its ooze.
A buttermilk-chive dressing makes a nice accompaniment.
8 ounces fresh okra
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon New Mexico chile powder (or substitute another medium-hot, red, fruity chile powder)
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Rinse the okra and dry it thoroughly. Trim and discard the top cones from the okra. Cut the pods in half lengthwise, placing them in a mixing bowl. Add the oil and toss well to coat, then add the salt, cumin, chile and garlic powders and toss again.
Spread as many as will fit in a single layer on a baking sheet (roast in two batches, as needed); roast (middle rack) for 15 to 17 minutes, until lightly browned, turning the okra with a wide spatula about halfway through.
Okra, Corn, Tomatoes and Dill
In this vegetable medley, corn milk scraped from the cob creates a creamy sauce for okra, corn kernels and halved cherry tomatoes. The color of Sungold or other yellow or orange tomatoes is nice here, but any other type or color of cherry tomato will work as well.
Drying cut rounds of the okra for several hours in advance and then searing them before adding the liquids helps to keep their texture firm. Be sure to use the freshest corn you can find, so it will be moist enough to yield milk.
Allow at least 8 hours in advance of preparation to dry the okra. Leftovers can be reheated on the stove top over low heat.
8 ounces fresh okra
2 ears fresh corn, husks and silks removed
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
3/4 cup water, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
1 pint Sungold tomatoes (or substitute another cherry tomato), each cut in half
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill, plus more for garnish
Wash the okra and dry it thoroughly so that no visible moisture remains. Trim the cone-shaped tops from the okra, then cut the pods into 3/4-inch slices. Spread on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and let dry for at least 8 hours, or up to overnight.
Working over a large bowl or casserole, use a sharp knife to shave the tops of the corn kernels from each cob. Then use the flat, back side of the knife to vigorously scrape the cobs from top to bottom to release any kernels, pulp and milk.
Heat the oil in a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the dry okra pieces and stir to coat, then cook for 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the corn, pulp and milk, stirring to incorporate, then add the water, salt and pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the okra is barely tender and still bright green, and the juices thicken to the consistency of heavy cream. Add more water as needed if it becomes too thick.
Stir in the tomatoes; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or just until they have warmed through and have begun to collapse. Stir in the dill, then taste and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Garnish with more dill, if desired, before serving.