While most have encountered eggplant at some point or another along their culinary journey, it’s not usually a mainstay in the pantry of the average American chef. Both the texture and flavor of the eggplant are incredibly unique, and, quite frankly, can be screwed up rather easily. It’s for this reason that knowing how to prepare your eggplant, particularly for baking, is essential.
The eggplant is an admittedly unusual plant. A relative of the apple and potato, it’s actually not a vegetable at all, but a berry (per the definitions of botanists): an oblong, purple berry (though some species can appear white) with an almost rubbery exterior and a styrofoam-like flesh. Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, and like potatoes, produces a flower that is poisonous to human beings if consumed in large quantities. It is for this reason that eggplant carried a negative stigma in Europe for thousands of years, though it had been grown for centuries in central Asia and appreciated for its medicinal properties and as a nutritious and hearty food source. After the 5th century A.D., Asian growers developed a method to sweat the plant which brought out its nutty flavors and reduced its bitterness. This new “sweating methodology made its way west along the silk road to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and finally (lacking its prior bitterness) the eggplant gained popularity across an international audience.
While the method has changed slightly since the 5th century, “sweating” the eggplant is an important component of preparing it for baking and consumption today. To sweat your eggplant properly, simply:
- Cut off and discard both ends of the berry. (You can peel the skin off of the entire berry with a potato peeler or knife if you want to, but it’s not necessary: a lot of great eggplant recipes can work with or without the skin included).
- Cut the eggplant into ½-inch to 1-inch rounds.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper to prevent sticking (you can also buy re-usable silicone mats that accomplish the same goal). Lay a sheet of paper towel on top of the parchment paper or silicone mat – the paper towel will catch liquid and offers easy clean-up.
- Coat both sides of the eggplant rounds with kosher salt generously.
- Place the eggplant on the paper towel-lined baking sheet with about a ½-inch between each and let sit for about 30 minutes. (Note: some chefs use a colander instead of a paper-towel-lined baking sheet – the liquid from the eggplant can then drip directly into the sink. This method makes for easier clean-up, but we’ve come to find that colanders can’t really accommodate a large volume of rounds. So if you’ve got a rather small eggplant, you can try the colander method, but if not, go with the baking sheet).
At this point there are two general theories on what to do next, and which one you choose depends entirely upon how you like your eggplant. First, you can choose to blot the eggplant rounds with a paper towel. This removes most of the salt and sweated liquid (but not all): likely, if you choose this methodology your eggplant rounds will retain a touch of bitterness and a touch of salt. The alternative approach is to run your rounds under cold water. Nearly all of the salt will be removed, and all of the sweated liquid will wash away. If you’re a creature of precision and detail, this might be the approach for you: what you’re left with after rinsing is a sort of “clean slate” round, that can then be seasoned and baked in any way you choose. Also, if you’ve chosen to use a colander instead of a baking sheet, it’s rather easy to simply run the colander under cold water.
But if you’re like me and don’t object to a touch of added salt, no matter what the rest of the recipe calls for, then method one works just fine.
At this point your eggplants have officially “sweat” and are ready for baking. If your recipe calls for an egg wash, make sure rounds are sufficiently dry before proceeding. If not, damp rounds are exceptionally great for retaining sprinkled seasonings. Either way, you’ll have achieved the desired “nutty” flavor that was, for centuries, so preferred over the eggplant’s natural bitterness, and you’ll be ready to wow guests with an amazing baked eggplant recipe!
"Sweating" An Eggplant For Baking
“Sweating” an eggplant is the secret to any method of cooking eggplant. It reduces the bitterness and brings out a more pleasing nutty flavor. This simple process of salting eggplant rounds and allowing the salt to draw out the bitter liquid prior to cooking will make all the difference in your eggplant meal.