You know how everyone’s strictly in summer-mode and has turned their ovens into temporary storage? That is so great.
I just haven’t managed that well. I got this craving, and…anyway, eggplant parmesan (hey, it’s healthy baked eggplant parmesan, but still). I don’t turn down for anything.
So here we go: All the makings of the best baked lighter eggplant parm. I’m taking you through it step by step, with all the ways I choose to cut calories, because I’ve tried it many ways over the years and this is the method that has worked best. No spongey texture, no bitterness in the eggplant, and none of that, “Yeah, it’s good…for baked.” It’s just plain good, I promise.
Salt Your Eggplant
Years ago, I made baked eggplant parm and didn’t salt my eggplant first. It was bitter; it was spongey; it was…yes did I say sponge already? Disaster. Then I talked to my grandmother, who makes an Italian feast on Christmas Eve, and her tip? Salt your eggplant before cooking it.
Salting helps to draw out the liquid in the raw eggplant (much of which carries bitter flavors) and collapses the air pockets in the eggplant’s sponge-like flesh, which prevents it from absorbing too much oil–a great tip if you’re sauteeing the eggplant. (source: Fine Cooking)
The Breading Secret
Breaded eggplant is essential to eggplant parm. One time I ordered an eggplant parm sub in Seattle and when I unwrapped the white parchment, I was flat-out ready to flip a table when I found grilled eggplant. No breading, just naked, lonely eggplant with sauce and cheese. I have nothing against grilled eggplant–as a side dish. I even love the taste of plain eggplant in eggplant rollatini. But not in my eggplant parm.
I ate a few bites, really tried to find the good in it, but alas, I just couldn’t. I gave up.
Eggplant parm is too nostalgic for me. Whether it’s in a sandwich, a casserole, or simply stacked with sauce and cheese, it has to have some crispiness.
How many bread crumbs is negotiable. I don’t need a lot. I don’t even need it to be fried, which you might expect, given how absolutely out-of-my-mind I’m coming across. I just need a little tradition in place. So the key:
Only bread ONE side of the eggplant: the top. I picked up this tip from my friends at Cooks Illustrated, and thought it was genius. It’s perfect when you want some crispy, bready heft, but don’t need a lot of it to feel satisfied. Breading only the top of the eggplant means I use about half the amount of bread crumbs that I’d typically use, saving us half the calories.
1. Great sauce. Now, we all have our sauce preferences–salty, sweet, lots of herbs, plain and simple…but the quality of your sauce stands out here. My favorite is PJ’s. It’s the hands-down best sauce on Earth and anyone who has ever had it, made by him of course, says the same. But if you’re not making your own, it’s absolutely worth the price to spring for Rao’s. I know, it’s $6 or $8 depending on the size of the jar, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found to a homemade, full-of-just-simmered-flavor Sunday sauce.
2. Fresh mozzarella. Is there anything better? A couple months ago, at my little sister’s graduation party, we made a caprese appetizer (that NO ONE ATE WHAT THE HECK?!) and I swear I ate all the mozzarella myself…hours later, standing at the fridge at midnight like Nigella Lawson in the final scene of each of her episodes…only, there wasn’t a sexy thing about it.
The reason I use fresh mozzarella is because it has this gooey, melting quality that stays soft. Because of its higher moisture content, its naturally more tender than the firmer, low-moisture kind you find near the dairy and butter. And I love that, too. Feel free to use it here, but be sure to get a ball or a log of it and slice it or shred it yourself. The pre-shredded kinds you buy in the package–they’re convenient, yes, but they have anti-caking agents added to them to ensure the shreds don’t stick together. Anti-caking agents, like cornstarch, don’t melt well.
One of the best tips I ever learned was to buy blocks of cheese (say, cheddar, for example) and grate them myself. It’s more work, but it’s night and day how well the cheese melts. And even if you’re buying feta, goat, or blue cheese, buy it in the block and crumble it yourself. You’ll notice–especially with the feta–that it tastes an awful lot more like the feta in restaurants: creamier and less chalky. Can you tell I’m passionate about cheese?
I’m crazy about this whole meal, from start to finish. Let me know if you try it, and if you love it!