Here we go: All the makings of the best baked eggplant parmesan. 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 a baked version.” 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 baked eggplant parmesan. 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 parmesan.
I ate a few bites, really tried to find the good in it, but alas, I just couldn’t. I gave up.
Eggplant parmesan 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.
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 hands-down the best sauce on Earth and anyone who has ever had it says the same. But if you’re not making your own, it’s absolutely worth the price to spring for Rao’s. It’s $6 or $8 depending on the size of the jar, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found to a homemade Sunday sauce.
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. Let me know if you try it, and if you love it!
Healthy Baked Eggplant Parmesan
- 1 large eggplant about 1 ½ pounds, peeled and sliced into ½-inch thick rounds (12 to 14 slices)
- 2 large eggs
- .6 c Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1 c homemade tomato sauce or Rao's brand, plus more for serving
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese sliced thinly into as many slices as your eggplant
- Line 2 baking sheets with a double layer of paper towels and spread the eggplant slices among the sheets evenly.
- Liberally salt the eggplant slices, using about a teaspoon total of salt, and let them sit at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour. Using fresh paper towels, wipe the tops of the eggplant to remove excess salt and firmly press to release any remaining liquid. Dry on both sides and transfer to a plate.
- Wipe the baking sheets and line them with parchment paper or aluminum foil and spray well with cooking oil.Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Place the breadcrumbs in another medium shallow bowl. Dip one slice of eggplant into the egg, coating both sides, and then press ONE side into the breadcrumbs. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with all remaining slices.
- Spray the tops of the eggplant slices well with cooking oil and bake until the eggplant is soft and the crust is crispy, about 15 minutes.
- Remove the pans from the oven and spoon a heaping tablespoon of sauce on each, followed by a slice of mozzarella. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Top with fresh basil and serve.