Eggplant Is a Delicious Meat Alternative if You Know How to Cook it Right

A bundle of freshly washed eggplants to cut and cook in the oven.
Arie J. Jager/Getty Images

Eggplant is a nutritional beast. It’s high in fiber, loaded with nutrients and low in calories. And despite its status as a nutritional powerhouse, you can frequently find it for under $2 a pound. That’s a lot of flavor and nourishment for not a lot of coin — making it a good choice if you’re trying to save money on groceries. However, learning how to cook eggplant can be a bit tricky.

If done incorrectly, it can be a mushy mess or a bitter assault on your taste buds. But prepared properly, eggplant is a delicious addition to any meal. Here are the basics.

First Things First — Buy a Good Eggplant

If you buy an eggplant that isn’t ready or is past its prime, no amount of kitchen wizardry

will make it awesome. Here’s what to look for in an eggplant.

Find a Pretty One

Really? Yes, a glossy, purple eggplant is healthy and ready to eat. Like most fruits, (Yes, I said fruit. The eggplant is actually categorized as a berry!) you need to pay attention to discoloration and bruising. A healthy, green stem is another sign of freshness.

Give it a Squeeze

It should give a little, but it shouldn’t be soft. You want it to be heavy relative to its size, which means the flesh inside is ripe but not overripe.

Smaller Is Better

The smaller, young eggplants will have the best flavor.  A too-large eggplant may have an abundance of tiny seeds inside, which are storehouses for that dreaded bitterness.

Buy During Peak Season

You’ll find the best eggplants during the peak season from August to October. To get the freshest eggplant for a lot less, skip the middleman and head to your local farmers market.

The Classic: Oven-Roasted Eggplant

Preheat your oven to 400 F.

Chop off the stem and base, then rinse the eggplant.

Use a peeler to remove strips of the purple skin. Leave some skin on the flesh so it has a striped effect. The open areas allow flavors to penetrate the flesh, while the remaining skin provides some firmness to keep the structure.

Cut the eggplant into slices or disks. Try to keep their thickness even so they cook at the same pace.

Salt it. This is a biggie because salt helps pull the juices — another place where bitterness hides —  from the eggplant. Let the salted eggplant slices sit for 30 minutes to 1 ½ hours to give the salt time to pull out those juices. You’ll notice little beads of eggplant sweat forming.

Rinse away the salt and juices.

Coat a baking sheet with olive oil cooking spray, or lightly coat the eggplant slices with olive oil. The flesh likes to absorb oil, and too much can make it come out greasy.

Add salt and pepper to taste. (Remember, you’ve already salted and rinsed, so there may be some residual salt on there!)

Bake the slices for 5 to 7 minutes on each side until they’re lightly browned.

Pull the slices out of the oven, and sprinkle on your favorite herbs to spruce it up. Not sure what to add? Eggplant is a great canvas for a lot of herbs and flavors.

Broil the eggplant for an additional 30 seconds to let those herbs and spices do their work.

Remove and serve!

How to Cook Eggplant Using Other Methods

Baking eggplant is a classic method of preparation. However, it’s far from your only choice. This versatile superstar of the produce section lends itself to a variety of cooking methods. Here are a few of our favorite ways to cook eggplant.

Embrace the Smokiness! Toss it on the Grill

Prefer a little smoke and char on your food? Eggplant is perfect for grilling. You’ll get a similar texture to bake, but with the added flavors and aromas of the grill.

Preheat your grill to medium heat (350 to 375 F).

Clean and peel the eggplant as mentioned above. Slice it however you want. Disks work great, but you can slice it longways too. It’s your call.

Melt some butter, and stir in some garlic salt and other seasonings you like. (I suggest classic Italian seasoning — it’s great on everything!) Brush the butter mixture on, and add pepper to taste.

Then, toss them on the grill. Keep an eye on them to avoid flare-ups just in case that amazing butter drips off. Cook for approximately 10 minutes, flipping and basting the pieces every couple of minutes.

Pull the slices off the grill, and serve them while they’re hot and smokey.

Stovetop Calling You? Pan-Fry Eggplant to Perfection

Pan-fried eggplant can be tricky. It’s a treat when you do it right, but the fruit’s soft flesh soaks up the oil like a sponge. Do it right and you won’t have that issue. Here’s how.

Clean, peel, slice, salt and rinse the eggplant as mentioned above.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat a skillet with grapeseed oil (or another oil that handles high heat well) to approximately 365 to 375 F. To test it, toss in a small cube of bread. If it browns to a lovely crouton in about 60 seconds, you’re good to go.

Whisk 2 egg whites in a small bowl. Brush a thin coating of egg whites onto both sides of each eggplant slice. The egg whites act like a barrier between the eggplant flesh and the oil.

Carefully place 3 to 4 slices of eggplant into the oil. Don’t splatter — it hurts! Cook the eggplant slices for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden brown.

You’ll be amazed at how crispy these get without soaking up all of that oil! You’ll love the nice and crispy texture with that delicious fried flavor.

Craving Something Really Different? Mash it Up!

Mashed eggplant? That’s just crazy talk, right? Nope. Mashing eggplant is a classic recipe in Mediterranean cultures. This recipe will make you feel like you’re lunching in a Turkish bistro.

First, bake your slices as described above.

Add the cooked slices to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add a little olive oil if needed. It’s really that simple. You now have a simple mashed eggplant that you can spice up any way you’d like. Serve it hot as a side dish, or let it cool and use it as a delicious and healthy spread.

Check out this mashed-eggplant recipe to really embrace that Mediterranean flair.

Delicious Eggplant Meal Ideas

OK, so now you know the basics about how to cook eggplant. How do you incorporate these techniques into an awesome meal? Fear not. We have you covered. Here are a few meal ideas that will wow your friends and family.

Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant makes a great substitute for meat in a variety of dishes. Eggplant Parmesan has been a favorite on menus and in homes for ages. Not only is it delicious, but it’s easier on the budget than its chicken counterpart!

Stuffed Eggplant

What’s better than eggplant? Eggplant stuffed with tasty gloriousness. You can find a variety of fun and easy recipes online, like Mom’s Stuffed Eggplant. It makes for a flavorful meal that is remarkably easy on the budget.

Make an Eggplant Sandwich

In the mood for a sandwich? No problem. You can use eggplant slices as a bread substitute to make amazing eggplant sandwiches, as seen in this video for how to make eggplant two waysThe possibilities are endless, and you can even make them gluten- and dairy-free if you want. It’s a creative idea to bring to your next potluck at work.  

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.