Everyone should learn how to cook okra properly—this vegetable has a very undeserved bad reputation! Yes, some love it, but okra also tops the list of many people’s most hated foods. Renowned U.K. chef Simon Rogan writes it off completely saying, “I don’t like the look, or the slimy texture. It’s a pointless veg.” Sliminess is a common, and in some ways valid, complaint. Okra is often used as a thickener for stews and soups because it contains mucilage, which is the same goo we welcome in aloe vera plants. Heat and liquid make the mucilage come out so the key is to prepare it in a way the doesn’t encourage the ooze or just make use of the goo in a tasty gumbo. In fact, gumbo actually means okra.
Okra is an ancient vegetable that came to the U.S. from Africa and the West Indies. Unfortunately it was by way of African slaves and slave traders in the 1600s. This has something to do with why it’s such a quintessentially southern delicacy. Culinary historian and author Jessica Harris explains, “Okra is connected indelibly with the American South. While gumbo, the flagship dish of New Orleans, is usually thickened with okra, the technique is actually an adaptation of soupikandia, a Senegalese soupy stew slave cooks prepared in plantation kitchens for both themselves and their owners.”
Not only is it delicious, okra is low-cal, high fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals. For moms-to-be it’s an excellent source of folic acid and it’s also high in vitamins C and K, potassium, magnesium and calcium. So it pays to learn how to cook okra!
Most people are familiar with gumbo and fried okra but there a lots of other ways to enjoy it sans slime. The first step is choosing pods that have a bright green color and are tender yet crisp. Next, don’t wash the pods until just before cooking and thoroughly dry them before preparing. It’s best to use the whole pod or don’t cut it any more that you have to (it releases the goo) and keep a towel handy to continue soaking up moisture as you work. Some people swear by soaking it in vinegar for 30 minutes first.
When cooking okra, quickly exposing it to high heat like flash searing cuts down on the sliminess. Grilling is another excellent way to get a dry, crisp result so skewer a few or toss them directly on the grill or at your next cookout. If you’re pan-frying, give each piece plenty of space and never cover the pan—overcrowding and steam equal slime. If you want to know how to cook okra that your kids will eat, try roasting or baking it in the oven.
It’s not only how you cook okra, it’s also what you cook it with. Other foods that are particularly acidic—like tomatoes, lemon juice or wine—help keep it firm and slime-free. Lastly, raw okra is fresh, crisp and delicious on salads or served with dip. Just be sure to choose small pods as the bigger ones tend to get hard and stringy.