With one notable exception, okra is a savvy self-promoter. In the garden and the field, it puts on a stunning display, producing striking flowers that give way to pert emerald-green (or wine-colored) pods, with cross-sections that resemble eyelets.
Okra has a sweet, grassy flavor that takes on more depth with longer cooking and a texture that can be crisp and juicy or dense and creamy. But here’s that infamous exception: The okra’s cells release juices — gooey, slippery, viscous, sticky — that cling to knives and cutting boards and, under certain conditions, leave the okra and any culinary companions in gelatinous suspension.
Okra mucilage has its admirers: In West Africa and the Southern United States, it’s valued as a culinary tool, used to thicken gumbos and lend body to other soups and stews. But where this quality is not beloved or considered useful or even appetizing, cooks have devised myriad ways to stymie it.
In India, they swear by high heat, often sauteing or frying okra before combining it with wetter ingredients. In Greece, whole pods are bathed with vinegar and sometimes salt before being rinsed, dried, pan-seared, then combined with tomatoes (more acid) to bake or stew. In “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen,” Paula Wolfert described a Syrian cook who sliced her okra and left it to dry for a day before cooking. In the U.S. South, cooks often batter and fry it, braise it with tomatoes and onions, or boil it, to serve dressed in vinaigrette or to dip in butter or hollandaise. Popular guidance advocates for buying the smallest pods available, cooking them whole and keeping them dry.
But most American cooks seem unconvinced. Find any crowdsourced list of least-liked vegetables, and okra’s on it. Thinking about how many more fans okra could win without its texture getting in the way, I wanted to look more closely at which measures were most effective at toning down its viscosity and which would best translate to a variety of preparations.
The approaches I tried fell into two groups: cooking methods and pre-treatments. The first included such high-heat methods as roasting, grilling, sauteing, boiling and frying, as well as cooking in an acidic medium such as tomatoes. In the second were marinating whole pods in vinegar or citrus (with or without salt), and cutting and drying them overnight. I used the same local supplier for all of the test batches, because some varieties of okra are stickier than others. And for each comparison, I prepared a control batch.
My takeaway? The two key elements are high heat and acid.
The high-heat methods were the most effective. When okra’s interior gel reaches high temperatures (90 degrees Celsius, or close to boiling), its viscosity thins, said Katherine Preston, a botanist, associate director of human biology at Stanford and a co-author of the Botanist in the Kitchen blog. High-heat cooking helps reduce extreme gumminess to something merely full-bodied.
Dry high heat — roasting, grilling, frying — worked even better. The okra remained juicy and tender while attaining an airy crispness, and its delicate, grassy flavor took on more depth. In an email, food science author Harold McGee (“On Food and Cooking,” “Keys to Good Cooking”) explained why: The okra cells break, the gel dissolves in the cells’ moisture, some of it evaporates — and it concentrates. “That concentration makes it more viscous, and therefore more stuck to the okra structure itself,” he wrote. “And that means there’s less that can be freed by chewing and delivered to our tongue and palate to register as sliminess.”
The acid-centered approaches were less effective than high heat, but more effective than nothing. Viscosity peaks at neutral to alkaline pH, Preston said, which is why exposing okra to acidic ingredients, such as vinegar or tomatoes, tones it down. Some African cooks, she said, go in the other direction, adding baking soda (which raises pH to a more alkaline level) to okra soup to augment its thickening effect.
Drying cut pieces of okra overnight only slightly diminished viscosity on its own, but I liked how the process concentrated the okra’s flavor, and how well the pieces seared as a second step.
Less-effective approaches included simply leaving the okra whole, as if, Preston said, “slime were a misfortune visited upon the okra from somewhere outside.” True, if you cook okra whole, you can avoid spilling viscous juices into the rest of the dish. But if you don’t pre-treat it — sear or soak in vinegar, for example — before adding it to a liquid-based dish, you’ll still get a mouthful of gooey juices with each pod.
Buying smaller pods was useless, which makes botanical sense: The gel “buffers the plant against water loss during the day,” Preston said. “As the plant matures, it’s shifting priorities away from mucilage production.” Instead, it gets woodier and drier. Smaller pods are more tender and have smaller seeds, but just as much of the sticky gel.
Keeping okra dry during preparation is relevant only when using dry, high-heat methods. If the okra is going into a soup or another saucy preparation, keeping it dry won’t cut back on the volume of juice the okra releases into the pot. But the more liquid you have in proportion to okra, the thinner its juices will be. So try adding a relatively small amount to soups and simmering it long enough to disperse and dilute the juices, and the gumminess will barely register.
Ultimately, I favored a combination of methods: drying the okra overnight and then searing it before adding it to a quick braise, for instance, or soaking it in an acidic medium, then baking it with more acid, such as tomatoes or tamarind.
For the dishes here, I’m highlighting methods that nearly eliminated okra’s slippery quality or cut it back substantially while enhancing its taste or texture.
To make pan-seared okra coins, I dusted the okra in cornmeal and sauteed it quickly so that the edges browned and the inners stayed juicy and crisp. For another dish, I split the pods down the middle, coated them in chile, garlic and cumin, and roasted them nearly until they crackle. For a spiced pilaf that marries Indian seasoning with Southern method, I marinated the okra in citrus and salt, then cooked it along with the rice so its buttery flavor could permeate every grain. And for a ragout of onions, corn, okra (dried and then seared) and cherry tomatoes, I let the milk from the corn do the thickening. With its sunny flavors and shades of yellow, green and gold, it tastes like a poster child of September, part celebration, part protest to summer’s close.
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