Unless you’re from the South, okra might be new or unfamiliar to you. In the South, okra is as common as hospitality. Also known as “ladies’ fingers” because of their long, finger-like shape, okra is a veggie that gets a bad rap for being slimy. Many people don’t see it in their markets and if they do, they might pass by it because they aren’t sure what to do with it. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is totally possible to cook okra so that it’s slime-free and delicious. Here are the tips and tricks you need to know to cook with okra.
1. Okra 101
While okra, also known as “bamia,” is a Southern staple, it has its origins in North-East Africa and warm, tropical temperate regions around the world. The plant bears dark green pods that are harvested while they are green, tender, and immature. Inside the pods are small white round seeds arranged in vertical rows.
Okra does have a substance inside it called mucilage which acts as a natural thickener and is helpful when cooking gumbo and other stews. There are many ways, however, to cook okra so that it’s slime-free and delicious. With a mild taste that is similar to eggplant, you should definitely give okra a try.
2. Health Benefits
Another reason to add okra to your diet is that it’s loaded with health benefits. Okra is low in calories and a great source of vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, folate, and fiber.
Okra has been shown to lower total cholesterol levels, improve digestive health, improve vision, boost skin health, protect infant health, prevent certain cancers, strengthen bones, improve cardiovascular health, aid the immune system, lower blood pressure, and protect heart health.
3. Selection, Storage, and Prep
Though you can find it year-round in some parts of the country, okra comes into its peak season from May through September. Choose pods that are small and crisp and avoid pods that have brown spots or blemishes or are shriveled. To store fresh okra, wrap it up and keep it in the fridge for up to three or four days. Okra can be bought frozen, whole, or sliced.
Prepping the okra is crucial because this is where you can prevent the sliminess. Water enhances the sliminess so don’t wash the okra until you are ready to cook it. Let the okra sit at room temperature for a while before using it. The liquid that makes okra feel slimy comes out when you cut the okra so try to limit how much you cut the vegetable. Okra can be cooked whole; just cut or pull off the stems. If you are going to cook them whole, try to buy smaller pods.
If you do need to cut the okra, cut it into big chunks rather than thin slices. The more surface area, the more places slime has to escape. You can also poke holes in the top of the pod right beneath the stem and let some of the mucilage out. Then chop the okra the way you want it.
4. A Few Tricks
If you’re still worried about slime, here are a few tricks that will help. First, if you freeze okra and cut it while it is still frozen, it will less slimy than when you cut it fresh. A second trick for reducing sliminess is to soak the okra in vinegar for half an hour before cooking it. Rinse it and pat dry before cooking. Finally, you can pre-cook okra at very high heat by sautéing, roasting, blanching, or grilling. Then add cooked okra to your recipe and there will be hardly any slime at all. That was easy, wasn’t it?
5. Turn Up the Heat
There are many ways to cook okra. As mentioned before, cooking it at high heats helps eliminate a lot of slime. Make sure the okra is completely dry before cooking it. Get great tips on cooking veggies in How to Cook Vegetables So They Don’t Wilt and How to Avoid Common Mistakes When Cooking Vegetables. Okra can be grilled on a grill pan or an outdoor grill. Just toss the pods in a bit of oil and your favorite seasonings, and then grill them for about 10 minutes until slightly charred. Fried okra is a popular dish that is crispy and delicious. Coat the okra with seasoned flour or corn meal. They can be fried whole or in slices. In this Cinnamon Okra, chopped okra is fried with cinnamon in coconut oil until soft, fragrant, and flavorful.
Sautéing is another good method of cooking. You need to sauté it long enough for any slime to cook out, about 10-15 minutes. Don’t overcrowd the pan as that will lead to steaming which will create more slime. Stir-fries really bring on the heat. If you’re apprehensive about trying okra, consider giving this Southern Okra, Cherry Tomato, and Pecan Stir-Fry a go! This has lots of bright spices which create a delicious, vibrant, and healthy dish. No sliminess in the texture here, just amazing flavor!
Dry roasting okra makes them taste nutty, grassy, and slightly sweet. Small pods can be roasted whole while larger ones can be sliced in half lengthwise. Roast them at 400°F for about 25-30 minutes. A delicious recipe to try is this Crispy Spiced Cauliflower and Okra. Get even more tips and Try These 10 Methods for Cooking Flavorful Vegetables.
6. Soups and Stews
The taste of okra is mild and slightly grassy and a popular way to cook it is to stew it with onions and tomatoes. The acidity in tomatoes also helps reduce slime. Adding lemon or lime juice while cooking will also help cut the slime. Okra goes well with bold spices such as cayenne pepper, cumin, and chile. See my recipe for Bhindi Masala which has okra cooked with onions, chili peppers, and tons of warm, fragrant Indian spices. This Creole Okra Corn Soup has tomatoes, smoked paprika, and cayenne for tons of delicious flavor. This BEST Vegan “Chicken” and “Sausage” Gumbo is so good, you’ll think you’ve been transported to the south and the okra is a necessary and welcome ingredient.
Finally, okra isn’t only for Southern recipes. These Okra and Corn Stuffed Squash Blossoms are made with a mixture of corn, okra, asparagus, dill, and garlic. This delicious salad makes the best of squash blossoms by stuffing them with fresh, seasonal summer produce. They would make a lovely starter to any outdoor gathering.
The next time you’re at the market, fill a bag with okra. With the right cooking methods and these amazing recipes, you’ll see that okra deserves all the love you give to other vegetables. You just have to get to know them better.
Lead image source: Crispy Spiced Cauliflower and Okra