If there’s one thing I truly look forward to this time of year, it’s fresh eggplant. Sliced into planks and grilled, mushed into mutabbal, fried and drizzled with hot honey—honestly, it’s my summer kink. Lately, I’ve been cooking eggplant Xi’an street-vendor-style: roasted whole over coals until soft, butterflied and drowned in a chile-garlic-soy-sauce marinade and left to bubble away on the grill until nearly all the sauce is absorbed by the tender eggplant flesh.
I recognize that eggplant can be difficult to love, though. Poorly prepared, its tough skin and dense flesh are categorically dreadful to chew, and undercooked eggplant tastes like a punishment. After all, there’s a good reason raw eggplant doesn’t usually appear on crudités platters.
Although it has long been used as both delicious food and medicine in its native Asia and in the Middle East, eggplant has nevertheless suffered from a historical prejudice in the West. Much as they suspected redheads like myself of witchcraft and licentiousness (guilty), premodern Europeans believed eating eggplant could cause melancholy, lust, and madness. (Just look at the etymology: Melanzana, the Italian word for eggplant, is a contraction of mela insana, or “mad apple.”)
The 16th century English herbalist John Gerard, for example, described eggplants thus in his 1,500-page illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes: “For doubtlesse these apples have a mischeevous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsake.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that people in the West began to learn how to coax out the fruit’s sweetness and appreciate eggplant as the versatile ingredient that it is.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when storing and preparing eggplant to make sure it's tasting its best.
Why does some eggplant taste bitter?
Bitterness has largely been bred out of modern varieties of eggplant, which is one reason why salting eggplant before cooking isn’t strictly necessary these days. But older and overripe eggplants can develop more bitter flavors over time.
As with many other members of the nightshade family, eggplants contain a small amount of toxic alkaloids; in this case, they contain solanine, much like potatoes. But it’s really only the leaves and tubers of the plant that you want to avoid, and the fruits themselves are perfectly safe to eat. It’s not the solanine that’s responsible for bitterness, however—it’s anthocyanins, the pigments that give eggplant their characteristic purple color.
What are those brown spots on my eggplant?
If you, like me, have a tendency to purchase more fresh produce than you can reasonably eat in a few days, you may have been tempted to chuck your farmers market eggplant in the refrigerator, along with your greens. But like its nightshade cousin the tomato, eggplant cannot tolerate fridge-cold temperatures for too long.
After a few days, you may start to notice brassy streaks and soft spots on the eggplant’s skin; inside, the flesh and seeds begin to brown, and small air pockets develop in the otherwise dense fruit. It’s not rot, per se—rather, it’s a condition known as chilling injury, and while it won’t necessarily alter the flavor of your eggplant, it will change its texture, resulting in squidgy patches, pitting, and discoloration.
How to store eggplant
UC Davis’ Postharvest Technology Center—an excellent resource for nerding out on produce—recommends storing eggplant between 50º and 54º Fahrenheit. That’s quite a bit warmer than safe refrigerator temperatures, but quite a bit cooler than most countertops in summer, too. Conundrum!