What Is Okra and How Can I Cook It?
This vegetable can be roasted, fried and used in more delicious ways.
If you've spent time wandering your local farmers' market or grocery store, you might have noticed okra in the produce section. Or maybe you've loved okra as long as you can remember and just want to learn more about it. This versatile vegetable features edible pods, which can be used in recipes like Okra & Red Pepper Cornbread and One-Pan Spicy Okra & Shrimp. Read on to learn more about okra—plus, learn how to cook fresh okra.
What Is Okra?
Okra is the edible seed pod of the tropical plant Abelmoschus esculentus, which is related to both hibiscus and cotton. Okra thrives in hot, steamy weather and is at peak season from mid- to late summer in most parts of the country. Prior to producing the succulent green pods, the plants are awash in blooms that—not surprisingly—look like hibiscus flowers. There are many varieties of okra, from those with short, squat pods to slender fruit measuring more than a foot long. Most varieties have pods that range in color from light to dark green, though there are some that produce red or crimson-streaked pods.
Although okra has become synonymous with the American South, it is prevalent in the cuisines of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America as well. Okra is known for its slippery quality, which is one of its most useful attributes. It comes from mucilage, a natural thickener made up of sugar residues and proteins that gives body to all kinds of soups and stews, including that most iconic of Louisiana's dishes, gumbo. (In fact, okra is known as "gombo" in much of West Africa—a pretty strong clue as to how the dish got its name.)
How to Store Okra
When shopping, choose okra pods that are firm and dry. Avoid those that are mushy, slimy or have blemishes. The skin coating should have a peach-fuzz appearance. After you've bought it, store okra in a paper bag in the warmest part of the refrigerator (typically the door of the fridge) for up to three days. Okra can also be stored in the freezer. Learn how to freeze okra in six easy steps.
How to Cook Okra
Pictured recipe: Indian-Style Sautéed Okra
Okra is most commonly stewed—or battered and deep-fried. Because the viscosity of mucilage increases with exposure to heat, quick-cooking methods, such as sautéing, grilling and roasting, help retain the fresh, crisp texture of the raw pod as well as the pleasant "pop" of the seeds inside.
The flavor of okra (which hints of artichoke and asparagus) and its glutinous quality are balanced by acids, such as tomato, lemon and vinegar, as well as heat from both fresh and dried chiles. It is also enhanced by garlic, onion, ginger and aromatic seeds such as cumin, coriander, anise and fennel.
Pictured recipe: Pan-Fried Okra
Before you get to cooking, learn how to prep okra. Trim the stem ends, being careful not to expose the seeds (unless pods will be sliced) and rinse well under cool running water. For roasting, grilling or sautéing, be sure the okra is very dry to ensure the best texture. Pat it dry with paper towels. Leave the pods whole, slice or cut them in half horizontally, as desired.
How to Roast Okra
Toss 1 pound trimmed okra with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper and pepper to taste. Spread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast in a 450°F oven until lightly browned and tender, shaking the pan every 5 minutes, for about 15 minutes. Serves 4.
How to Sauté Okra
Pictured recipe: Fresh Southern Succotash with Bacon
Slice 1 pound trimmed okra into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Cook 2 slices bacon in a large skillet over low heat until crisp. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Increase heat to medium-high. Add 1 thinly sliced small sweet onion to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the okra and cook, stirring frequently, until tender-crisp and brightly colored, 5 to 6 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Crumble the bacon over the okra; serve immediately. Serves 4.
How to Stew Okra
Pictured recipe: Spicy Stewed Okra & Tomatoes
Combine 1 pound trimmed okra and 2 chopped medium tomatoes in a large heavy skillet. Pierce 1 habanero chile (or 2 jalapeños) with a fork and add to the pan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat until the okra is tender, 8 to 13 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.
1 cup of sliced cooked okra has 36 calories, 7g carbohydrates, 4g sugar (including 0g added sugar), 3g protein, 4g fiber, 10mg sodium and 216mg potassium.
Bonus: This vegetable has a long folk history of helping to manage blood sugar in people with diabetes. One reason could be its antioxidants, quercetin and isoquercetin, which have been shown to block enzymes that break down sugars, hindering their ability to enter the bloodstream.