Between fast-food chains and county fair booths, you might assume frying funnel cakes, French fries, or Oreos is an effortless endeavor. The truth is there’s a touch of technique to getting everything just right.
Do you pan-fry or deep-fry? Use flour, batter, or breading? What about the oil? How hot is too hot, and can I manage a vat of frying liquid without needing emergency medical care?
Let’s demystify the frying process a bit and tackle one of my favorite appetizers: crispy Fried Eggplant. Eggplant may not be on the “favorite vegetables” list for some people, but I’ve never had anyone turn down one of these crunchy slices!
There are three types of frying: pan-frying where the pan is barely covered with oil – good for delicate things like crab cakes or thin cutlets of chicken or pork; deep frying in several inches of oil – good for items like French fries and doughnuts; and shallow-frying which is a happy medium – good for things like bone-in chicken, Hot Water Cornbread, and this eggplant recipe.
Some home cooks like deep fried eggplant, and I find that does work well if you use a batter and chunks (not slices) of eggplant. Using a coating like pancake or tempura batter, recipes for fried eggplant that incorporate deep frying yield a crispy but smooth exterior.
Personally, I prefer some additional texture on my eggplant, one only achieved with a proper breading and coarse bread crumbs, and that technique works much better with the shallow frying method. One side of the eggplant is always in contact with the hot pan which helps sear the cooking side and creates a covetable crust.
The breading can make or break a recipe, and breaded eggplant recipes vary (even ways to make fried eggplant vegan by using almond milk instead of eggs). You can choose a light breading, which is how to fry eggplant with flour, but it doesn’t create a thick enough coating to balance the texture of the eggplant.
You could opt for a heavy breading instead, like southern fried eggplant that’s dipped in buttermilk and cornmeal, but unless your slices are pretty thick (and take longer to cook), this method produces a breading-to-eggplant ratio that’s still a little off.
My breading is a three-step process that’s substantial enough to be worth the trouble of frying but without dominating the dish. Using panko breadcrumbs too, rather than making fried eggplant without breadcrumbs, actually complements the texture of the tender eggplant.
The first step is dusting the eggplant with cornstarch to give the rest of the breading something to cling to. I prefer to use cornstarch instead of flour since it’s 100% starch (versus flour which is about 75%), and it gets super crispy (it’s what they use for that crusty General Tsao’s chicken at your favorite Chinese restaurant).
Cornstarch also has a finer texture which means it covers the surface area more completely and helps the egg stick practically everywhere. Be sure to salt your eggs first, by the way, since the salt helps break down proteins and thin the eggs a bit, making it coat the eggplant a little more easily.
The eggs help adhere the panko to our eggplant slices, and I like to use pre-seasoned to add extra herbs and spices. “Italian seasoning” means some mixture of garlic, onion, basil, and oregano, and the earthy quality of these ingredients really enhances the richness of the eggplant.
Now that you’re breaded and ready for frying, let the eggplant dry for a few minutes. Excess moisture is messy and downright dangerous when you’re dealing with hot oil. It also makes the temperature drop too much when you add the eggplant which means you’re decreasing the potential for maximum crunch factor.
Make sure your skillet’s deep enough to hold the oil and eggplant, with enough height to keep the oil safely splattering inside.
I also suggest using a straight-sided pan since fishing the fried bits out of a rounded-edge pan can be tricky business, especially if you want to avoid oil spillage (and stovetop fires).
I use a vegetable or other neutral-flavored, high smoke point oil for this recipe so you can keep it safely at about 375 degrees. Hot oil forces the moisture (steam) out of the eggplant which helps prevent oil from moving into the eggplant. If the oil isn’t hot enough, or you overcrowd the pan, oil can actually soak into your breading and make a sad, greasy mess.
Don’t gamble with a higher temperature, though, since you don’t want the exterior to brown (or burn) before the insides are finished cooking. Expect to see lots of tiny bubbles surrounding the eggplant as soon as you drop the slices into the skillet.
It’s flipping time once the bubbles starting getting bigger and decrease significantly, then you’ll finish bronzing up these beauties on the other side. Those big bubbles mean you’re about out of steam – literally – on that side and in danger of soggy-ville. Drain on paper towels before serving, both to catch greasy drops and to wick away any excess moisture.
Frying isn’t a complicated process, but there are some basic rules to follow. I always advocate the whole “practice makes perfect” thing, especially since fried food executed properly is so darn good!
Just get in your kitchen and experiment with different methods of frying and breading and battering.
No, I don’t recommend eating fried food every day since no amount of treadmill time can undo such an onslaught. You can try oven fried eggplant instead, and it’s efficient if you’re making a baked eggplant parmesan or something where crisp isn’t critical.
The oven-fried method just doesn’t create the same crunch, so it’s not gonna satisfy that fried-food craving the same way.
A squeeze of lemon complements almost any savory fried dish, so definitely try it here, but you can also serve Fried Eggplant with marinara sauce. If you pile both on top of pasta, I think you can officially call it dinner!
Batch frying – You’ll want to cook the eggplant in batches to avoid overcrowding. Keep the fried eggplant warm in a 200 degree oven, on a paper-towel-lined cookie sheet, while you finish.
Eggplant perfection – When you’re picking out eggplants, choose the freshest you can find and use them in less than a week. Look for shiny, plump specimens, not dull and wrinkly ones. Smaller is preferable too, since the larger ones tend to be more mature and potentially bitter.
Did you say bitter? – You’ll notice I don’t pre-salt the eggplant for this dish. There are lots of thoughts on whether salting is needed, but the general consensus is if you’re dealing with fresh, young, firm eggplants, salting ahead of time isn’t required.
In addition to pulling out some of the bitter juices, which adds extra moisture you’ll have to deal with before breading, salting also changes the texture of the eggplant. It’s best to just opt for eggplants that don’t need the whole “youthening” treatment.
More Side Dishes!
Scalloped Corn – Golden corn cradled in a rich homemade custard with just the right amount of smokey bacon topped with a crunchy bread crumb topping!
Sauteed Asparagus – Perfectly tender and flavored asparagus!
Roasted Garlic Asparagus with Feta – Tender asparagus infused with garlic and perfectly coated with feta!
- 1 Large Egg
- 1 Teaspoon Salt
- 1/3 Cup Cornstarch
- 1 Small Eggplant Cut Into 1/4 Inch Thick Slices
- 1 Cup Italian Seasoned Panko Bread Crumbs
- Lemon Wedges-Optional
- Jarred Marinara Sauce-Optional
- Sliced Mozzarella-Optional
- In a small shallow bowl, beat the egg with 1/4 teaspoon salt. In 2 more separate shallow dishes, pour the cornstarch and panko bread crumbs. Dredge each slice of eggplant in cornstarch, coating it thoroughly then gentle tapping off excess, then in egg mixture, then in the panko crumbs, pressing them to help them stick. Transfer coated eggplant to a wire rack and allow coating to set 20 minutes.
- Heat 1/2 inch oil in a a heavy bottom, skillet with straight sides 2 inches tall, to 375degrees. Fry the eggplant slices in batches, for 1 minute on each side, or until golden brown. Transfer to paper towel lined baking sheet. Season with additional salt and pepper. Squeeze lemon wedges over hot eggplant, if using, and serve.