The Not So “Bitter” Truth About Eggplant

Assorted eggplant varieties
Assorted eggplant varieties – Photo: M Geiger.

Eggplant, also called an aubergine, is an underused vegetable for most Americans even though it is highly versatile. It can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, and stir-fried and also used in soups, stews, curries, and kabobs.  Perhaps it is the long held pretention that eggplant is bitter. While bitterness cannot be ruled out with over-ripe or raw eggplant, eggplant at its prime is not bitter.

Eggplant is nutritious, low in calories, fat, and sodium while high in fiber and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, Vitamin B6 and A.  Eggplants are also recognized as a source of phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants.  All of this “goodness” helps with maintaining good blood cholesterol, cognitive function, weight, and eye health and preventing cancer and heart disease.  As such, it is a big component of vegetarian and Mediterranean diets.

A young, freshly picked eggplant with smooth, glossy skin and intense color will have no bitterness whatsoever if consumed soon after picking.  Old or overripe eggplants or those that are off color or sit out for a while after being harvested are more likely to exhibit a bitter flavor.  Therefore, choose eggplants that are heavy, shiny and firm and avoid eggplants that are off-colored and/or do not exhibit a bright, glossy color. The seeds of a young, fresh eggplant are very small, so the flesh will not have accumulated the bitter compounds found in eggplants that have become overripe and rubbery. 

If bitterness should be of concern, there are some actions one can take to eliminate it:
– PEEL the skin to remove any bitter compounds that may be present in the skin or between the skin and the flesh.
– “SWEAT” with salt to draw out the compound solaine, the chemical found in the seeds and flesh that contributes to bitterness; it will also draw out some of the moisture making the eggplant more tender.  To do this, slice, dice, cube, etc the eggplant and sprinkle the pieces with salt.  (Canning and pickling salt is best, but any salt will do.)  Allow the eggplant to set for 30 or more minutes, rinse off the salt, pat dry, and continue to prepare.  Sweating an eggplant will also reduce the amount of oil it will absorb during cooking, too.
– SOAK in milk for 30 minutes prior to cooking if salt is a dietary problem. Drain off the milk and prepare the eggplant normally. 
– REMOVE SEEDS from older eggplant as the seeds enlarge with age thereby increasing bitterness.  To remove the seeds, slice the eggplant length-wise and use a spoon to scrap out as many seeds as possible.

In an ideal world, eggplant is used the day of harvest and is fine on the counter short term.  For longer storage, eggplants can be refrigerated for about a week as long as they don’t get too cold or damp.  They should be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag. It may also be helpful to wrap in a paper towel before placing in the bag; the thin skin is highly susceptible to moisture damage so the paper towel helps absorb moisture.  It can be sliced or cubed, then blanched or steamed, and frozen up to eight months for later use. 

Eggplant is best eaten cooked but can be consumed raw. Cooking eliminates the natural compounds that can cause digestive upset if eaten raw.  Since the flesh discolors quickly, use right away after cutting or lightly sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent browning.  Eggplant is best cut with a stainless steel knife since carbon blades will cause discoloration.  Cooking in an aluminum pan also will cause blackening.  Eggplant fruits should be handled with care as they bruise easily, exhibiting brown, corky flesh in the affected area. 

While eggplant is used as a vegetable, it is botanically a fruit and a member of the nightshade family, same plant family as tomatoes and peppers.  Consumers usuallly associate eggplant with “large, oblong, and deep purple.” There are many varieties of eggplant in numerous colors and sizes. 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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7 thoughts on “The Not So “Bitter” Truth About Eggplant

  1. I fried up the eggplant and was going to freeze for later use. These were given to me so I don’t know how old they are. Should I throw them away?? They are bitter!!!

  2. Hi Anna,
    So sorry that it took so long for your message to reach AnswerLine. It must have been stuck on cyber space someplace. I am sure by now you have made a decision on what to do with the eggplant. If it is bitter, I would suggest tossing it; bitter eggplant is enough to cure one of ever eating eggplant. Likely, they were too mature.

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