If you’re from the American south, chances are you know okra. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, these long, green, tapered pod-shaped vegetable s are a culinary staple, especially from July through September, when they’re at their peak.
A member of the mallow family (which also includes hibiscus and cotton), okra grows in hot climates; in fact, it is actually Ethiopian in origin. The plants can reach up to 6 feet tall, and they have slender branches with long, serrated leaves. Large white and yellow hibiscus-like flowers bloom on the bushy plant before it produces the edible pods. These pods are harvested when they’re 1 to 4 inches long (any larger, and they’re tough).
Okra isn’t just a southern mainstay. It also appears in myriad African, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes, and there are countless ways to prepare it. You can fry, steam, grill, pickle, and (of course) add it to classic New Orleans gumbo. Its mild flavor has notes of artichoke, eggplant, and green bell pepper. When cooked briefly, it’s crunchy; when stewed, it turns soft and tender.
The most common variety of okra is Clemson Spineless which is green with subtle ridges and a conical stem end. Other varieties include the red-colored Burgundy and yellow-hued Blondy, though these are harder to find.
Sliced pods release a clear, thick liquid (this helps the plant store water) that can act as a natural thickener for soups and stews. But that same liquid can turn slimy with some cooking methods, making okra a turnoff for many people.
Many iconic okra recipes take advantage of its thickening properties. Adding it to New Orleans gumbo gives this smoked meat, seafood, and vegetable stew its characteristic rich, hearty consistency. You can also simmer okra with tomatoes, fresh corn, and a handful of herbs for a side dish or add it to curries and braises.
Pair okra with salty-rich tasso, prosciutto, or bacon and fresh late-summer produce like sweet onions, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, and peppers. Punchy vinegars and warm spices like cumin, coriander, and black pepper lend depth to okra’s mild flavor.
Look for brightly colored pods that are blemish-free, 2 to 4 inches long, and tender but not soft.
The trick to avoiding slimy okra is to cook it whole (try steaming) or to cook it quickly using a high-heat technique, like grilling or frying. When grilled, okra is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside; when sliced into rounds, coated in cornmeal, and fried, it’s crunchy and faintly sweet.
When cooking okra, avoid brass, iron, and copper pans, which discolor the pods. They’ll still be edible but less attractive.
Okra is best eaten within a few days of purchase. To store, refrigerate it in a plastic bag for up to three days.