You can find fresh eggplants in the grocery store year-round, but they’re at their peak in late summer.
The most common variety is the large, dark-purple globe eggplant. Look for smooth, shiny skins with fresh-looking stems and no blemishes. The fruit itself (eggplant is actually a berry!) should feel weighty in your hand. And when you press on the skin, it should be firm but give slightly, and then bounce back. If you’re not preparing your eggplants right away, store them in the crisper of your fridge up to five days--any longer, and eggplant can become bitter.
The skin is entirely edible, though with larger eggplants it can be a little tough. If your eggplant is young, tender, and on the small side, the skin can probably be left on for skillet frying or braising. Otherwise, peel the skin and then slice or cube the flesh.
The flesh should be pale and creamy and free of blemishes. Remove dark or bruised portions and seeds that are turning brown, as they can have a bitter taste and an unpleasant texture.
If you’re roasting the eggplant whole in the oven or on the grill, leave the skin on; then after roasting, let it cool, and scoop out the flesh.
To Salt or Not to Salt
This is a much debated topic. Salting your eggplant slices or cubes does have a few things going for it. First, it draws out juices, which, particularly for older eggplants, can be bitter. It also tightens and firms up the flesh, making the eggplant less likely to soak up as much oil. And salt adds flavor.
However, many cooks point out that modern varieties are not the bitter fruits of the past and that salting them makes little difference. Varieties like Japanese and Chinese eggplant should be fine without salting. With globe eggplants, experiment for yourself.
If you choose to salt your eggplant, first slice or cube it, and then salt generously, allowing the fruit to sit in a colander for at least an hour, preferably longer. Salted eggplant can sit purging for hours without harming the taste or texture. But before cooking the eggplant, be sure to rinse the salt off well. Then place the slices between sheets of paper towel and press gently to remove juices and firm the flesh. This is particularly important when frying your eggplant slices or cubes.
Eggplant slices act like oil-slurping sponges. Even salted, gently hand-pressed slices will soak up plenty of oil. To reduce the amount of oil you’ll need, try brushing olive oil onto one side of eggplant slices; then lay them oil-side down in a hot skillet without crowding (a crowded pan will cause the slices to steam rather than fry). Brush the up-side only just before turning. If you brush both sides at the start, the oil will simply soak into the flesh. Fry until the slices are nice and brown.
You can also deep-fry eggplant slices and cubes. The super-hot oil immediately surrounds the flesh and seals in the moisture as it quickly browns the surface, leaving slices that are not noticeably greasier than the pan-fried kind.
Roasting or Grilling Eggplant
You can also brush slices of eggplant with olive oil and roast them in the oven or toss them onto a hot grill.
To roast whole eggplants in the oven or on the grill, leave the skin on and roast at 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) until the skin gets wrinkly and begins to collapse in on the softened fruit. This method will produce a velvety smooth dip or spread.