Since posting my recipe for the Best Chicken Parmesan, I've been getting tons of requests for my version of an oven-fried Eggplant Parmesan. It might sound like a simple substitution, but eggplants are quite different from chicken and so it's not as simple as swapping out the chicken for eggplant. To understand how we need to change the recipe to work for eggplant we first need to understand how eggplant differs from chicken.
Eggplant has a spongy porous texture, which makes it great for absorbing flavors, but when it's deep fried, it also tends to absorb frying oil like a mop. The thing is, it's that absorption of oil that gives the eggplant a marvelous creamy texture and rich taste. Thats why baked eggplants tend to end up dried out and chewy, or spongy and watery.
This fundamental problem is what's kept me from doing an eggplant parmesan recipe sooner. But recently, while working on another recipe, I realized that if I soaked the eggplant in enough oil before roasting it, it turns out just as tender and creamy as a fried eggplant.
The next problem was that I envisioned my eggplant parmesan having thick steak-like rounds of eggplant. But when you slice the eggplant too thick, it tends to release a lot of water while cooking, leaving the breading soggy. To avoid this, I salt the pieces first, to coax out the excess water. This also has the added benefit of seasoning the eggplant to the core.
After being salted and squeezed, the eggplant needs to literally be bathed in olive oil before going through the flour, egg, breadcrumb routine. This allows enough oil to soak into each piece of eggplant so that it has the creamy consistency of fried eggplant.
Since we're soaking the eggplant in oil, you may be wondering why I don't just fry it. Well, if you're anything like me and hate cleaning up the splattered mess that deep frying leaves, that alone should be reason enough, but if you're still not convinced, I'm fairly certain deep fried eggplant is going to absorb a heck of a lot more than three tablespoons of oil.
Like croutons in a bowl of French onion soup, this eggplant parm has a crackling crisp crust of bread and browned cheese on top, a tender flavorful bottom, and a rich velvety disc of eggplant in between. I like using a meat sauce for this dish because of the extra flavor it adds, but if you want to make this vegetarian, just swap out the sauce portion of this recipe for my basic tomato sauce
- Trim both ends off the eggplants and cut them into 9 rounds about 1-inch thick. Sprinkle the sliced eggplant evenly on both sides with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Let them sit for about 45 minutes. This coaxes the excess water out of the eggplant, which helps the breading crisp.
- After resting for 45 minutes, use paper towels and the palms of your hands to press out as much water as you can from the eggplant slices.
- Drizzle the eggplant with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and keep flipping the slices over until the eggplant has absorbed all the oil.
- Prepare a baking sheet with a wire rack inside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Prepare 3 small bowls. Add the flour to one bowl. Add the egg to the second and beat until uniform. Add the panko and grated parmesan to the third bowl and stir to combine.
- Dust the eggplant slices in flour and pat off any extra flour with your hands so that each slice has a thin even coat of flour without any clumps.
- Dip the floured eggplant in the egg mixture, coating every surface and then transfer the eggplant to the bowl with the breadcrumbs.
- Shake the bowl, using a tossing motion to coat the pieces evenly with bread crumbs, pressing down on them to ensure you get a nice even coating.
- Place the breaded eggplant onto the wire rack and then bake until the eggplant is tender when poked with a toothpick and the breading is light brown (about 30-40 minutes).
- While the eggplant bakes, make the sauce by adding the olive oil, onions and garlic to a pan and saute over medium-high heat until the onions are tender and are starting to brown.
- Add the ground meat and saute, breaking up the chunks until the meat is cooked.
- Add the wine and let it boil until most of the liquid is gone.
- Add the stewed tomatoes, water, salt, oregano and pepper, breaking up the tomatoes with a spatula.
- Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the sauce for 10 minutes.
- When the eggplant is done, remove it from the oven and turn the heat up to 500 degrees F (260 C).
- Pour the sauce into a 10-inch square baking dish. Lay the oven-fried eggplant on top of the sauce.
- Cover the eggplant with mozzarella and the remaining parmesan cheese.
- Bake the eggplant parmesan until the cheese is golden brown and crusty (about 10-15 minutes).