Okra is one of those vegetables you love or hate, and—we’d swear on a stack of our favorite cookbooks—any one of these okra recipes will put you squarely in the love camp.
When properly prepared, okra is subtly sweet and beautifully crisp-tender (though it’s also wonderful stewed to silky softness). While Americans are most familiar with it in Southern dishes like gumbo, it’s enjoyed elsewhere in the world as well. See Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua) or the Filipino vegetable dish pinakbet for some examples:
What Is Okra?
Okra is a fruit that most people treat as a vegetable (just like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers).
In its whole form, it looks like a long, green pod with a pointy end (which helps explain why they’re sometimes called lady’s fingers). Different varieties and colors of okra do exist, but they can all be prepared in the same ways—but note that “Chinese okra” is an entirely different plant similar to a summer squash, and is not interchangeable with the okra we’re talking about.
Cut okra into rounds and it reveals a honeycomb-like cross section with lots of white seeds inside:
While okra is packed with nutritional benefits, it’s probably most infamous for its slimy texture—but if that’s all you focus on, you’re selling it short (and probably cooking it incorrectly).
Okra may have originated in Ethiopia, West Africa, or South Asia, but we know it was brought to America by enslaved Africans; like so many other indigenous African ingredients, techniques, and dishes, it has became synonymous with Southern cooking.
It grows in various regions of Africa, as well as Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the U.S. (in warm-climate states like Florida). Fresh okra is in season in summer in the U.S. and can be grown in gardens, but frozen okra can be found year-round.
What Makes Okra Slimy?
When you cut open an okra pod, it releases a thick, viscous, clear substance called mucilage. If you enjoy slippery textures, you might not mind. If you’d rather cut down on the slime factor, you can add a touch of vinegar, lemon juice, or acidic tomatoes to the okra, or quickly cook it over high heat:
Be sure to choose smaller pods at the store (or pick them early from your veggie garden), since they won’t be as slick.
How Should You Cook Okra?
There are many ways to prepare okra, from grilling and frying to stewing and searing, but you can also use it raw in pickles.
Fresh Green Okra, $27.99/lb from Etsy
If you can't find it fresh in stores, there's always the internet (shipping is included).
These are some of the best okra recipes around to demonstrate just how good it really is:
1. Grilled Okra
Tossing fresh green okra pods onto a searing-hot grill pan (or an actual grill if its already been fired up) is the vegetable at its simple best. The okra ends up softened, a little blistered on the outside, and without any trace of sliminess—and it’s amazing with a Greek-inspired Yogurt Dipping Sauce featuring bright lemon, garlic, and basil. Get our Grilled Okra recipe.
2. Fried Okra
This is one of the simple pleasures of Southern cooking: sliced okra pods tossed in the simplest of cornmeal batters (with a little bite from freshly ground black pepper), fried quickly in properly hot oil. Popcorn shrimp has nothing on these morsels. Get our Fried Okra recipe.
Related Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Deep-Frying Like a Pro
Three defining foods of the South—shrimp, okra, and hushpuppies—have an old-fashioned family reunion in this recipe. Creole seasoning gives them proper Louisiana flavor, diced red pepper makes them look like a party, and a slug of beer in the batter gives them the right quality of lightness. Get our Shrimp and Okra Hushpuppies recipe.
Atlanta chef (and “Top Chef” alumnus) Kevin Gillespie came up with this deeply savory, beautifully seared, and subtly sweet mashup of okra and bacon, cooked in cast iron. Try it with fresh biscuits and/or eggs! Get our Charred Okra with Bacon Jam recipe.
Lodge Chef Collection Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet, $29.95 at Sur La Table
This skillet comes pre-seasoned so you can get cooking right away.
Okra is a traditional ingredient in gumbo not just for its flavor but its thickening power; using frozen okra saves a ton of time, but if you have fresh okra, you can certainly use that here instead. Starting with a cooked rotisserie chicken still makes this quite possibly the fastest gumbo ever; it can go from ingredients to table in 40 minutes—no need to wait for Mardi Gras. Get our Easy Chicken Gumbo recipe. (And if you have more time on your hands, try our Chicken and Andouille Gumbo recipe, or Shrimp and Okra Gumbo recipe with tasso ham.)
6. Maque Choux
This traditional Louisiana dish of stewed corn, okra, and peppers is kind of the Cajun version of succotash. It’s a vibrant, versatile dish we start making when the first corn comes in, and don’t let go of until summer’s over. Get our Maque Choux recipe.
This dish from chef JJ Johnson features another underrated African ingredient: fonio, a super healthy, gluten-free grain similar in texture to couscous. It’s cooked with the okra and tomatoes and they all provide a flavorful base that soaks up the juices from the spicy, citrusy, jerk-seasoned bass on top. Get the Citrus Jerk Bass with Fonio, Okra, and Tomatoes recipe.
Related Reading: This West African Grain Bowl Is the Original Power Lunch
You can quick pickle just about any vegetable, and okra is no exception. Keep the pods whole and use small ones (no more than three inches long), which will be more tender and less fibrous. They’re ready to eat in one day, but even better after a week, and will keep for about a month in the fridge…if you don’t go through them all first. Get the Quick Pickled Okra recipe.
Embracing okra’s soft side by stewing it is a time-honored tradition, and adding tomatoes is a classic move that helps control the slickness while making everything taste even more delicious. Get the Stewed Okra and Tomatoes recipe.
Header image by Chowhound.