What Is Okra and How Do You Use It? Everything You Need to Know
While many associate okra with summertime in the Southeastern U.S., it's actually grown all over the world. The exact origin of this green, somewhat slimy vegetable is unknown for certain but has been traced back to West Africa, Ethiopia, and even South Asia. It was brought to the Americas centuries ago with the Atlantic Slave Trade. It's an essential ingredient in many types of cuisine still today, including in the U.S. as mentioned, plus parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, India, and South America.
This hot-weather crop means something different to everybody. Regardless of how you enjoy it, there's no denying okra is a versatile vegetable that's surprisingly high in nutritional value. Here's everything you need to know about okra.
What Is Okra?
These fuzzy green veggies are actually the immature seed pods of the Abelmoschus esculentus, or okra plant. They also go by the names "gumbo" and "lady's fingers," depending on where you are.
Okra grows best in hot, humid climates, with India being the leading okra producer. While we might know this plant as a vegetable for culinary purposes, botanically it's a fruit, as it's the seed-bearing part of the plant.
Okra can be divisive for its slimy texture. It contains mucilage, which is a naturally occurring substance that acts as a thickener for stews or gumbos, of course. While some are off-put by this, others find its unique texture perfect for roasting or frying. Quick roasting and dry heat can help minimize the sliminess.
It also has a peach-like fuzz on the exterior and a mild, somewhat grassy taste. Okra is commonly used in soups, canning, frying, roasting, or boiling.
While frying is not the best way to prepare vegetables for health, you can still reap the benefits of okra even in fried form. Okra is rich in fiber and protein, and low in calories. Vegetables often lack significant amounts of protein, making okra unique in this aspect. Plus it's chock full of vitamins (including vitamin C) and antioxidants (see nutrition info here).
How to Cook Okra
No matter which way you choose to prepare it, okra will need to be rinsed and patted dry before cutting or slicing. Depending on which cooking method you intend to use, okra can be cut into rounds, sliced lengthwise, or cut diagonally. If you're planning to cook your okra on low heat, like for gumbo, you can also soak it in vinegar before cooking to help reduce the slime.
For okra that is crisp and crunchy, try roasting, frying, or grilling to help minimize the slimy texture and bring out the grassy flavor of okra. If you're looking for melt-in-your-mouth okra that doubles as a thickening agent, try cooking it low and slow in a stew.
For more recipe inspiration browse our entire collection of okra recipes.
How to Store Okra
Okra pods can bruise somewhat easily, so you have to store them with care. Fresh okra is best stored in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, either wrapped in a paper towel or in a loose paper bag. Wait to wash it until you're ready to cook it. Okra will last up to four days in the fridge.
To preserve okra long-term you can either can it or freeze it. To freeze okra start by blanching the pods in boiling water and then shocking them in an ice bath. You then may either cut the pods prior to freezing or freeze the whole pods by placing them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the freezer. Once the okra is frozen, transfer it to a freezer bag and save for up to a year.
Tips for Growing Okra
You can easily grow okra on your own. However, you'll need to have plenty of garden space. Okra plants can grow up to six feet tall. Here are some tips to help your okra plants flourish in your garden:
- Okra seeds don't do well in cold soil, so be sure to plant them once your soil has warmed, around late spring.
- Space okra plants several feet apart so they have plenty of room to grow.
- When the seedlings reach about three inches high, thin the plants so they are 12 to 18 inches apart.
- Okra is a warm-weather crop that grows best in full sun.
- About an inch of water per week is ideal for okra plants, and even more may be needed if you live in an arid climate.
- After your first harvest, remove the leaves on the lower part of the plant to speed up production.