Releasing the sweetness and softening the texture of okra require very little fuss and only a short session on the stove. The most common concern is keeping the okra tender without their structure breaking down. A few simple tips provide the solution.
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The secret to tender boiled okra with a little snap still in the fibers is to drop the pods into a pot of boiling water and cook on a vigorous heat for a limited period. For the shorter, younger pods, 3 to 4 minutes, covered, at a rolling boil will be sufficient, whereas for longer, more mature pods, up to 8 minutes might be required. The okra are done when the tines of a fork will easily penetrate the flesh just below the stalk. Any longer and overcooking could turn the okra slimy. Remove the pot from the heat, drain the okra and toss in butter and salt before serving. As long as the cooking time is monitored judiciously, the okra can also be chopped into slices and boiled, but for less time.
Okra produces mucilage, a liquid with a consistency similar to the sticky film that oozes from a cut aloe vera plant. While this viscous slime is an essential boon to okra soups and gumbo, it belongs more to stewed rather than boiled okra. For okra that is almost crunchy, start with dry pods, patted dry after rinsing. Add a teaspoon of citrus juice to the boiling water before tossing in the okra. Cooking the pods whole retains crispness more than chopping the pods into rounds, but if you must cut the okra, leave it at room temperature first for up to an hour to let the okra dry out. As a rule of thumb, the more you cut the okra, the more it will produce slime.
Okra is in season during the summer, or year-round in much of the South. If not using fresh, okra can be found frozen in most supermarkets, although the water content can be significant. A better tactic is to cut fresh okra into slices during the season and freeze for later. Frozen okra struggles to match the texture of fresh, boiled okra, and is best reserved for stews and gumbo. In fact, the Cajun stew takes its name from the West African word for okra. Shorter okra, up to 2 inches long, are best boiled, while the bigger ones are more appropriate for stewing. For stewed okra, which tends to produce a thicker sauce, start with cold water and bring the liquid to a boil, simmering covered for at least 10 minutes. Gumbo calls for crushed tomatoes for flavor and moisture.
Because some people are put off by the slime on okra, a few tricks can mitigate the ooze. Choosing smaller pods, for instance, makes for less slime. Younger pods up to 4 inches are best. Similarly, tossing the raw okra in salt and rinsing in a bowl of cold water with a few slugs of lemon juice will also restrain slime. While boiling, avoid overcrowding the pot, since the steam will encourage the okra to ooze. Unlike conventional vegetable boiling, the salt should be added at the end rather than to the water. Discard any pods that are too hard to cut.