Some foods just naturally evoke strong feelings in diners, and in the vegetable world few are as polarizing as okra. Aficionados tout its nutritional benefits and mild flavor, while its detractors fixate on its tendency to ooze a sticky mucilage when it's cooked. That distinctive texture -- it's hard to avoid calling it slimy -- is disconcerting to many diners, and takes away from the vegetable's appeal. Fortunately, there are many well-established techniques to help keep okra from becoming slimy when it's cooked.
A Backyard Beauty
Okra is a much-loved garden plant in semitropical climates, where its heat-loving nature can be indulged. The plant is a close relative of hibiscus and rose of Sharon, and like those plants it produces a lavish display of large, beautiful blossoms. The plant's seed pod is the part harvested as a vegetable, ideally three to five days after the blossom drops. The smallest pods are tenderest and have the most delicate flavor. In India, where it's a cherished vegetable, okra is known as ladyfingers because it's best when no larger than the little finger of a woman's hand. As the pods grow larger, they coarsen and become woody.
Keep It Together
The simplest way to prevent okra from becoming slimy is to not cut it. The pods' cell walls contain the mucilage -- so if you don't slice the vegetable, the mucilage is never released into your dish. Just wash and dry the pods thoroughly, and use a small paring knife to carefully remove the leathery cap at the stem end. The whole okra can be stewed, steamed, fried, grilled or broiled as needed to complement your dish. Once cooked, it can be sliced before serving, or just cut it with a fork while it's on your plate.
Keeping It Dry
Okra's role as a thickener in soups and stews highlights a second crucial detail. The mucilage in the pods only reaches its full potential in the presence of liquids, so using a dry cooking method keeps the okra slime-free. Toss the okra with a small amount of oil, and roast it or grill it at high heat until it's tender and lightly charred. Then serve it as a side dish with your favorite grilled meats. Sauteing or pan-frying the okra is another much-loved alternative. Dusting the okra with flour, cornmeal or a mixture of dried spices first improves the result, crisping the outside and helping absorb any oozing moisture.
A Bit of Acidity
Acidity can also help minimize okra's production of mucilage, and many recipes make use of it. Stewed okra is often cooked with tomatoes, which help counter its tendency to become slippery. Many Southern cooks soak the okra in water with a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar, or blanch the okra in boiling water with the acid added.