Okra is a vegetable synonymous with the South and as an ingredient in dishes such as gumbo. Whole okra is a tall plant that can reach up to 6 feet in height, and the edible part is in the form of a green pod. These pods have a subtle flavor similar to eggplant, but they are a valuable complement to many ingredients such as shellfish, tomatoes and onions. Okra also contains a good deal of valuable nutrition, including soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, vitamin B-6 and folic acid. One issue many cooks have is how long to cook okra to get the most out of it as an ingredient.
How to Choose
Fresh okra is a green pod that is a little fuzzy and ridged down its tapered length. The pods have rows of edible seeds and release a liquid when they are cooked. The liquid often is used to thicken stews and soups. When choosing whole, fresh okra, look for pods that are bright green and firm to the touch. Limp pods or pods with brown marks are not as fresh.
The cooking times for fresh whole okra vary depending on the cooking method and type of dish you are making. As part of a stir-fry, whole okra takes between six and 12 minutes to cook. Steaming whole okra takes about five minutes, and it takes two to three minutes per side to grill it. You can line whole okra pods on a baking sheet and place them in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes if you'd like to roast them. It is important to wash and dry the okra well and avoid piercing the pod if you want to serve the whole okra as a side dish without any liquid being released; this keeps the okra moist and tender.
Whole vs. Chopped
The main reason to cook whole okra rather than chopped okra is to keep the gelatinous liquid inside the pod from affecting the dish you are preparing. When you chop up the pods, that liquid is released, and it thickens every ingredient with which it comes in contact. This is why chopped okra is used in stews and soups. Another reason to keep okra whole is for aesthetic purposes. Whole pods may balance the look of the plate with the other ingredients better than chopped okra.
How to Freeze
Okra doesn't keep very long when it is fresh, so the University of Illinois Extension recommends freezing it as the best way to store it long-term. To freeze okra successfully, start with whole fresh pods that are green and shorter than 2 inches. Boil approximately 5 quarts of water in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, and wash and trim the stems of the pods you want to freeze; leave the caps whole. Blanch a maximum of 1 pound of okra at a time for precisely four minutes with the lid securely on the pot. Create an ice-water bath and submerge the okra for five minutes once they are removed from the boiling water. Remove the pods from the cold water and drain them before adding them to store-bought freezer bags. Squeeze out as much air as you can, then label the bags with the date and freeze them for up to one year.
Grow Your Own
Okra doesn't germinate well when the soil is cold, so plant your own a week or two after the last frost has left your area in the spring. Space the seeds 1 to 2 feet apart. When seedlings reach the 3-inch level, thin out all the plants, leaving the strongest ones. After the plants mature, pick the pods at least every other day, and wear gloves while harvesting if the tiny hairs irritate your skin. Use pruning shears to make clean cuts when the pods are roughly 2 to 3 inches long.
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