Okra is both loved and detested for its flavor and gelatinous texture when cooked. Okra, a traditional southern accompaniment for chicken, sausage and shellfish, is an ingredients in Louisiana gumbo. It can also be the main component and star in a vegetarian gumbo. Learning how to prepare okra correctly can make all the difference.
Selecting Fresh Okra
Choose okra that is evenly green and about 2 to 4 inches long. Some cultivars range in color from pink to deep red to purple, but the okra you find in stores will most likely be the green variety. Okra longer than 4 inches may have a woody flavor and a tough texture. The okra should be firm, plump and fresh, and the pods should snap rather than bend, much like green beans.
How to Wash and Trim Okra
As okra matures, the pods develop a fuzz, which is easily wiped off under running water. This step isn’t necessary when cooking the okra in liquid, but some cooks prefer handling the smooth pods.
Trim the stem end from the pods and chop the okra into ½-inch lengths, discarding the point end. Small okra may also be cut lengthwise after trimming the stem.
When to Add Fresh Okra to Gumbo
Add okra to gumbo as a fresh vegetable or as a thickener. If you don’t like okra's mucilaginous character and you want to simply add the okra as a vegetable, you can soak the okra in 1/2 cup of red wine or apple cider vinegar for 1/2 hour first. Rinse the okra and add it to the recipe as directed.
Some cooks recommend first cooking or blanching the okra for 10 to 15 minutes in boiling water to remove the “slime,” and then adding the okra to the gumbo pot as required.
Or, if you prefer a fresh, crunchy texture, you can add the gumbo with the shellfish, generally just 10 minutes before the end.
Using Okra as a Thickener
Traditionally, okra is used as a thickener in gumbo. When used in this manner, the okra is typically sauteed with the trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery. As the gumbo simmers, the okra goes through a “rope-y” stage in which it gives off strings and pockets of mucilaginous slime. But, with longer simmering, the slime disperses and helps to create a uniformly thicker liquid.
Most gumbos begin with the preparation of a roux, a toasted flour-and-oil mixture that also adds flavor and thickens the gumbo. Some variations of gumbo rely on a thickening agent called file, or ground sassafras. File adds spice as well as thickening. But experienced gumbo cooks warn against using both okra and file in the same recipe; the resulting gumbo can become too thick and mushy.
Whether you prefer Creole or Cajun, crunchy or thick, green or purple, okra is a flavorful addition to gumbos, soups, stews and casseroles when prepared correctly.