Now that the bitterness has been bred out of the aubergine, the need to draw out the juices before cooking is a moot point
I still salt aubergines as my mother did in the 60s. Is it really necessary?
Richard, New Forest
Alan Davidson’s imperious Oxford Companion to Food, which took him 20 years to write, notes that Europeans once viewed aubergines as inedible, and grew them only as ornamental plants, but we soon saw the light after wrapping our chops around the likes of moussaka, melanzane alla parmigiana and ratatouille for the first time.
Salting, Davidson notes, was a means to draw out the bitter juices inside the aubergine, and had the added benefit of helping to collapse the cell walls, so limiting the vegetable’s tendency to behave like a lush at a free bar when it gets anywhere near oil. But bitterness isn’t so much of an issue these days, because it’s been bred out over the years. Food geek supreme Harold McGee argues, in On Food and Cooking, that salting only alters our perception of the alkaloids in the aubergine, anyway: “The bulk of the cell fluids remains in the cells.” Instead, he recommends microwaving before frying, “to collapse its spongy structure”.
Consult the culinary bibles of the 20th century, however, and you’d be excused for thinking that salting is obligatory. Ada Boni, in her 1969 masterwork Italian Regional Cooking, salts hers for an hour, as does her successor as queen of Italian food, Marcella Hazan; and their modern-day compatriot Giorgio Locatelli really goes to town by salting his eggplants for all of two hours, but all three can be forgiven for following national culinary tradition no matter what. So what of those patron saints of British food writing, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson? Both salt, too, though in their defence, they advocated this in the 1950s and 70s, respectively. Mind you, David didn’t think “cheese and aubergines are an ideal combination”, so what did she know?
In an attempt to reach a consensus, I took a straw poll of Feast columnists. And guess what? The jury is still out. Thomasina Miers used to salt, “but read that they’d had the bitterness bred out, so I stopped. Then I realised a lot of it had to do with sucking out moisture, so they don’t absorb too much oil, so now I salt again.” Felicity Cloake salts, too, but only just before cooking, “as a seasoning, because you need to use less salt in total that way”.
Anna Jones doesn’t salt, but has one caveat: “Bigger, very seedy and more watery aubergines are more like the ones my mum cooked, and benefit from losing a bit of moisture.” Meera Sodha also doesn’t for the simple reason that any residual bitterness “is not so offensive that it can’t be overpowered by a good masala”. While one might be tempted to salt to remove liquid for, say, crisp slices, she adds, “you could just fry them a bit longer”. Yotam Ottolenghi’s test kitchen tends not to salt, either, says development chef Noor Murad. “For us, it’s more a question of whether we want moisture in the aubergines before cooking. In the oven, the steam generated by the moisture inside the aubergine helps it cook a long time without drying out.”
Rachel Roddy is a kindred spirit, but only after doing “lots and lots of testing for the Sicily book, where every other dish is flipping melanzane. Most aubergines you get in the UK are less sturdy, so salting just bashes up the flesh. My teacher, the Italian cook and one-time London restaurateur Carla Tomasi, is adamant you don’t need to salt any more. Her mother did, ‘but that was 40 years ago. Aubergines have changed, and our cooking habits have, too.’”
That makes the final score 4:2 (ish) to the no-salt camp, which is just not definitive enough and means I now need a long lie-down. Clearly, where aubergines are concerned, at the very least, anything you read in this column should be taken with a big pinch of, er, salt.