Marvelous Mucilage: Okra for All Seasons

For devoted fans of the mucilaginous vegetable, canned and pickled okra brings summer to the table all year.

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by Peter Taylor

Canned food is often seen as the epitome of our industrial food system, so canned okra may be the lowest of the low. This is unfortunate, because a can of locally grown organic okra in December is vastly preferable to fresh okra trucked or flown in from Honduras. Nothing stops us from canning our own food. As long as we follow well-established food safety guidelines, canning is a safe method of food preservation.

Canning Alkaline Vegetables

The two methods of home canning are water bath and pressure canning, and the acidity of the food being preserved determines the method to use. Water bath canning only heats the insides of the jars to the temperature of boiling water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t enough to ensure the death of botulism-causing bacteria. Botulism doesn’t form in acidic environments, so water bath canning is only advised for high-acid foods.

A pressure canner is the tool you’ll need to can alkaline foods, such as okra. The pressure canner has a tightly sealed lid to trap steam from the boiling water, which increases the pressure, which increases the boiling point of the water. The food in pressure canners reaches 250 degrees, which is high enough to kill botulism. Follow pressure and time guidelines to the letter when pressure canning, as these are proven methods to safely preserve food.

Pressure canning can be a bit intimidating for beginner food preservers. I must admit that I’d never used a pressure canner before growing a huge amount of okra. I borrowed my friend’s canner, and the process turned out to be as easy as water bath canning, with the added step of maintaining the correct pressure for the required amount of time. Boil whole or cut pods for a few minutes to bring them up to temperature. About 7 pounds of okra are needed to fill nine pint-sized canning jars. I top the jars with the water I’ve boiled the okra in, although some sources recommend using fresh boiled water to cut down on the mucilage. I leave 1 inch of headspace and skip the optional 1 teaspoon of salt per quart.

Sour Success

“The pickle plate is making a comeback,” chef Vivian Howard wrote in Deep Run Roots. She was referring to a slow cooker full of fermented summer vegetables that would be served on a plate when guests came over. Her pickle plate recipe contains whole okra, 2-inch chunks of corn on the cob, hot peppers, and garlic, with salt and pepper, and it tastes delicious. Howard uses the term “pickle plate” to refer to a plate of fermented vegetables, which is totally correct, even though today most people think of pickling and fermenting as two separate things. Today, most items referred to as “pickles” are pickled in acetic acid (vinegar), but pickling in lactic acid is an age-old method of food preservation that’s commonly called “fermenting.” Fermentation creates a live, active culture with the natural lactic acid present in all vegetables, whereas vinegar pickling creates a sterile environment with added acetic acid. Both methods are great ways to preserve okra.

It seems as though everyone wants to share their grandmother’s recipe if you bring up the subject of pickling okra in a public place. In my experience, I can throw in whatever spices I have in the cupboard, and my okra pickles turn out pretty tasty. One ingredient does stand out as essential for optimal results: turmeric. I’ve noticed that turmeric shows up on the label of the best store-bought pickles as well as in the ingredients list of good pickle recipes. One top tip from chef Sean Brock is to gently slit okra pods just under the stem caps. This will allow the pods to fill with vinegary goodness without releasing slime.

One thing I love about vinegar pickling is that you can seal the jars in a hot water bath and then store the pickles in a cool, dark place for a long time with no need for refrigeration. Home pickles have a recommended 1 to 2 years of shelf life, although I suspect they have the potential to survive the apocalypse and some decades beyond. I haven’t been able to test the longevity of my pickles, because they don’t last long enough! Pickled okra is what comes closest to capturing the taste of summer. I think the addition of turmeric, which offers a golden sheen to the pickled pods, triggers a memory of the summer sun as much as a depth of flavor.

Sandor Katz has this to say about okra in his incredible book The Art of Fermentation: “If you enjoy okra, try fermenting some. I usually use okra whole, mixing them with shredded vegetables. That way their sliminess remains mostly enclosed within them, so the people (like me) who enjoy that can, while others can simply avoid the okra. If you chop the okra with other vegetables, the whole batch can take on okra’s slime (yum).”

Fermenting can be a very personal endeavor, and I encourage you to play and experiment with your ferments. Vegetables such as shredded cabbage can produce enough moisture once salted that they’ll ferment in their own juices, but whole okra pods need to be submerged in a salt brine to begin the fermenting process. The speed of the fermentation depends on the temperature and the quantity of salt (more salt slows it down; more heat speeds it up). But the readiness of a fermentation is also subjective. The pods will continue to get softer and then mushier the longer they ferment, but the sourness and the flavors will also continue to develop.

Okra Plus Water

Everything about okra is “slime this” and “slime that” until we get to gumbo. As soon as the topic of gumbo comes up, there’s a switch in terminology, and suddenly we’re praising okra’s magical thickening effects. It’s bad until we want it, and then it’s good. A quick look at gumbo recipes shows a wide variety of versions and ingredients being employed, including meats, seafood, and thickeners. Okra doesn’t even need to be included for a dish to be called “gumbo.” In New Orleans Cuisine, contributor Cynthia LeJeune Nobles wrote, “Today’s purists still insist there are only two types of gumbo, okra and filé — period.” That purist definition of filé gumbo versus fevi gumbo is reflected in writing as far back as 1788. Filé is the powdered leaf of the sassafras tree, a native of North America, with thickening effects similar to okra’s. Fevi is a Creole term for “okra” or “okra gumbo.” Today, the use of filé (sassafras powder) or fevi (okra) is still a distinguishing part of modern gumbo dishes, with an unwritten rule that either can be used, but never together.

okra soup in a red and blue bowl on a gray wood table

Gumbo’s predecessor was okra soup, which has clear ties to West Africa, most famously in Senegal’s soupikandia, an okra-thickened soupy stew. This isn’t surprising, since the people of West Africa were heavily exploited by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Okra soup as prepared by enslaved cooks was quickly adopted into the food culture of the American South and became highly praised, especially in the low country of South Carolina. When okra began to show up in early recipe books, it was as okra soup, clearly the creation of enslaved Black cooks, although no attribution is given.

Sandor Katz’s Fermented Okra

I really enjoy fermenting food because of the freedom it allows. You can pretty much submerge any vegetable or spice mix in a salt brine and create something tasty. This recipe works in a 1-quart jar, but you can scale up and ferment in a larger jar or a ceramic crock. The length of fermentation is subjective and dependent on temperature, but anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks is normal. You can substitute other seasonings for the dill, garlic, or peppercorns if desired. Yield: 1 quart.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound small, tender okra
  • A few fresh chile peppers (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons dill, fresh, dried leaf, seeds, or a flowering head
  • 1 to 2 heads garlic
  • 1 pinch whole black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 2 cups unchlorinated water

Directions: Trim away any damaged or bruised spots on okra pods. Clean the fermentation vessel, and then place seasonings at the bottom. Pack whole okra pods into the vessel tightly, to ensure they’ll remain submerged under brine. Feel free to incorporate green beans, small pickling cucumbers, sweet peppers, green tomatoes, or other summer vegetables as desired.

Dissolve sea salt in unchlorinated water to create a brine solution. Add brine to the vessel. If brine doesn’t cover vegetables, add more brine mixed at the same ratio of 3/4 tablespoon salt to 1 cup water. If okra float at the surface, cut the top of a plastic food container a little bigger than the mouth of the jar, squeeze it through the mouth of the jar, and position it so it holds okra submerged. If you’re using a crock, use a plate to weigh down okra, and cover it with a cloth to keep out dust and flies. With a jar, use the lid to loosely seal the jar.

Leave okra to ferment 3 or 4 days, and then taste every day or two thereafter. Sourness will develop over time; how quickly it develops depends primarily upon temperature. If any white surface scum appears, skim it off, but don’t worry if you can’t get it all. Enjoy okra as they ferment, and continue to check them regularly. If they start to soften, or if you don’t want them to become any more sour, move them to the fridge.

Chef Michael W. Twitty’s Okra Soup

Okra soup was raved about throughout the 1800s, so I’m excited to include this recipe from food historian, chef, and James Beard Award-winning author (for The Cooking Gene) Michael W. Twitty, who says, “Here’s a peppery, historically inspired recipe for okra soup, with a few modern updates. The culinary trinity of hot pepper, tomato, and okra served with rice reinforce this soup’s connection to similar dishes found from Senegal to Angola, and Philadelphia to Bahia.” Yield: 8 servings.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon lard or olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced and dusted with flour
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon kitchen pepper (see note below)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
  • 3 cups water
  • 28-ounce canned tomatoes with juice, or 3 1/2 cups peeled and diced fresh tomatoes
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen young okra, cut into small, thin pieces
  • 2 cups cooked rice, kept warm (optional)

Note: For the kitchen pepper, grind together 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon ground mace, 1 teaspoon ground Ceylon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1 teaspoon ground ginger.

Directions: In a Dutch oven, heat butter and lard until melted. Add onion and parsley, and gently cook until onion is translucent and soft. Add garlic and cook for a minute more, until fragrant. Add thyme, salt, black pepper, kitchen pepper, and red pepper flakes, and cook for another minute or so. Add broth, water, and tomatoes, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add okra, and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until tender. Serve in bowls, over a 1/4-cup lump of warm rice.


Chris Smith is an okra fanatic and the author of the 2020 James Beard Award-winning book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration. This is an excerpt from that book, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

a red book cover with various sizes of okra reading The Whole Okra a seed to stem celebration

The Whole Okra 

The Whole Okra is a lighthearted but information-rich collection of okra history, lore, recipes, craft projects, growing advice, and more. Follow along with author Chris Smith as he recounts what he’s learned from various chefs, food historians, university researchers, farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners. On his journey, Smith discovered an amazing range of delicious ways to cook and eat the plant, along with ingenious and surprising ways to process it from tip-to-tail: pods, leaves, flowers, seeds, and stalks. Order from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or by calling 800-234-3368.