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Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tried 4 Eggplant Parmesan Recipes and the Winner Was a Showstopper

published Jul 30, 2020
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Eggplant Parmesan is one of all my all-time favorite comfort foods. It’s a dish that conjures up happy memories — both from my time living in Italy, where I enjoyed tried-and-true versions made by real-deal Italian nonnas, and time spent around my in-laws, where it’s served lovingly with all the good banter and hand gestures you’d expect from an Italian-American family.

To me, the very best eggplant Parmesan is packed with silky layers of eggplant, a sweet and savory homemade tomato sauce, and enough melty cheese to get that quintessential cheese pull but not too much that it weighs the whole thing down. It should be decadent but not greasy, saucy but not soggy. In fact, if I’m not sopping up every last drop of sauce with my side of crusty garlic bread, this isn’t the eggplant Parmesan for me.

Because most recipes require quite a bit of work, it’s worth it to find the best one — so I battled off four of the most well-loved recipes in an epic side-by-side taste test. Not only did I come away with a new go-to, but I also learned the ins and outs of making the absolute best version of this classic dish. And trust me — every time I eat it, my plate is wiped clean.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Meet Our 4 Eggplant Parmesan Contenders

Admittedly, I went into this battle with a favorite: Marcella Hazan’s Eggplant Parmesan from her cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. To prevent my own bias, I left it out of the battle, and instead used it as my gold standard. If another recipe could live up to hers, it deserved to win. I also wanted a winner that was available to everyone online.

I wanted to battle off four recipes that showed off how diverse eggplant Parmesan is. The dish is both Italian and Italian-American, and you’ll find it made quite differently in both places, and within families as well. Ultimately, I landed on recipes from Martha Stewart, Serious Eats, Emiko Davies on Food52, and Stacy Adimando, from her cookbook, Piatti, on Saveur.

In Italy, the origins of the dish are debated — some say Sicily and some say Naples. Both versions involve tomato sauce and eggplant that’s fried but not breaded, but in Sicily a traditional cheese called caciocavallo is used (it’s similar to aged provolone), and in Naples, it’s local mozzarella. I knew I needed to try both styles, which led me to Emiko Davies Sicilian version on Food52 and Serious Eats’ Neapolitan one. Interestingly, Parmesan wasn’t used in these classic Italian versions because it comes from the northern city of Parma and wasn’t widely available until many years later. (It’s therefore thought the name eggplant Parmesan stems from the word parmiciana, which in Sicilian dialect refers to wooden shutters with layered horizontal slats, similar to how the dish itself is layered).

I picked Stacy Adimando’s recipe from her cookbook, Piatti, which is featured on Saveur with permission from Chronicle Books, because it represented an Italian-American version, which tend to be richer and more decadent because the eggplant is breaded before it’s fried and two kinds of cheese are used — mozzarella and Parmesan or Pecorino. Many recipes now even skip the frying in lieu of baking the eggplant, which is why I selected Martha Stewart’s recipe as my final contender.

How I Tested the Eggplant Parmesan Recipes

I had no trouble finding mouths to feed for this battle because I’m currently staying with my Italian American in-laws. They all have passionate opinions about eggplant Parm so I knew they’d be fair and honest taste testers. Luckily, we all ranked the recipes similarly, which made the results clear.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

1. The Mess-Saver That Wasn’t Worth It: Martha Stewart’s Baked Eggplant Parmesan

I loved the idea of this recipe: Instead of frying the eggplant, you bake the breaded slices. Frying is both a chore and a mess, so I had no problem skipping it! Unfortunately the casserole ended up being way too dry and tasteless — especially because the too-thick eggplant slices couldn’t layer properly in the baking dish and didn’t absorb the tomato sauce. In the end, the mess I saved didn’t make up for the fact that the finished dish just wasn’t very flavorful. I wouldn’t make this recipe again.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

2. The Biggest Disappointment: Serious Eats’ Italian-Style Eggplant Parm

This Neopolitan-style recipe featured unbreaded fried eggplant, a simple tomato sauce, fresh herbs, and fresh mozzarella. I was eager to make it because it felt light and summery. But because the eggplant slices aren’t salted or breaded, they absorbed way too much of the oil when fried, making the casserole greasy. The fresh mozzarella also released a lot of its liquid as it baked, resulting in a water-logged dish that was difficult to slice.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

3. The Close Second: Food52’s Eggplant Parmigiana

This recipe comes from Emiko Davies, an Italy-based food writer and cookbook author who excels in working to preserve the traditional cuisine. This variation hails from Sicily, so instead of mozzarella, it calls for caciocavallo cheese, an aged cheese similar to provolone. Like the Neopolitan-style recipe, the eggplant isn’t breaded but is indeed fried, and the tomato sauce is kept simple. I loved this minimalist approach — every ingredient was able to shine.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find caciocavallo cheese, so I had to settle for Parmesan (which is listed as the substitute in the recipe). The Parm didn’t melt as well and it made the dish salty. I’d definitely make this version again, but I’d be sure to track down the proper cheese or make it with aged provolone instead of Parmesan.

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

4. The Clear Winner: Saveur’s Best-Ever Eggplant Parmigiana

This recipe was an easy favorite. Yes, it took the longest to make, but it was 100 percent worth it. Thanks to the slow-simmered homemade tomato sauce, the thinly-sliced and lightly breaded fried eggplant, and the use of both shredded mozzarella and grated Pecorino Romano cheeses, it was a show-stopping dish that will lived up to all my cravings. I’ll definitely be making it again and again.

Do you have a favorite eggplant Parmesan recipe? Let us know in the comments!