Okra is mainly used as a natural thickener for soups and stews and is one of the most common ingredients in the Louisiana-born gumbo, but what should you do when you don’t have okra at hand?
There are several okra substitutes you can try, each one serving a different purpose such as thickening agent, pickle, fried option, or vegetable side dish. Depending on your recipe, you can choose the alternative that better fits your needs.
The best substitutes for okra
Okra is a part of the Abelmoschus esculentus plant, specifically the seed pod. Therefore, although treated as a vegetable, okra is actually a fruit.
Okra can be cooked in many ways, however sometimes the cooking method could make it slimy, which is a quality that isn’t appreciated by everyone (or, on the contrary, can be what makes okra palatable for others).
In order to prevent okra from becoming slimy, it’s important to choose the right cooking method. Usually, frying, pan-roasting, sautéeing, and grilling recipes will reduce okra sliminess.
Okra has a unique taste that isn’t comparable with anything else, although some vegetables like green beans and eggplant are very similar to it. When slow-cooked, okra has a tender consistency, while it remains crunchy when cooked quickly.
If you’re looking for an okra replacement, consider one of the alternatives below.
1. File powder
File powder or gumbo file is one of the thickening agents used in gumbo along with okra. The two can be substituted for one another and file powder is, in fact, the best okra substitute in the gumbo.
File powder is made from the dried leaves of the North American sassafras tree and has been used as a thickening agent in gumbos, stews, and soups for a long time.
It’s important to add file powder to the gumbo right before serving it or it can also be sprinkled on it when it’s ready. In fact, if you add it to gumbo when it’s still cooking, it becomes too thick and stringy to be appreciated.
When using file powder as a substitute for okra, use 1 tablespoon of powder for every two cups of okra. Note that not everyone might enjoy the taste of fine powder, so if you’re unsure about what your guests may like, do choose a safer alternative.
Cornstarch is a corn extract that closely resembles flour and is, in fact, a carbohydrate often used as a thickening agent in pies, soups, casseroles, marinades, sauces, and other recipes.
The difference between normal flour and cornstarch is that the latter only contains carbs and is therefore gluten-free. As a thickening agent, cornstarch is often preferred to flour because it’s twice as a thickening and the resulting product is tasteless and transparent.
You can use cornstarch as an okra substitute by stirring one tablespoon of cold water with two teaspoons of cornstarch and adding it to your recipe. It is recommended to use a sieve because the consistency of cornstarch might form lumps.
The mixture will thicken after 5-10 minutes of cooking and it won’t add any extra flavor to your dish.
If you can’t eat cornstarch, arrowroot powder is a valid alternative. It is often used as a substitute for thickening agents in various recipes because it shares some characteristics with the most common flour-like powders.
Arrowroot powder is white and flavorless, it has a strong thickening power just like cornstarch and is vegan and gluten-free. It comes from the roots of a tropical plant, which are then dried and ground.
Arrowroot is recommended for those recipes where the final outcome should look appealing and shiny, since it gives a glossy finish to the food, without changing the color.
This kind of flour can be used in many ways and not just as a thickening agent: in fact, it works very well even with acidic ingredients, for example, those used to make fruit fillings.
If you want to use arrowroot as an okra alternative, for every two cups of okra you can substitute two teaspoons of arrowroot mixed with two teaspoons of water.
Zucchini is so versatile that it works as a perfect substitute for many vegetables and fruits (zucchini itself is actually a fruit), including okra and cucumbers.
There is little you cannot do with zucchini: it works on its own as a side dish, it can be used for fillings, desserts, bread and you can even turn it into noodles.
On top of that, zucchini is easy to cook and also easy to grow in your own garden, even though it’s also cheap enough not to burden your wallet when you buy it in stores.
It has a mildly sweet flavor that you can keep if you’re making bread and cakes, or you can choose to smother it with salt when making side dishes or pasta.
When you need to substitute okra as a side dish, zucchini is a great alternative because of its light flavor and its soft texture when cooked, which is similar to okra’s one.
5. Green beans
Green beans are available year-round and make for a nutritious and juicy side dish when cooked alone, or they can also be added to your recipes.
These pod beans are a good source of:
– Vitamin A, C, K
Because of that, they’re full of antioxidants and can lower the risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome.
There’s much you can do with green beans: you can blanch them, steam them, braise them, sautée them, stir-fry them or put them into a green bean casserole.
People who don’t enjoy the sliminess of okra would rather make pickled okra because the process adds acidity and reduces the slime. Green beans are a good pickled alternative to okra because they have a crunchy and snappy consistency.
Asparagus grows all over the world, which makes it available year-round through import but also slightly more expensive than other vegetables.
It is easily recognizable by its long and pointed shape and it’s very versatile: it can be roasted, boiled, steamed, grilled, and fried, which is what makes it such a good substitute for okra.
In fact, a popular way to cook okra is to coat it into flour batter and fry it. Fried okra makes for a quick and delicious snack, especially when served with dipping sauce.
Although the taste won’t be the same, asparagus is extremely appetizing when fried so it can be swapped with okra when necessary because the result will be very similar.
7. Broccoli florets
These vegetables that resemble small trees are popular for being extremely healthy. In fact, broccoli is low in fat and calories while being very high in fibers and vitamin C.
Every part of broccoli is edible, some recipes might be focused on the stalks, while others on the heads. It can be used raw in salads or cooked in several different ways depending on your taste or on what the recipe calls for.
The head of broccoli looks like a green flower. When you cut the head into smaller pieces and remove the stalks, you obtain the florets.
Broccoli florets are a good replacement for okra as a vegetable side dish. The florets have a slightly stronger flavor than the stalks and even though it doesn’t taste like okra, they have a crunchiness to them that makes broccoli very delicious as a stand-alone dish.
Roux is a popular thickening agent that is made from only two ingredients: butter and flour. It’s the base for many sauces and it’s easily made at home, even when you’re in a pinch.
Although gumbo is often associated with okra, the latter isn’t the only ingredient you can use for it. In fact, some people prefer roux as a substitute for okra in the gumbo.
Today, when we refer to roux we commonly refer to a mix of flour and lard. Lard, despite what many think of it, is actually lower in cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat than butter, which makes it the healthier choice for the roux.
However, it’s not so common to have lard ready at home, while every kitchen usually has some butter stored. If you want to make roux at home, melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, then add two tablespoons of flour and stir it.
Keep it on low heat until the mixture starts taking a nutty color, but don’t overcook it. When it’s ready, you can add it to your gumbo mix like you would with okra.
They’re commonly found in summer and are fairly big and heavy. They’re usually dark purple-black in color and their shape resembles a big drop.
Eggplant is extremely healthy because they’re low in sodium, calories, and cholesterol while being rich in:
– Vitamin A and B1
When you’re using okra as a vegetable and not as a thickener, you can substitute eggplant cut in big pieces to soups and stews. In fact, when cooked this vegetable becomes softer and has a texture similar to that of okra.
The nopal cactus is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine and it’s also called the prickly pear.
Its taste is a mix of bitter and tart and it doesn’t have any particular punch, but it’s savory nonetheless. It could be compared to that of bell peppers.
Nopales should be eaten when they’re still young and tender, because when they mature they become very tough and just generally unpleasant to eat.
In Mexican cuisine, this vegetable has many uses, because it can be fried, broiled, grilled, baked, pickled, or even made into juice.
They’re also a popular thickening agent for soups, which is where they give their best as an okra substitute. They will add a tart and slightly different flavor to your dish, but it’s usually a fresh and much-appreciated change in most dishes.
How to choose an okra substitute.
We can split okra replacements into three categories based on their role in the recipe:
– Thickener: when making stews and soups like gumbo, okra is mainly used as a thickener. Good thickening alternatives for okra include file powder, arrowroot, cornstarch, roux, and nopales.
– Vegetable: okra makes for a delicious side dish when cooked alone. If you need to substitute okra with another vegetable, take your pick among zucchini, eggplant, asparagus (when fried), or broccoli florets.
– Pickle: pickled okra is popular among those who do not enjoy the sliminess of cooked okra. A good okra substitution when you’re craving pickles is green beans.
Alternatives for okra are often as versatile as the original fruit, that’s why starting from the recipe of your choice is fundamental to know how to choose an okra substitute.