Eggplant parmesan, or parmigiana di melanzane, is the quintessential vegetarian Italian dish. Thin slices of eggplant are seasoned, battered, and fried. Then, the crispy eggplant discs are baked in a flavorful bed of tomato sauce, noodles, and mouthwateringly melty layers of parmesan and mozzarella. Savory, saucy, and so very good, eggplant parm is deceptively easy to make and a healthier alternative to popular Italian dishes weighed down with hearty meatballs or chicken.
For the crispiest eggplant (because who wants squishy eggplant? No one, that’s who), the air fryer is by far the best tool for the job. Air fryers are essentially convection ovens on steroids, swirling hot air around the battered eggplant to recreate the delicious, golden-brown crunch normally associated with a deep fryer.
The perforated cooking surface ensures every side of the eggplant will come out beautifully crisp with no oil. Plus, air fryers get the job done quickly, slicing the eggplant frying time in half compared to a traditional oven bake. I bought a GoWise 1700-Watt Eight-qt. Air Fryer earlier this year (a pandemic panic purchase, if you will), and it has paid itself off and then some in the short eight months it’s been in my kitchen.
After frying the eggplant in the air fryer, the discs are transferred to a casserole dish layered with tomato sauce, slices of mozzarella, parmesan, and noodles. I had spaghetti on hand, but lasagne, pappardelle, or penne would work, too. Baking all the ingredients in a deep-dish pan allows the bold and spicy flavors to marinate together into one bubbly, wonderful, and irresistible casserole.
No noodles? No problem. Eggplant parmesan can be served in a variety of ways, including sans pasta. A medium to large eggplant sliced and served with hearty tomato sauce and cheese is plenty of food for three to four people. You can also serve your fried eggplant over a bed of spaghetti drizzled with sauce if you’re short a casserole dish or don’t have access to a conventional oven.
Preheat the oven to 350º F.
Slice the eggplant into approximately 1”-thick discs. Place on cooling racks and sprinkle both sides lightly with salt. Set aside for 12-15 minutes. This is called “sweating the eggplant” and draws excess moisture out of the discs for a crunchier, less bitter final product. After about 15 minutes, pat eggplant discs dry with a paper towel.
Add tomato sauce, garlic, onion, and diced tomatoes to a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Season to taste with cayenne and black pepper and let simmer while the eggplant is being prepared.
Fill a second saucepan with water, add a pinch of salt, and place over high heat.
Add flour, bread crumbs, and beaten eggs into three separate bowls. Bread eggplant slices one at a time in this order: flour, egg, flour, breadcrumbs. Set aside on cooling racks.
Add spaghetti to boiling water and cook for approximately 10-12 minutes or until al dente (firm, but not chewy).
Place eggplant slices in the air fryer basket, making sure no discs are touching or overlapping. This step might need to be done in multiple batches depending on the amount of eggplant you’re frying. Fry for 10 minutes at 375º F.
Layer the bottom of a casserole dish with tomato sauce and spaghetti. Top with ¼” slices of fresh mozzarella and another layer of tomato sauce. Then, add the eggplant parmesan layers in the following order: eggplant discs, ¼” slices of mozzarella, tomato sauce, and grated parmesan (repeat if necessary).
Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown and bubbling. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Eggplant will oxidize when exposed to the air for long periods of time, causing the pale yellow flesh to turn brown or black. If your eggplant turns brown while it’s sweating, don’t worry — while it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing, oxidized eggplant is still good to eat! Here are some helpful tricks to prolong the inevitable oxidization of this fleshy fruit.
The number of layers of your eggplant parmesan ultimately depends on the size of your casserole dish. You can have one or multiple layers of eggplant and cheese, but keep your noodles at the bottom of your casserole dish regardless of size.
Cut down on prep time and dishes to clean by using pre-made tomato sauce. For a bold, spicy flavor that offsets the milder taste of the eggplant, I recommend using Classico Spicy Tomato and Basil. Pour the pre-made sauce directly into the casserole dish and continue to layer like normal.
Skip the eggplant and substitute it with zucchini, summer squash, or butternut squash. Zucchini and summer squash will need to sweat before baking to avoid a runny, watery casserole. Butternut squash doesn’t need to sweat, but it does require an additional 10-12 minutes to fully cook.