I see you rolling your eyes over there. “Kate, all eggplant Parmesans are Italian!” Let me clarify. In Italy, true eggplant Parmesan (Melanzane alla Parmigiana) is breading-free. Apparently, we Americans decided to coat our eggplant in egg wash and breading.
Another shocker? Italians don’t pour any cream into their fettuccine Alfredo! Let’s now turn to give a collective eye roll at Olive Garden.
The eggplant Parmesans I’ve ordered over the years at restaurants have varied considerably, but I’ve grown to expect heavy, greasy, breaded eggplant served with marinara and standard-issue spaghetti. I usually walk out with a stomachache and a side of regret.
Then I ordered the eggplant Parmesan at a local restaurant here in Kansas City called Ragazza, which gave me hope for eggplant Parm. Their eggplant Parmesan comes in a cute little cast iron skillet, with layers of eggplant cut lengthwise and sliced like lasagna. It includes lightly breaded eggplant, but it isn’t overtly greasy, and the marinara sauce tastes like it’s been simmering on the stove for hours.
It’s the owner’s mother’s recipe, and I have to order it every time I eat there. Their eggplant Parmesan inspired the eggplant lasagna in my cookbook, which includes long strips of roasted eggplant layered between the noodles and marinara. Have you had the chance to try that one? So good!
Since it’s eggplant season, I set out to create a homemade eggplant Parmesan recipe that I could get really excited about. I based my recipe on the lasagna recipe in the book, while keeping Ragazza’s recipe in mind. I knew I wanted to roast the eggplant rather than fry it—pans full of simmering oil scare me, and fried eggplant tastes more like oil than eggplant.
Eggplant notoriously absorbs oil like a sponge, which is why you’ll want to brush oil onto the eggplant rather than drizzling it on. Just be sure to use fresh eggplant, because there’s no saving mushy, bruised eggplant.
When I was working on my recipe, I got hung up on the breading component. I don’t love dipping my fingers into raw eggs, and it’s hard to find whole grain breadcrumbs. Plus, the breading in eggplant Parmesan inevitably gets coated in marinara and ends up soggy. What is the point of breading if it’s all soggy?
That’s when I dove into the history of eggplant Parmesan and learned that Italians don’t actually bread their eggplant. Eureka! I removed the breading component and landed on an eggplant Parmesan that I truly love. I understand that some may vehemently disagree with me on the breading front, but let’s just agree to disagree.
Removing the breading also makes this eggplant Parmesan gluten free. This eggplant Parmesan is lighter than most, and the eggplant flavor actually shines through. It might look super cheesy (ok, it is cheesy) but most of the cheese is on top of the dish so it can develop that irresistible golden crust. Golden cheese offers the most flavor.
I made a quick homemade marinara, so this homemade eggplant Parmesan is made entirely from scratch. Tomato paste and fire-roasted tomatoes (if available) make it taste like it’s been simmering on the stove for hours. If you’re in a time crunch or looking to simplify, though, you can absolutely use your favorite jarred marinara.
Before you head to the grocery store, here are some tips on choosing great eggplant. Be sure to choose eggplants that are smooth and shiny, with no dents or mushy parts. They should feel heavy for their size. If possible, choose eggplants that are on the smaller side. Large eggplants tend to contain more seeds, which can produce a bothersome texture in this recipe. Then, be sure to turn that eggplant into eggplant Parm promptly, since overripe eggplant tastes more bitter.
Please let me know how this turns out for you in the comments. If you have extra eggplant, check out my favorite baba ganoush and spicy roasted ratatouille with spaghetti. For more comforting casserole dishes, try my spinach artichoke lasagna and lentil baked ziti.
Italian Eggplant Parmesan
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- Cook Time: 45 minutes
- Total Time: 1 hour (plus 15 minutes cool-down time)
- Yield: 6 to 9 servings 1x
- Category: Entree
- Method: Baked
- Cuisine: Italian
This Italian-style eggplant Parmesan recipe is lighter than most—it’s made with roasted eggplant slices (not fried) and no breading at all. It’s gluten free, too! Recipe yields one 9-inch square eggplant Parm, or about 8 servings.
- 3 pounds eggplants (about 3 smallish or 2 medium)
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 28 ounces crushed tomatoes, preferably the fire-roasted variety*
- ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh basil, plus additional basil for garnish
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 6 ounces freshly grated part-skim mozzarella cheese (about 1 ½ cups, packed)
- 2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
- To roast the eggplant: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit with racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven. Line two large rimmed, baking sheets with parchment paper for easy cleanup.
- Slice off both rounded ends on one eggplant, then stand it up on its widest flat side. Slice through the eggplant vertically to make long, even slabs ¼- to ½-inch-thick. Discard both of the sides that are covered in eggplant skin. Repeat with the other eggplant(s).
- Brush both sides of the eggplant slabs lightly with olive oil (you’ll likely need about ¼ cup oil). Arrange them in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle the top sides with a few dashes of salt and pepper. Roast until golden and tender, about 22 to 27 minutes—halfway through baking, rotate the pans 180 degrees and swap their positions (move pan on lower rack to upper rack, and vice versa). The pan on the lower rack might need a few extra minutes in the oven to turn golden. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, to make the tomato sauce: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very tender and translucent, about 4 to 7 minutes.
- Add the garlic and tomato paste. Cook, while stirring, about 1 minute. Add the crushed tomatoes, stir to combine, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce has thickened nicely, about 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the chopped basil, vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary (I usually add another ¼ teaspoon).
- When you’re ready to assemble, spread about ¾ cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9” square baker. Arrange about one-third of the eggplant slices over the sauce, overlapping slightly (cut them to fit, if necessary). Spoon another ¾ cup of the sauce over the eggplant and sprinkle with ¼ cup mozzarella cheese.
- Arrange about half of the remaining eggplant slices evenly on top. Spread another ¾ cup sauce on top and sprinkle with ¼ cup mozzarella cheese. Layer the remaining eggplant slices on top and top with ¾ cup sauce (you might have a little left over) and the remaining mozzarella cheese. Evenly sprinkle the Parmesan on top.
- Bake on the lower rack, uncovered, until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let it cool for at least 15 minutes to give it time to set, then chop and sprinkle additional basil on top. Slice with a sharp knife and serve.
- Leftovers keep well, covered and refrigerated, for about 4 days. Reheat before serving.
Shortcut option: Replace the homemade marinara with store-bought marinara. You’ll need about 3 cups (24 ounces). Newman’s Own organic marinara would be my top pick for this recipe.
Prepare in advance: You can assemble the eggplant lasagna the night before (perhaps even a couple of days before), then bake when you’re ready (it might need an extra 5 minutes or so in the oven to develop the golden top).
*Tomato notes: You can also use diced tomatoes or whole tomatoes, processed in a food processor or blender until mostly smooth. My preferred brand of canned tomato products is Muir Glen Organic, for their flavor and BPA-free cans.
Parmesan note: Most Parmesans are not technically vegetarian (they contain animal rennet), but Whole Foods 365 and BelGioioso brands offer vegetarian Parmesans.