How to Cook Octopus, or 八爪鱼
The above picture shows a large Octopus reposing on ice at my local fishmonger’s. For many, the prospects of preparing and cooking one of these beasts can be quite daunting but, really, there is no need to be hesitant. The larger ones take a little bit of work to tenderize before they can be used in dishes but, after that, the flesh is one of the sweetest and most tasty of seafoods.
An Introduction to the Octopus (八爪鱼)
Octopuses (and yes, it is ‘Octopuses’, NOT ‘Octopi’), are members of the Cephalopod class of marine creatures and are related to both Squid and Cuttlefish. There are many species (not all of which are eaten), and they come in a wide variety of sizes for the kitchen.
Here you can see a couple of diminutive creatures thar were sold frozen as ‘Baby Octopus’. In truth, it is much more likely that these are adults of a very small species rather than infant Octopuses, but this is the name by which they are most frequently sold.
Although there will be some recipe links for Baby Octopuses later on in this post, we need not deal with them too much right now. Generally, the little ones are cleaned when purchase and require very little preparation, so, for the moment, we will concentrate on the larger specimens.
Above, you can see a whole, previously frozen Octopus I brought home from the market. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of the creature:
First, an Octopus, as almost everyone knows, has eight ‘arms’, or ‘legs’ if you prefer. The name ‘Octopus’ actually derives from the Greek, and means ‘Eight Feet’. Similarly, the Chinese name, 八爪鱼 (bā zhuǎ yú), also refers to ‘eight feet’, although, interestingly, the full name translates as ‘eight foot *fish*’.
Anyway, as you can see, the arms are covered with suckers almost all the way along their length. These are used for grasping things, and clinging to rocks. In the above picture, we are looking at the underside of the animal and you can see that the arms surround the mouth opening, which is the small circular aperture at the center.
To the right of the picture, you can see a rounded extension a bit like a pouch. This is often represented in cartoons as being the ‘head’ of the Octopus but is actually the body apart that encloses the internal organs. It is most properly referred to as the ‘Mantle’.
Cleaning Octopus for Use
Like fish, or indeed any other animal, they must be ‘eviscerated’, or ‘gutted’ before use. Basically, this means removing the guts, or internal organs.
Luckily for most cooks, when you purchase Octopuses, either small, or large, they have been ‘cleaned’ already. In the above picture you can see the incision made at the base of the mantle through which (almost) all of the internal organs have already been taken.
If your Octopus has not been cleaned, you will need to open the mantle, pull out the organs, and rinse the inside of the sac well with water. Even if the creature has been eviscerated, you may need to scrape out any ‘bits’ that remain and give a good rinsing.
By the way, in this picture, you can clearly see they eye of the Octopus, which illustrates that the ‘head’ as such, is between the mantle and the arms.
There is one cleaning operation that you almost always have to undertake even if your Octopus has been eviscerated. Above, there are a couple of Octopuses with their mouth openings visible. Unlike in the previous picture but one, you can see something dark at the center of the aperture. This is the ‘beak’ of the Octopus and must be removed. Luckily, this isn’t hard.
Here, you can see the beak after it has been removed. It actually does look very much like a Parrot’s beak and performs the same functions. In this picture, the two halves of the beak have been separated into its two constituent pieces.
Removing the beak is extremely easy. Once you have sliced away the mantle from the arms, you can simply push the beak parts through the opening. They pop out with no effort, and no cutting required.
How to Cook Octopus to Tenderize it
The traditional way of tenderizing Octopus is said to be beating it repeatedly on a rock. However, the more practical method is to ‘Blanch’ it.
Blanching an octopus, as with any other foodstuff, simply means dropping it into boiling water and poaching it for a set time (depending on the size). A very small octopus, or one not much larger than the ‘baby’ ones shown earlier, would only require a minute or so of cooking, while the current one of 2 kilograms needs at least 8 to 10 minutes.
In the above picture, you see the octopus just seconds after it has been dropped in to the boiling water. The temperature drops dramatically when you do this (with a large octopus, at least), and you will need to bring it back to a good simmer to blanche it properly.
You will occasionally come across recipes for pre-cooking octopus that advocate adding a wine cork to the water to help tenderize the flesh. There is no scientific basis for this, nor for the similar claim made for adding a half-lemon. I have added one here, however, because it smells nice and actually seems to give the meat a nice fresh taste.
In Japanese cuisine, Kombu, and sometimes Daikon, is usually added to the poaching liquid. After the simmering is complete, the meat is then left in the liquid and it is cooled and then chilled, often overnight, before slicing for Sushi or Sashimi.
Here you can see the Octopus arms after the blanching process. The tips of each have curled prettily and the outer skin has darkened considerably. I haven’t shown it here, but the blanching water also turns a very dark purple too.
By the way, blanching is really only necessary to prepare octopus for cooking methods like grilling, deep-frying, or sautéing, where the cooking times are short and the risk of drying out the meat is higher. For other methods like stewing, or braising, you can get away with not pre-tenderizing the meat, but doing so can cut down the cooking times.
Butchering the blanched large Octopus is no more difficult than slicing down between the arms as shown above. At this point, you can use the flesh immediately, or you can wrap and freeze it for later. Freezing, and then thawing the flesh, actually tenderizes it even further, which is a bit of a bonus if you don’t need the meat right away.
You will not that the mantle is not shown here. Generally speaking, it is the arms that are most highly prized, especially for Sushi and Sashimi, and also for grilling. The mantle doesn’t have quite the same sweetness nor pleasing texture as the arms, in my opinion at least, but it does have its uses and is fine, cut into pieces, for stews and the like.
What does Octopus Taste Like?
One of the best ways to sample the taste and texture of Octopus flesh is to try it chilled, after blanching, and without any other cooking steps. Above, you can see some slices of Octopus arms sliced and presented Sashimi style with a little bit of Wasabi.
The taste of Octopus is quite sweet, and, when properly prepared very succulent, with a lovely, slightly fibrous chewiness. It is always difficult to make exact comparisons but, to my mind, eating Octopus is very similar in both taste and texture to the tail meat of a 2 or 3-pound Lobster. Personally, I love Lobster but I think I have to say that I like Octopus every bit as much.
How to Cook Octopus in Recipes
The following pictures illustrate various Octopus dishes, beginning with the ‘Baby’ variety and moving on the larger specimens. You can click the picture, or the links, to see the full recipes for each.
Ginger Fried Baby Octopus – These Ginger Fried Baby Octopus take advantage of the fact that the smaller varieties are more tender, and often more sweeter than the larger ones. Here, a little complimentary flavoring is added by way of a ginger and rice wine marinade.
Spicy Fried Baby Octopus – This little appetizer dish of Spicy Fried Baby Octopus incorporates chili, cumin, and a little thyme into the deep-fry coating of cornstarch. When jazzed up this way, the tender morsels require no additional condiments at the table other than just a wee squeeze of lemon.
Grilled Octopus Greek-Style – This Grilled Octopus Greek-Style Recipe features tentacles that have first been marinated in the Grecian style using olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and oregano. The finished result, served piping hot from the grill, makes for a terrific Meze type appetizer.
Octopus Banchan – This Octopus Banchan is quite similar to the Korean dish, Nakji Bokkeum, in that both involve octopus cooked in a spicy, and somewhat sweet sauce made with the condiment known as Gochujang. It is generally served cold, as a side dish.
Mediterranean Octopus Tapas – Mediterranean Octopus is a Tapas style appetizer that reflects both Spanish and Italian influences. It features octopus tentacles that are poached in a flavored broth until almost tender, finished on the grill, and then served in a reduction of the poaching medium.
Provençal Octopus Brochettes – Provençal Octopus Brochettes are skewers of octopus tentacle sections that have been marinated in herbs and lemon juice, then grilled until just beginning to char. They make a delicious first-course appetizer, or one of a series of offerings in a Tapas meal.
Mediterranean Octopus Stew – This Mediterranean Octopus Stew is made using potato, bell pepper, and onion along with garlic, rosemary, thyme and olives in tomato sauce.