An Octopus in its Natural Habitat
An Octopus in its Natural Habitat (Thank you Wikipedia)

Got an octopus to use and not sure what to do? Not to worry… Follow along here and learn how to prepare octopus by for use in all sorts of dishes.

An Introduction …

Two Very Small Octopuses
Two Very Small Octopuses

These cute little octopuses (and yes, it is ‘octopuses’, not ‘octopi’), are about six inches (15 cm) from top to bottom and they were purchased in a package labeled as ‘baby’ octopuses.

You cannot always tell if the ‘baby octopus’ you buy are actually juveniles, or the adults of a small species, but, in either case, specimens of this size will not require any tenderizing and can be deep-fried, sautéed, or even sliced and eaten raw without any preliminary treatment (other than a quick rinsing, of course).

A 2 Kg Specimen
A 2 Kg Octopus

This bad boy weighs in at 2 kilograms (almost 5 pounds) and is about the size of a small cat. It is still relatively small as far as octopus go (some can grow to exceed 15 kilograms), but it is a pretty common weight for a supermarket purchase of the ‘non-baby’ variety.

Octopuses of this size, and indeed, anything much over a half-kilogram or so, have very fibrous flesh and they can be extremely tough to chew unless pains are taken to tenderize them first.

Before we take a look at the processes of cleaning and tenderizing, it will be helpful to take note of a couple of anatomical features. First, if you look at the center of the tentacles in the above picture, you will see a small opening. This is the mouth (not the anus, as might seem intuitive), and it usually requires a bit of special attention, as we shall see…

The other feature is the pouch-like structure extending to the right of the tentacles. This could easily be taken for the ‘head’ of the octopus (and if you look at the very first picture you can see why), but it is actually known as the ‘mantle’, and it is the body part containing the viscera, or ‘guts’, to use the more vulgar term.

Cleaning the Octopus

Inside the eviscerated mantle
The eviscerated mantle of an octopus

Removing the internal organs of an octopus or other animal, is more technically referred to as ‘eviscerating’ it, and this is chiefly what we mean when we talk of ‘cleaning’ the animal. Normally, unless you are acquiring your octopus directly from the fisherman down on the docks, the ones you purchase will have been eviscerated already.

Here you can see that the ‘mantle’, or body pouch, has been opened by making an incision across the ‘neck’ area between the base of the pouch and the tentacles. Just below the incision, you can see one of the eyes.

The interior of the pouch has had the organs removed but there are often ‘bits’ ff viscera and connective tissue still remaining and you need to pull these away and rinse the insides before continuing on…

The interior of the octopus’s mouth opening
The interior of the octopus’s mouth opening

Here, the mantle and the section with the eyes have been resected away by cutting across the ‘neck’ to reveal the inner portion of the mouth. As with squid, the mouth parts of octopuses have a hard structure very like a parrot’s beak which must be removed. It pops out quite easily and, here, you can see the two dark-brown, shiny halves of the ‘beak’ just above and to the right of the mouth orifice.

Prepare Octopus by Tenderizing the Meat

An octopus being blanched
An octopus being blanched

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.

To prepare octopus for sashimi and sushi 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.

Octopus after blanching in boiling water
Octopus after blanching in boiling water

Here you can see the tentacle bunch after the blanching process. The tips of the tentacles have curled prettily and the outer skin has darkened considerably. Although not shown, but the blanching water turns a very dark purple too…

Using the prepared Octopus

Octopus Tentacles
Octopus Tentacles

Cutting up the tentacle bunch is as easy as making a single cut from the mouth opening to the juncture between each tentacle. At this point, you can use the flesh immediately, or you can wrap and freeze it for later. As a matter of fact, 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.

Freshly blanched Octopus Sliced Sashimi Style
Freshly blanched Octopus Sliced Sashimi Style

Generally, you will be blanching the meat with a view to cooking it further, but it can also be eaten right away as is. Here, a little of one of the tentacles blanched for this article is cut into slices for a little sashimi snack along with a bit of wasabi. You could also supply soy sauce for dipping, but even just a little squeeze of lemon juice over the slices can be terrific.

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 and it is generally a good plan to blanche your octopus and then freeze it so it is at peak readiness for however you plan to cook or eat it.

Some Example Octopus Dishes

A grilled octopus tentacle served as Meze style Greek appetizer
A grilled octopus tentacle served as Meze style Greek appetizer
A Tapas Dish of Mediterranean Octopus
A Tapas Dish of Mediterranean Octopus

Comments, questions or suggestions most welcome!