Dried Squid and Octopus are common cookery ingredients in China and all across Asia. The flavor of both of these sea-creatures, as with many other food products, becomes concentrated and intensified by the drying process, and this allows them to act as flavor enhancers in all sorts of dishes.
If you are unfamiliar with these particular foodstuffs, the prospect of even purchasing them can be daunting, but if you would like to take advantage of the umami-boost they can give to your recipes, read on and learn how to prepare and use them in your own kitchen…
A Quick Introduction to Dried Squid and Octopus
Dried Squid can be purchased whole, pre-cut into large pieces, or in shreds or strips. The latter two can save you a bit of preparation time (the shredded sort especially), but I find that large whole ones give you more control over the size and appearance of the pieces in your finished dish.
Dried Octopus is not quite as commonly used as Dried Squid, and it is not quite as easy to find outside of areas where octopuses are fished, or processed. Packaged products often contain whole octopuses, and, for obvious reasons, they tend to be of the smaller variety.
Nowadays, it is especially common to find Dried Squid prepared and packaged as a snack food. These snacks are especially popular in Japan, and they are most commonly given the generic name ‘Squid Jerky’ when packaged for Western consumption.
Now, you *can* use these Dried Squid snacks as a meal ingredient in your kitchen, but they were not designed to be used that way and you will need to make allowance for the fact that they are often quite heavily flavored (with chili, barbecue seasoning, or smoke flavor, for example), and are typically very sweet as well. Still, they can be interesting to experiment with in your own recipes.
Soaking Dried Squid and Octopus
One of the benefits of purchasing dried foods, aside from the aforementioned flavor boost, is that they will keep for a long time (several years, sometimes), and can be kept without refrigeration. That does, however, require some extra processing before use.
In order to use Dried Squid, or Octopus, it almost always necessary to re-hydrate, or reconstitute, the flesh by soaking. The basic process is no more complex than simply immersing the dried product in water an allowing it to soak until softened.
How long do you soak Dried Squid or Octopus?
The answer to this question depends on two factors:
The first is the extent to which the flesh was dried during processing, and how much it has dried since. Some packaged varieties are extremely dry, even to the point of being brittle, while others are much more supple, and are somewhat flexible.
The very dry sorts are often quite dark in color, and this usually means that they have been stored for a long period and are, consequently, less flavorful. Those with a lighter appearance, and a softer, more leather-like quality, will generally tend to be more flavorful and should be preferred when making a purchase.
You should also know that it is possible to buy squid that is marketed as ‘Half-Dried’ or ‘Semi-Dried’ (and you can purchase Cuttlefish this way too). These products need very little in the way of soaking, but you are also best advised to keep them refrigerated.
The second factor pertinent to the timed need for soaking is the size of the squid or octopus in question. Obviously, the thicker animal, or pieces thereof, the more soaking will be required. Generally, the range of times extends from a few hours to overnight.
The Baking Soda Trick
One method of increasing the speed of re-hydration is to use an alkaline medium, and this is best achieved by adding a little baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to the soaking water. A ratio of about one teaspoon per liter of water is about right.
The advantage of this, in addition to speeding up the process, is that the end result is often softer and plumper than when none is added. In the above picture, you can see that the flesh of the squid is now very pliable, and has thickened up nicely.
It should be noted, however, that the baking soda trick can have the effect of diminishing the taste of squid and octopus very slightly, especially where too much is used, but even this can be beneficial in the case of long-dried squid, where there can sometimes be a little bitterness to the flesh.
Finally, there is also some suggestion that soaking in an alkaline medium can destroy some of the nutritional value of foods but, since both of these dried foods are typically used as secondary, flavoring ingredients rather than primary foods, this is probably not significant.
Further Preparation Steps…
Octopus, once soaked, can generally be cut up as desired and used right away. Squid, however, generally require a little further processing:
The Squid has a clear, almost plastic-like ‘quill’ in the interior of its body tube that acts a bit like a backbone, of sorts. Sometimes, this has already been removed when you purchase squid, but, if whole, you will often need to ensure that it is removed yourself.
Squid also have a speckled membrane on the outside of their body tubes and tail pieces. Sometimes this is removed when you purchase them (fresh or dried), and sometimes it is still present.
It is not absolutely necessary to do this, but doing so usually improves the appearance of the finished dish, especially if it uses large pieces rather than shreds or thin strips. Also, it is not always the case, but the membrane sometimes leaves a rather bitter flavor and you can avoid this by peeling it away.
The process is sometimes fiddly and difficult, but can also be fairly quick and easy. You can either grasp the edge of the membrane and peel it back (as seen above), or, in the case of the smaller varieties, scrape it away with the back of a knife blade or the like.
Using Dried Squid and Octopus
Dried Squid and Octopus are rarely used whole, and are almost always used as a secondary ingredient to other meats, seafoods, or vegetables.
In the picture above, rehydrated octopus has been chopped to be stewed along with the seared pieces of pork also shown. The rehydrated flesh is also often minced for use in dishes, especially as an addition to ground meat for meatballs, or dumpling stuffing and the like.
By the way … Much of what is said here applies to other dried seafoods as well. If you haven’t encountered or used them before, you may also wish to take a look at: