by Amanda McDougall
Be they menacing sea monsters of mythic, ship-crushing proportions, or highly intelligent masters of camouflage… or – more our style – poached and charred delicious seafood, octopuses certainly have an undeniable allure: from their curious semi-autonomous arms to their empty-sack-like heads, and right down to their densely textured meat and mild but rich flavor. Diners are becoming more acquainted with the wiggly beast, and with the relatively low cost and year-round availability, it’s a great addition to a menu. But there’s a lot of seriously tough cephalopod to chew through out there, and knowing how to cook octopus separates the octopus masters from the shoemakers. » more
There are in fact hundreds of different octopus species, varying in size from tiny, mere centimeters in length, to verging on enormous, 12 to 24 feet and several hundred pounds (the biggest specimens are rare and not exactly a culinary staple). Most commonly, octopuses are about one to two feet in length and just a few pounds, with baby octopus typically being three to 10 inches. The flesh is covered with a slightly slimy skin that is often removed. Sushi Chef Masato Shimizu of 15 East in New York City uses a traditional Japanese technique of massaging coarse salt into the skin to remove it. Another common practice is to peel off the skin after the octopus is cooked. That said, the skin can also be left on, where, after it’s cooked, it acquires a soft fatty-like texture.
The Anatomy of Cooking
Cooking this eight-armed sea creature is a somewhat precise but simple procedure. The requisite precision is more about timing than anything else, and that’s because of the very nature of the octopus flesh itself: it’s made up of layers upon layers of very thin muscles that are inter-locked and inter-woven with collagen (the same fortifying connective tissue found in our well-loved land lubbers, the cow and pig). Simply put, when collagen is exposed to heat it shrinks, tightening up the muscle; the longer you cook it, the more the collagen shrinks, and the muscle toughens, until finally the collagen is broken down by the heat (and turned into gelatin), and the muscle softens at last.
Having to tooth through a tough piece of octopus is, regrettably, more common than not – one of the primary reasons why diners are put off by it. In cooking octopus, there are two windows of opportunity to avoid octopus more akin to an old tire than the delicate cephalopod that it is. The first is after what is basically a flash cooking, before the collagen really has the opportunity to shrink. The second window is after longer cooking when the collagen has tightened and then dissolved. This could take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour to multiple hours, depending on the size and age of the octopus.
To be more exact, Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking states that flash cooking the meat to 130 to 135ºF produces a flesh that is “moist and almost crisp,” and at 140ºF the collagen tightens but “continued gentle simmering for an hour or more will dissolve the tough, contracted collagen into gelatin and give the flesh a silken succulence.” (Scribner, 2004, page 230).
Another way to reduce toughening is to tenderize the meat by physical force of some sort. Short of throwing the animal on rocks (as some old-school techniques dictate), pounding it with a mallet works just as well. Or you can purchase it already tenderized as does Chef Kristine Subido of WAVE (Chicago, IL) – her baby octopus goes through a “spin cycle” at the hands of her fishmonger.
The Fat and Skinny
Mediterranean and Asian octopuses are the most commonly available (at least in the U.S.); they are often frozen (octopus spoil quickly), but are sometimes available fresh. Shimizu prefers fresh and the Mediterranean variety, specifically the fatter specimens from Spain, though he occasionally gets the less-plump Portuguese octopus. But if it comes down to it, Shimizu will “take the fat frozen [octopus] over the skinny fresh [one].” Subido purchases Mediterranean baby octopus. They are available all year round, and the price is relatively stable: “at $4.25 a pound, it’s fairly inexpensive […] better than halibut that’s now $14 a pound!”
Salt to Citrus
Octopus is most readily associated with Japanese and Mediterranean cuisines where it’s typically used in sushi, poached and thinly sliced or charred on the grill, and served simply with a sprinkle of salt or a drizzle of olive oil. Shimizu serves his carefully poached octopus at room temperature with just a bit of vinegar and sea salt on the side. While citrus is a favorite flavor combination for Subido, she also likes to pair it with mint, basil, radicchio, a honey aioli, or a good-quality balsamic or aged sherry vinegar.
All of the featured recipes grill and char the octopus, but not without poaching it with varying methodology first to ensure tenderness. The flavor pairings range from garlicky and spicy, like in Rene Ortiz’s Pulpo Tostadas, to sweet and herbaceous, like in David Coleman’s Charred Octopus with Geranium and Watermelon Soup. Kristine Subido leans toward Mediterranean flavors for her Mediterranean baby octopus, marinating the poached babies in lemon juice, olive oil and oregano and serving them with a roasted bell pepper piperade. Alan Hughes also goes Mediterranean, giving the rich flavor of the meat a little boost with a dressing of olive oil, thyme, and garlic; he serves it on grilled bread with a mélange of dressed raw vegetables on top.
Fast Facts About Octopus
- Octopuses are in the mollusk family, along with clams, scallops, oysters, and (more obviously) squid and cuttlefish
- Octopuses eat crabs, shrimp, scallops, and other mollusks
- Technically, an octopus has eight arms, not tentacles (squid have tentacles)
- Octopuses are regarded as very intelligent with a highly developed central nervous system
- Octopus flesh is loaded with collagen and low in fat
- To ensure a tender octopus, either cook it very quickly or poach/braise it for a longer time until tender
- Asian baby octopuses are smaller than the Mediterranean variety, and have a sweeter flavor
- When selecting a fresh octopus, Sushi Chef Masato Shimizu advises to choose one that has no smell, and is a bit sticky to the touch, with flesh that springs back when pressed
- Octopus ink can be used in cooking just like squid ink
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