Everything You Need to Know About Cooking Octopus
Though the pink-ish, eight-tentacled, suction cup-covered sea creature might look like something from outer space, octopus has become a favorite seafood dish of earthlings across the globe. And while ordering octopus from a restaurant is familiar territory for many, the idea of cooking the slick sea creature at home is far more intimidating.
The good news is that preparing your own octopus at home is much easier than you thought, and once you’ve got the hang of it, the sky—or sea—is the limit. Whether you’re roasting, grilling, or pan frying, get ready to have a new favorite homemade seafood dish you’ll be serving to highly impressed friends and family every chance you get.
Buying Your Octopus
The first rule of buying octopus is: more is more. Because this soft-bodied animal will significantly reduce in size during the cooking process, it’s important to invest in about 1 pound of octopus per person if you’re planning to serve yours as a main course.
Though you won’t find octopus in every supermarket, it’s a good idea to phone ahead to your go-to grocery store or fishmonger to ask if they can put in a request for the mollusk. If the only octopus you can find is frozen (this will more than likely be the case), don’t fret—the freezing process actually benefits the end quality of your octopus, as the meat will tenderize while thawing, leaving you with a fresher, more tender product to work with.
Prepping Your Octopus
The most intimidating part of your octopus journey will be preparing the meat to be cooked. If cooking from frozen, thaw your octopus for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator, ensuring that the meat is totally defrosted before moving on.
Make sure to note if the recipe calls for cooking your octopus whole or pre-sliced. If you’re cutting up the meat before cooking, use a sharp chef’s knife or kitchen shears to remove each tentacle from the body by cutting it off at the base while the octopus lies flat on the cutting board.
Though the octopus head meat is flavorful, and can definitely be included, you’ll want to remove the beak and ink sac before cooking and serving. While many pre-frozen octopuses will already have these removed, if you’re buying your octopus fresh, ask the fishmonger or seller to clean the body before wrapping up the product. If this service is unavailable, slice the body and head of the octopus down the middle, exposing the innards, beak, and ink sac. Cut away the center portion of the head, including the beak, and remove the ink sac and any other unappetizing parts of the animal from the center of the body.
Cooking Your Octopus
One of the most popular—not to mention, delicious—ways to prepare an octopus is to throw those tentacles on the grill, adding some flavorful smoke and char to the end product. But before you take it to the charcoals, it’s important to pre-cook your octopus (you can do this in the oven or on the stovetop), as adding it straight to the grill as-is will result in tough, dry meat.
First, you’ll want to cook your octopus with either the roasting or boiling methods described below to make sure the meat is completely tenderized before adding it to the grill for some extra pizzazz. To keep things simple and delicious, coat the pre-cooked octopus in olive oil and dress with salt and pepper before adding it to a high-temperature grill. After about 4-5 minutes on a covered grill, flipping once during the cooking time, the octopus should be perfectly browned and ready to dress with fresh lemon, herbs, and a little more oil. If you’re ready to try something a little next-level, give our Grilled Octopus with Korean Barbecue Sauce and Baby Bok Choy Slaw a go.
Though roasting an octopus to tender perfection takes some extra time and labor, in the end it will be well worth it to get the texture of your dreams. Simply prinkle the octopus with a little salt and place it on a foil-covered baking sheet before covering the meat with another layer of foil and crimping the edges to create a completely contained cooking environment.
Place the octopus on a low rack of a 250 degree oven for up to 2 hours, occasionally checking on the meat’s texture by piercing it with a fork until its reached your preferred tenderness level. Let the octopus cool uncovered before serving.
For another low and slow cooking method, that similarly doesn’t require a pre-cook on the octopus, you should definitely consider braising. This is a great (and approachable) technique for cooking octopus, as the initial sear seals moisture into the meat and then, the octopus tenderizes and soaks up flavor as it simmers in your cooking liquid. Give it a try with our Braised Octopus in Tomato Sauce.
For a quicker, lighter cooking method, try boiling your octopus in a large stockpot. Fill the pot 2/3 full with either a vegetable/seafood stock or water filled with the herbs and vegetables of your choice, helping to infuse flavor into the meat.
Once the liquid has been at a rolling boil with the vegetables and herbs for about 5 minutes, add your pre-cut octopus to the pot and cover. Gently boil the octopus for about 15-20 minutes per pound of octopus, testing the texture with a fork every 10-15 minutes until it has become fully tender and ready to serve. This method can additionally be used as a simple first step to tenderize your octopus before finishing it in a pan or on the grill for additional flavor and texture. The leftover liquid can be discarded or strained and used as a seafood stock.
For many light, summery recipes, poached octopus makes a refreshing addition. One of the notable distinctions between this and the method above is that your cooking liquid will be slightly less concentrated and include an acid diluted with water. Start by bringing 1 gallon of water and 1 cup of white wine vinegar to a boil in a large pot (alternatively, you can use white wine, but you will want to increase the ratio of wine to water), before adding in flavorful additions like lemons, onions, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Simmer these ingredients together for about 10 minutes before using tongs to dunk the whole octopus into the liquid 3 times, for about 5 seconds per dunk. (If you do not plan to utilize the octopus head meat, you can remove the tentacles, as described towards the beginning of the article, and simply proceed in placing them into the pot of liquid.)
Then, add the octopus to the water and bring it to a simmer for about 15-20 minutes per pound of octopus. From time to time, check the tenderness level of the meat with a fork and remove the pot from the heat once the octopus is easily pierced. You can allow the octopus to rest in the liquid and cool slightly before refrigerating if you plan to use it in a chilled dish such as our Citrus-Marinated Octopus with Labne and Radicchio-Fennel Salad. Your poached octopus can be kept fresh in the refrigerator for a couple of days to use in other cold salads and carpaccios, or it can be served warm right away.
For a little extra dimension of flavor, pan-fry your pre-cooked octopus briefly in a hot skillet for some delicious caramelization on the outside. For the best result, start with the boiling or poaching method above, allowing the octopus to cook slowly and cool down before searing in a pan.
Add your whole tentacles to an oiled pan for about 8 minutes per side, or pre-slice your tentacles into thinner pieces and cook for 2 minutes per side for a perfect finish.