Cooking Octopus: Untangling A Daunting Process With Help From Philly Chefs

Even if you’re not feeding a dining-room-full of paying customers, you still have decent options. You can find octopus at most of the Asian Markets in Chinatown and on Washington Avenue. Reading Terminal Market’s seafood counters all have thawed baby octopus and usually a couple larger frozen ones. One counter claims their octopus is from Maine. Another, South Africa. DiBruno Bros. Rittenhouse offers Spanish rock octopus. So many options before you even get to the cooking.

For my experimentation, I tried four different methods with the baby Thai octopus, just to get a feel for what works. They all started out the same: remove octopus from packaging, thaw, rinse, examine. They are strange. I’m going to presume that all cleaned octopus should be like these: eyes, beak, ink sac and all miscellaneous goop removed. They had a faint briny smell, but were not fishy. Their limbs were all intact and their “heads” were just empty pockets, which I rinsed well.

Having never cooked octopus before, I did a good bit of research beforehand. Surprisingly, the internet only seemed to reinforce the sense of mystery surrounding an ingredient many of us aren’t accustomed to cooking. And rather than one or two “definitive” preparations, I found several unique ways of “doing it right” when talking to local chefs.

Grilled baby octopus with spicy Seville orange sauce at Dos Segundos. by Jacki Philleo.

Grilled baby octopus with spicy Seville orange sauce at Dos Segundos. by Jacki Philleo.

Chris Rubinstein, head chef at Cantina Dos Segundos, explains, “There seems to be many different techniques to preparing it depending on the culture. I’ve seen where Greeks will tenderize it similar to chicken or steak by beating it with a mallet or even slamming it against the sink, while Japanese like to rub it with salt. Personally I’ve had amazing octopus at both French and Greek restaurants where it’s soaked in milk then grilled.”

BV Nguyen, the chef de cuisine at Pumpkin, featured Spanish octopus on the menu when he helmed the kitchen at the recently closed Matyson. There, he preferred to confit it with loads of spices, herbs, and citrus zest. Even with the mostly-foolproof, flavor rich method of confit, Nguyen explains, “It’s never that consistent. That seems to be the pain of doing octopus in general. Each arm is always going to be different. One arm is done, and the other arm is still tough for another thirty minutes.”

So I knew it was going to be tricky. Therefore, I resolved to keep my methods basic for the sake of self-education: one preparation boiled; one sautéed; one parboiled then grilled; one forcefully tenderized then grilled. Nothing too complicated, but enough variation for me to get an idea of what works.

The boiling method stems from the mindset that an extended cooking time is the answer to the meat’s inherent chewiness. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sautéing octopus relies on just barely cooking it through, quickly, so it doesn’t have the chance to get more rubbery as it loses moisture.

Sautéed octopus. by Jacki Philleo.

Sautéed octopus. by Jacki Philleo.

For my sautéing method, I let the baby octopus rest in a bowl with some lemon juice while I minced garlic and parsley. I heated some olive oil in a skillet on medium, threw the garlic in for a minute, then threw in the octopi, which wriggled and curled up as if they were being cooked alive: both fascinating and macabre. I kept them in the skillet for about 7 minutes, frequently turning them to ensure even cooking. At the end, I sprinkled in salt, the parsley, and ground pepper. I served them over some greens with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The simple flavors were good for the octopus, but it wasn’t particularly tender. Not totally off-putting, but not the best. On to the next method.

When boiling the octopus, I lightly salted the water and let them bubble away for about twenty-five minutes. I then performed the recommended knife test; if the point of a sharp knife enters the meat with little resistance, than it’s been boiled-the-hell-out-of and shouldn’t be too rubbery. With this technique, the baby octopus shrunk to a fraction of their size.
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