All Octopuses have eight arms with tough, connective tissues between the muscles replacing the role of a skeleton. If one arm comes off, the animal will grow another. Most of the meat is in the arms.
The creatues have two eyes, one on each side of the head. They have very good eyesight, but no hearing. They have 3 hearts. The arms are often popularly referred to as “tentacles”, though technically only a squid has tentacles.
When sold whole, an Octopus has usually already been cleaned and had the beak removed. You can buy it fresh or frozen, but usually it’s shipped frozen, because though it degrades quickly, its market-value isn’t enough to justify air shipment.
The Spanish are both the top producers and consumers in Europe. The Japanese do more than half the world’s catch of Octopus overall.
There are many different species of Octopus. There’s the Californian Octopus, which is less than an inch (2.5 cm) long, the Dwarf Octopus, which is 4 inches (10 cm) long, and the Giant Pacific Octopus, whose tentacles can span more than 30 feet (9 metres.) One Octopus, the Blue Ringed Octopus off Australia, has a poison that is deadly to humans.
An Octopus digs a den, dragging stones or shells in behind it to close off the entrance for safety. It comes out at night to hunt prey. If feeds on mollusks and crustaceans; an Octopus particularly loves crab and lobster. It grabs its prey with its arms. The suckers on the arms provide it with a death grip while it bites its prey with its sharp beak, injecting it with a paralysing poison. Then, with its mouth, it sucks the flesh out of its prey.
To defend itself, an Octopus can adjust its skin colour to fit in better with surroundings. It will release ink to confuse the water to allow escape from a predator.
Female Octopuses won’t eat until their eggs hatch. Given that the eggs take up to 50 days to hatch, and that up to 150,000 eggs will have been laid, you can see why many female Octopuses die of starvation.
Octopus is classed scientifically as a “Cephalopod”, just as squid are.
If handling live Octopus, wear rubber leaves as they can bite (though some can bit right through gloves.) To clean, cut off the top of the head, scoop out the inside of the head and discard that inside stuff. Cut the mouth (called the “beak”) off. Chop tentacles off from the head. Cook both the tentacles and the head. When cooked, Octopus turns a deep red outside, but white inside. The flesh has a rubbery texture.
Octopus will go from tender, to tough, then back to tender again during cooking. Thus, you have to barely cook it, or really cook it.
The connective tissue starts to gelatinize when it reaches an internal temperature of 130 F (55 C.)
There are many different ways to approach cooking Octopus.
Firstly, like squid, you have to either barely cook it or really cook it — anything in between results in tire rubber. You can cook it a short time, meaning 5 minutes and under — no more, unless you are prepared to go all the way. The Japanese approach it both ways: cook lightly and use as sashimi, or cook for a long time.
Many cultures have different ways to make Octopus tender. The Spaniards cook them in copper pots or in pots with copper coins in them. The Italians put a few corks in, as in corks from wine bottles. No one can give a reason for this, but as tender Octopus can be cooked with or without corkscrews, this appears to be a relatively recent folklore practice — after all, wine bottle corks haven’t even existed that long, if you think about it. This folklore practice is even advised by the FAO: “…put one or two clean bottle-corks in the cooking water (remove them before serving!)” [South Pacific Commission “South Pacific Foods”. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Leaflet No. 18 – 1992. ISSN 1018-0966]
The Greeks beat the poor things on rocks. Some Americans use more advanced tools — putting the Octopus through the wringers of an old-style washing machine, or tossing the Octopus into a front-loading washing machine for a few cycles (the top-loaders are reportedly a bit too vigorous.) Many people pound it with a mallet.
Some suggest adding some vinegar to the cooking water, as the acetic acid in vinegar can help break down the connective tissue. The issue can be, though, that the acid also breaks down the resulting gelatin, making the fibrous muscle texture more prominent.
None of these techniques are really necessary. Long, slow cooking should always deliver tender results. The usual mistake with Octopus, in fact, is to go overboard and overcook it, which dries it out. The average simmering time should be about an hour for a one pound (450g) Octopus, two hours for a four pound (1.8kg) Octopus, but that will vary. The best way to tell is to treat it like a potato: poke it with a knife and when it’s ready it should feel as soft to the knife as a potato would. Don’t simmer past that. You may see the word “boiling” used, but what is meant is simmering. Whatever is done with the Octopus afterwards, whether it is used for pasta, grilling, etc, it always needs to be simmered first.
Baby Octopus especially doesn’t need tenderizing and is fine with very brief cooking.
To serve 4 people, allow two to three pounds (1 to 1.5 kilos), cleaned.
The ink sacs can be used to add a dark colour to foods.
Squid. Other seafood such as Scallops.
Store fresh Octopus in the fridge in a tightly sealed container, and cook within a day of purchase, or freeze for up to two months. Store leftover cooked Octopus in a sealed container in the fridge, and use within 3 days.
The Romans never used the word “Octopus”; Octopus was a word made up in the 15th or 16th century by scientists to classify the creature. It was derived from Classical Greek, with “octo” meaning 8 and “pus” (also “pod”) meaning foot. The supposed plural, “Octopi”, came about as an error from people supposing it was a Latin word. In theory, given that it’s a word derived from Greek, the plural should actually be “octopodes”. Fowler, in his “Guide to Modern English” will have nothing to do with either Octopi or Octopodes. He says the plural is Octopuses.
The Roman word was actually “Polypus”. That you can safely pluralize as Polypi.
McGee, Harold. To Cook an Octopus: Forget the Cork, Add Science. New York Times. 5 March 2008.