Octopus are not squid. Squid don't live long, and never get overly tough (chewy yes, ohmigawd it's like rubber! Not so much.) Octopi, on the other hand, can live for years and get to be so tough they are inedible unless you know how to prepare them.
The best way to do this is to braise them in their own juices over low heat for a very long time. This concentrates their flavor and renders them dense and delicious, not rubbery and off-putting.
Even though there are several steps to this process, it's well worth it -- octopus is relatively inexpensive if you buy it at Asian or Mexican markets frozen, like this 5-pounder above.
First you thaw the octopus in the fridge for a day or so. Then bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil -- don't bother salting it because you will not be cooking the octopus in the water very long.
Once the water is boiling hard, place the octopus in the kettle, cover and return to a boil. How long do you let the octopus cook?
- For baby ones that can fit in your hand, only a minute or two.
- For smaller ones about a foot long and weighing less than a half-pound, boil for 4-5 minutes.
- For large octopus like the one pictured, boil for a good 8-10 minutes.
While the octopus is boiling, prepare a brazier or other heavy, oven-proof pot with a lid (a Dutch oven works fine) by lining it with a nest of herbs and spices.
What herbs? I cook Mediterranean food, so I use rosemary, fennel fronds, bay leaves, fig leaves, fresh oregano -- something that will fit the ultimate recipe I am using. Think about the end dish and incorporate complimentary flavors here.
If you cook in another cusine, add appropriate herbs and spices: Lemon grass, ginger, Thai basil and shallot is an excellent choice. Remember that the octopus meat will absorb the flavors you give it.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees.
Take the octopus from the boiling water onto a chopping block: Chop off its head -- there's not much good meat in there anyway, and what there is is incredibly gelatinous. You need not do this with the baby ones because they typically come cleaned with only the good meat from the head left on. For some reason large octopi tend to be left whole.
Nestle the octopus' legs onto its nest of herbs in your pot. Close the lid and pop it in the oven. How long?
- For baby octopi, try them after 2 hours.
- For small ones, check after 3-4 hours.
- For the monsters, don't even bother checking for at least 5 hours.
OK, your octopus is ready, right? Probably, but not always. Little ones are almost always clean enough to be ready for action in a seafood salad, on a grill or in a quick stir-fry.
But large ones are often old and fat -- and octopus fat is no fun. Once a large octo is braised and cooled a bit, you will need to run your fingers along the legs to strip off any gelatinous fat that is on the outside of the legs. Do this under a stream of cold running water into the sink.
Now you are ready for action. Octopus done this way is ready to eat with only a little salt, olive oil and lemon, but you can do all sorts of things with it. And cooked octopus like this keeps for a week in the fridge -- don't refreeze it, though. It will deteriorate once you thaw it again.