Octopus has a soft and tender texture, but only when cooked properly. When cooked in the wrong way, the octopus becomes tough and chewy. An old wives' tale centers on the idea that cooking octopus with cork helps increase the tenderness of the meat. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, food writer Harold McGee claims that the cork cooking method is a myth, but that does not stop home cooks and professional chefs from trying the method.
Chef Lidia Bastianich uses cork in her cooking water for an octopus salad. According to the chef, you add one wine cork for every 2 lbs. of octopus. If you use less octopus, then you still add one wine cork. Simmer the octopus, wine cork and water with salt, pepper and two bay leaves. Remove the pot from the stove when the octopus is cooked through, but still slightly firm, as it continues cooking in the hot liquid. The chef recommends throwing away the cork after one use.
According to Harold McGee, home chefs and professional chefs use other options beyond the wine cork for tender octopus. One myth claims that a small amount of vinegar added to the cooking liquid tenderizes the octopus. McGee also mentions daikon as a potential octopus helper. Supposedly adding diced daikon to the cooking liquid or rubbing the octopus with daikon before cooking helps tenderize the meat. McGee claims that neither method delivers as promised.
The best method for cooking octopus, according to McGee, is in a brine solution. The author suggests adding 3 tbsp. table salt with 1 qt. warm water and soaking the octopus in the solution for several hours. Remove the octopus from the mixture and place in a stockpot or pan. Simmer the octopus over low heat until cooked through. The salty brine breaks down the connective tissues and fibers in the octopus, which results in a smoother texture. McGee also claims that blanching octopus and baking in a low oven for several hours creates a tender texture.
McGee's method involves cooking only the tentacles or "arms" of the octopus and not the rest of the body. If you like the taste of the whole octopus, then try cooking it over low and slow heat. Simmer the octopus with water, salt, pepper and your favorite seasonings. Check the pot frequently and remove when the octopus is soft to the touch.
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