While it's not common in North America, sea cucumber is considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia. The texture -- spongy and slippery -- may be off-putting, butthe softness of the flesh when cooked means it is perfect for slow-cooked or soupy dishes. The light taste of the meat makes it well-suited for pairing with stronger flavors. Sea cucumber requires a thorough cleaning before cooking.
About the Sea Cucumber
Sausage-shaped, the sea cucumber is found worldwide, but it is almost never eaten fresh. It is most commonly sold frozen or dried. While it ranges from black to yellow to red in color when fresh, once frozen, the exterior turns into a dull, dark grey-green color. It ranges from 1 to 3 inches thick, and no more than 6 inches long.
Preparing Sea Cucumber
Frozen sea cucumber needs to be thawed before using, while dried sea cucumber needs to be rehydrated.
Thaw frozen sea cucumber in its packaging, overnight in the fridge for optimal food safety. Sea cucumber that has been thawed overnight in the fridge can be stored, wrapped, in the fridge, for 2 to 3 days. Other defrosting methods include using the microwave and submerging the package in cold water.
To defrost in the microwave, microwave the sea cucumber, removed from its packaging, in a microwave-safe bowl on the defrost setting for 2 to 4 minutes until fully thawed. Use the sea cucumber the same day.
To thaw in water, submerge the wrapped sea cucumber in a bowl of cold water. Let sit for 1 to 2 hours, changing the water every 30 minutes. Once fully thawed, the sea cucumber must be used the same day.
If you are not preparing the sea cucumber immediately, store the thawed sea cucumber in the fridge.
Rehydrating dried sea cucumber can take several days, depending on the quality and size of the sea cucumber. The fresher and higher quality the dried sea cucumber, the less time is needed for rehydration. In general, a time period of 4 to 6 days is needed to fully rehydrate a dried sea cucumber.
To rehydrate a 2-inch wide, 4-inch long sea cucumber:
Place the dried sea cucumber in a large bowl and cover with water. Let rest at room temperature for two to three days, changing the water each day.
Scrape the outside of the sea cucumber with a butter knife to remove any white crust that has formed as part of the dehydration process. If the cucumber is soft enough, gently pry apart the sea cucumber and scrape away any residue or white material. Discard the white material.
If the sea cucumber is not soft enough, let the cucumber soak for 1 to 2 more days.
Continue soaking the sea cucumber, changing the water daily, until the recommended soaking period has passed. When finished, the sea cucumber will have almost doubled in size, and will have softened, but remained firm.
Cooking Sea Cucumber
Once softened or thawed, dried and frozen sea cucumber are cooked the same way. To prepare sea cucumber:
Bring a large pot of water to boil on high heat, and add the sea cucumber. Cook on a rolling boil for 1 hour, covered. If the sea cucumber is still hard, toss the water and bring the cucumber and a fresh pot of water back to a rolling boil. Cook for another 30 to 90 minutes. Test for doneness every 10 to 15 minutes.
When fully cooked, a sea cucumber will be double to triple its original size. It will be soft to touch, but the meat will have a slight bounce when pushed.
Do not overcook the sea cucumber, as it easily disintegrates when boiled for too long.
Let the softened sea cucumber rest in the hot water until it has cooled. Toss the cooking liquid, and cut the softened sea cucumber into the desired size. Use the sea cucumber immediately, or store, covered, in the fridge, for up to 2 days.
Using in Dishes
Because sea cucumber falls apart so easily once softened, it is only added at the end of the cooking process. It is highly absorbent, so only 1 to 2 minutes of cooking time gives it enough time to soak up braising or cooking liquid, giving it a deep, hearty flavor.
Pair sea cucumber with the following foods:
- Pork loin
- Pork belly
- Asian vegetables, such as bok choy
Because sea cucumber has a relatively neutral taste and is absorbent, it takes well to strong flavors, such as those used in Asian cooking.
Seasoning ideas for dishes with sea cucumber include:
- Soy sauce
- Oyster Sauce
- Five Spice powder
- Sesame Seed Oil
Because of it is often served with rich and strong-flavored foods and seasonings, serve cooked sea cucumber with plain, unseasoned rice noodles or steamed rice.