Why It Works
- Using pre-cooked octopus that is already tender guarantees you won't get rubbery results.
- Drying the octopus speeds up browning and crisping on the grill.
- Working over direct high heat sears and crisps the octopus without the risk of drying out the interior.
In Greece, seaside streets are lined with octopuses, stretched from limb to limb to limb to limb, hang-drying in the sun. It's an old tenderization technique that dehydrates the octopus before it's braised and grilled. If your neighbors would tolerate it, and if you live in a similarly hot and dry Mediterranean climate, then I suppose you, too, could attempt to prepare your octopus this way—maybe you already do, since meeting those criteria means there's a good chance you already live in Greece. The rest of us aren't so lucky. No matter, grilling octopus that's crispy and tender is easy, and requires little more than a pot and a grill.
If you've never grilled octopus before, the first thing you need to know is that you can't just toss a raw octopus on the grill and call it a day. Well, you can, but I don't think you'd want to, unless the idea of rubbery, shriveled, and burnt tentacles appeals to you. Before grilling, an octopus first has to be cooked until tender. This two-stage cooking process guarantees great results.
During the first stage, your goal is to cook the octopus until the tough connective-tissue collagen in its muscles melts into soft gelatin. This takes a while because octopus is packed with cross-linked collagen, which makes it exceptionally rubbery. Its collagen-rich flesh is a direct result of its anatomy—lacking bones, an octopus evolved the structural support necessary for movement through its muscles themselves, which are known scientifically as muscular hydrostats. Thanks to their crisscrossing muscle fibers, octopus limbs are capable of complex and multi-directional movement patterns without any skeletal support. Despite our extremely distant evolutionary relationship to octopuses (they're some of our most removed animal relatives), the underlying physiology is the same as that of our tongues.
There are different ways to soften this rigid muscular flesh through cooking: sous vide uses lower temperatures and takes the longest at about five hours; simmering or boiling reduces that time to roughly one hour; and a pressure cooker can force the boiling point of water higher and speed up the cooking time to 15 minutes or so.* I've gone into more detail on these methods in my article on cooking octopus.
*Remember that octopus cooking times can vary dramatically. It's ready when it's ready and not a moment before, whether it takes 30 minutes or 5 hours.
Once cooked, you should cool the octopus down in its cooking liquid. This may sound unnecessary. After all, why bother cooling it down if you're just going to get it hot again? But I've found that octopus skin is too fragile right after boiling, rubbing off under even the most gentle touch. Some folks think removing the skin is a good thing. I don't. I love the skin and its melting texture, and I want to keep it. Chilling the octopus sets the skin, so that when the time comes to grill it, you'll be able to.
Once cooled, it helps to drain and dry the octopus. Any excess liquid on its surface will only slow down the browning and crisping you want to happen on the grill. You can pat the octopus dry with towels, or set it on parchment-lined baking sheets and allow it to air-dry in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
Grilling is the easiest step of all. Toss the octopus, whether whole or divided into tentacles, with some olive oil and load it onto a cleaned and preheated grill, directly over hot coals. The tentacles will take on an appealing charred appearance and flavor, and the thins ends will char and get a little crispy. This grilling step is really just a surface treatment: When both sides look done, the octopus is ready. There's no need to worry about synching up outer browning and inner doneness, because you've taken care of each separately. The results: octopus that is tender, not rubbery, and lightly singed on the surface.
1 (2 1/2-pound; 1kg) whole cooked octopus, chilled, drained of cooking liquid, cleaned of eyes and beak, and dried thoroughly (see notes)
1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 teaspoons (10ml) crushed or minced Calabrian chiles in oil, or a coarse chili paste such as sambal oelek
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano leaves
Lemon wedges, for serving
Frisée or other leafy greens, for serving
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over half of coal grate. Alternatively, set half the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
In a medium bowl, stir together olive oil, chiles, and oregano. Season lightly with salt and set aside. The sauce can be held at room temperature for up to 5 hours; refrigerate if storing longer and return to room temperature before using.
If you want to grill the octopus whole, leave it as-is. Alternatively, you can break the octopus down into parts, separating the head from the tentacles (you will already have cut out the eyes and beak where they meet); you can then leave the tentacles in sections, or separate them all into individual pieces.
When ready to grill, lightly drizzle olive oil all over the octopus and season lightly with salt. Set on grill directly over the coals and sear until browned and crisped, about 4 minutes (grilling time will vary depending on the heat of your coals and distance between them and the grill grate.) Carefully flip octopus and brown the other side, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to serving plates or platters if you want to serve the pieces as-is, or transfer them to a work surface if you want to cut them into smaller pieces, then arrange on serving plates.
Stir sauce to mix, then spoon over octopus. Serve with lemon wedges and some leafy greens lightly dressed in olive oil and seasoned with salt.
You can use any of our octopus cooking methods here: sous vide; boiled; pressure-cooker. See our guide to cooking octopus for more info. Note that we recommend cooling the octopus in its cooking liquid prior to cooking it further.
To dry the cooked octopus, pat it gently with paper towels (be careful not to tear the skin as much as possible). If any of the cooking liquid has gelled onto the octopus, remove it with towels as best you can. Alternatively, if you have the time in advance, you can set the cooked, cooled, and drained octopus on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and let it air-dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least three hours and up to overnight.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The octopus can be cooked and refrigerated up to three days in advance; cool, drain, and dry on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet before wrapping in plastic.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 22g||29%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||17%|
|Total Carbohydrate 11g||4%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 29mg||147%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|