Restaurant Reviews

Does Cooking Octopus With Cork Tenderize It? Sarto's Thinks So

Next time you open a bottle of wine, you might want to hold onto that cork. According to Brian Laird, chef/co-owner of Sarto’s, the new restaurant in Jefferson Park that I review this week, the little plug that most of us unceremoniously throw out holds the key to tender octopus.

“When I stayed in Italy, that’s the way I had it,” says Laird, whose grilled octopus with bone marrow, fingerlings and spinach wowed me.“I’m a true believer that it changes the PH balance of the water.”

And he’s not the only one. At Il Posto, chef de cuisine Mario Pacheco also tosses in a cork when he’s preparing cephalopods. “We did an experiment with and without it, and found with the smaller [octopuses] it helped,” he says. Exactly why, however, Pacheco can’t say for sure. Cork “helps it, but I don’t know what part of it.” In the past, he’s brined octopus sous-vide for eight hours before braising it for another seven with tomatoes, but he has no complaints about the results he’s been getting more recently with cork and a pressure cooker. (Octopus isn’t on the current menu at Il Posto, but a few weeks ago it ran as a terrine similar to head cheese.)

Other chefs, however, aren’t so sure about popping the cork. “Honestly, I think the cork is a myth,” says John Parks, executive chef-instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts. While he agrees that something must be done – “fibers on octopus are dense,” he says “and the animals are harvested later in life than other sea creatures, so tenderizing is essential” – he prefers to let the freezer do the work.

“Putting it in the freezer causes ice crystals to break the fibers when you defrost, a very efficient way of tenderizing,” he explains. Or you can buy pre-tenderized octopus, he adds, and roast it low and slow, covered with foil, for about five hours.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz