Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How to prepare squid with little fuss

Squid is the first "weird" food I fell madly in love with. This was way back in high school, the day my family went to an old Italian restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf area on the northern tip of San Francisco, back when going to the City was a big deal for us South Bay denizens. 

We were getting ready to order dinner at Scoma's when my eye fell on the exotic word calamari. Ooh, tentacles. Guaranteed to make my poor mother gag, and so, as I was your average teenager, this was what I ordered.

I did get plenty of tentacles on my plate. But what I hadn't counted on was liking them and the tender squid rings to the extent I did. The little guys had been lightly breaded and fried, and then served with what I think were little bowls of tartar and cocktail sauce, those old standbys of ancient Californian cuisine.

My mise en place
Ever since then, this has been what I've ordered whenever given the slightest chance, and by ending up in Taiwan I expanded my squid world by many dimensions. 

The Chinese too have a long-standing love affairs with all sorts of squid -- they even have different names for the various varieties -- so that I came to adore this little creature even more. 

Regular squid is called youyu, while fat cuttlefish are known as moyu or wuzei. (Some dictionaries get this turned around, though.) The Taiwanese refer to the squid as shown here as xiaojuan, and the list goes on and on.

Dried squid, which might not sound like much, is quite good, too, and provides a completely individual flavor to whatever dish it graces, although it needs to be soaked in alkaline water to perk it up. And Taiwan even has a dried cuttlefish snack that is completely tenderized and cut into thin strips; highly recommended if you love funky foods.

Calamari au naturel
But today I want to talk about fresh squid and how to clean it, because if you have never done this, it can appear so daunting that you'll just resign yourself to eating it in restaurants. Mastering squid prep is easy to do, though, and so I'll break this down into steps that will guarantee success your first time out.

First, get your hands on some very good, very fresh squid. This often means buying a brick of frozen squid, which may seem scary in and of itself, but take heart -- it will be worth it. These bricks are usually about 3 pounds, leaving you with around 4 cups of prepped, raw squid, which you then can make into any number of wonderful things. (See the upcoming recipes for some suggestions.) 

Once you lug the squid home, place it in a large bowl in the refrigerator where it can slowly defrost over about three days. The box generally will have a window where you can see how fast the squid are softening, and I usually start poking at it out of impatience. When they are more or less defrosted, it is time to set aside about half an hour to clean them.

Cut off the tentacles
You first want to have your mise en place set up. This is very important, as it is this layout that will help things go very smoothly. Mine looks the the arrangement in the second picture from the top, with the squid lying in a colander set in a sink with a garbage disposal. (If you don't have a garbage disposal, or if yours is on its last legs, see the Tips at the bottom.) On the counter next to the sink have a washable cutting board (I like plastic for this, since I can put it in the dishwasher), a bowl for the cleaned squid, and a sharp little knife.

Before you start, rinse the squid in the colander and pick out any that look or smell wrong. If any of the squid are still frozen, place them in the bottom of the pile. Then, get to work:

Lay a squid on your cutting board and pull the tentacles and head off of the body; they should come out with relatively little effort.
Squid beak inside the head

Next, cut off the tentacles below the eyes. Do this carefully the first couple of times, as the "beak" or mouth is in the center of the tentacles, but if you aim right, you can avoid it and leave it in the head with the eyes. If the beak does end up with the tentacles, just squeeze it out, since it looks like a little ball with a dark beak in it. 

Place the tentacles in the bowl, toss the head and any trailing guts in the sink, and then turn to the body of the squid.

The next thing to do is pull of the thin skin on the body. This step is not necessary, but the dish will look nicer without the inky skin messing with your colors. Also, it's extremely easy to do: just pull on it until it tears, and then slip it off. If one or two of the fins come off, don't worry about it, as there is not that much meat there. 
Peel off the skin

When the skin is removed, reach inside the opening where the head was and dislodge the cuttlebone, which should be like a thin piece of clear plastic, and pull it out. Then, hold the tail end of the squid and use your other hand to squeeze out all of the guts, sort of like flattening a tube of toothpaste. Quickly run a finger around the inside of the squid to make sure there's no cuttlebone or lumpy bits left inside, and then toss it in the bowl with the cleaned tentacles.

After all of the squid have been cleaned, wash out the colander and dump the prepped squid back in there. Rinse the pieces under cool running water, lightly rubbing them between your hands. The purpose of this step is to clean not only the outsides, but also the inside of the squid, so rinse, squeeze, repeat. Drain the squid as thoroughly as you can, and if you are not cooking them right away, place them in a resealable plastic container. Use them within two days, at the most.
Pull out the clear cuttlebone

You will find that actually cleaning the squid will probably go a lot faster than reading about it.


If you have access to fresh squid in your area, be sure and try it. Otherwise, I have to admit that the frozen ones are quite good.

Pay attention to the origin of the squid (or any fish you buy), as some are farmed in very poor regions, which means that they could be contaminated with all sorts of things. I always get California squid, which used to one of the mainstays of the Monterey economy, and it's a nice tie to the local Steinbeckian history we enjoy.

Washed & ready to cook
Cleaning up after you have finished prepping the squid is really quite fast if you have a garbage disposal. Just rinse all of the guts and skin and heads into the disposal and grind away. Put the cutting board in the dishwasher, or else scrub it clean with hot water and soap. Wipe down the counter, and you are done.

Squid guts left to rot have to be one of the most disgusting smells in the entire universe. So, if you don't have a garbage disposal -- or if yours is on its last lap -- toss the guts into a plastic wrap, tie it tight, wipe off the outside, and make sure it does not leak. Then, put it into your freezer until garbage pickup day. Your neighbors will thank you.


  1. I lived in Japan for most of the decade of the 1960s. I and my Japanese wife used to frequently visit our landlady in the evenings to sit around the kotatsu, chat, and watch TV. I would frequently bring either beer or sake for our sipping pleasure and the good landlady would provide snacks. Quite often she would have tiny little squid that had been boiled in sweetened soy sauce. They were eaten whole, guts and all and you only had the cuttlebone to remove from your mouth. The guts were actually about the tastiest part of this dainty snack.

    1. That sounds delicious! We used to eat little squid, guts and all, in Taiwan when they were offered grilled at the night markets. Like you say, with cold beer... yum.