21 March 2019

When the food has suction cups: Chefs and scientists make cephalopods a new delicate everyday food


The seas around Denmark are teeming with cephalopods – more than 20 different species. In the gastrolab, Taste for Life’s gastrophysicists and innovative chefs have studied how the eight and ten-armed molluscs could end up as tasty dishes on Danish dinner tables.

Photo: Jonas Drotner Mouritsen

This article is originally published in Danish at SmagForLivet.dk

We Danes hardly eat cephalopods. One reason is that many think that cephalopods are always tough, according to Taste for Life researchers from the University of Copenhagen (KU). They have therefore initiated a research project to reveal the gastrophysical and gastronomic properties of Danish cephalopods and to develop preparations that make the cephalopods easy and delicious food.

The research is lead by Ole G. Mouritsen, professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation and head of centre for Taste for Life: 

“Cephalopods are a nutritious, healthy and sustainable food that is even being found in increasing amounts in the world’s oceans – including the Danish ones – and are not impacted by environmental toxins. But food is only eaten and enjoyed when it is well known and tasty. This is where cephalopods meet resistance,” he explains.

Working with Professor Mouritsen is a number of researchers and chefs from Taste for Life and the University of Copenhagen. Their first results have just been published in the article: “Squids of the North: Gastronomy and gastrophysics of Danish squid” in the scientific journal International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. 

The kitchen as a laboratory

In order to find the best way to prepare cephalopods to the right tenderness and taste profile, the group of chefs and scientists has made use of the many tools and techniques of the kitchen.

“The anatomy of cephalopods is very special. They have no skeletons, but a complex muscle structure with three times more connective tissue than, for example, beef. Therefore, in order to tenderize the cephalopod muscles, you have to weaken the special connective tissue structure. Failing that, the meat will be tough. We have therefore tested the applicability and effect of a large number of cooking techniques on the taste and mouthfeel of the cephalopod and compared this with physical and chemical studies of the muscle and connective tissue structure,” says Ole G. Mouritsen.

The research and cooking team has thus steamed, dried and smoked. Salted, fried and sous vide treated. Frozen, thawed and freeze dried. Fermented, candied and confited. All to make cephalopods an everyday food.

The right bite

In one of the experimental series, the researchers souse-vide prepared squid of the species Loligo forbesii for up to two hours. Then the squids were cut into 1.5 cm cubes and analysed in a machine that mimics the bite of our teeth in food and which can thus measure the tenderness of the bites of squid.

It turned out that the longer that the squid is subject to sous vide, the less effort it takes to cut/bite it. The texture also becomes more uniform; but according to the researchers and chefs, that is not perceived as as the most preferred: When they conducted sensory investigations by tasting the squid, the conclusion was that a relatively short cooking time of approx. 30 minutes gives the right balance between tenderness and “bite”.

Lots of umami

The measurements also showed that the cephalopod meat has a great potential for giving us the taste of umami, since cephalopods contain far more free glutamate – which gives rise to the basic umami taste – than, for example, beef and chicken meat.

With this new knowledge in hand, the scientists and chefs developed new recipes for cephalopods: e.g., squid cream, confited squid pasta, tentacle braids and semi-dried squid.

From gastrophysical research to everyday taste  

By sharing the new knowledge, insights and recipes with both professional and amateur chefs, it is Ole G. Mouritsen’s hope that others will also co-develop cephalopod gastronomy for the benefit of everyone.