“Look at this color!” Minas Kostakis says with a bright smile. The chef is only 30 years old, but the passion for good food knows no age limit in Greece.
He cooks with pure enthusiasm.
We are at To Karnagio, a neighborhood fish and seafood taverna in Heraklion on Crete, Greece’s largest island, and the chef is talking about the color of the grilled octopus that he’s just plated: a striking mix of dark charcoal, ivory, and red, set against a gray lava plate. It’s almost like a painting—definitely an appetizing dish to look at, made even more enticing by its aroma.
The red color comes from a robust red wine, a local vintage with high notes of berries and herbs, that Kostakis used to tenderize the octopus before grilling. He had placed the octopus’s arms in a large skillet, covered them entirely with wine and a drizzle of vinegar, and added spices—simple, straightforward, and typical of many Greek dishes: bay leaves, a mix of whole peppercorns and ground pepper, and sea salt.
He covered the skillet and let it simmer on low heat for an hour.
“This is the best way to tenderize octopus,” Kostakis tells me. “There are several other ways, but this is by far the one that brings the best out of this dish.”
This technique is the signature style of To Karnagio, where Kostakis has worked since 2019. Prior to that, he studied culinary arts in Heraklion, at the state-owned school, under several prestigious Greek chefs’ tutelage. Octopus and seafood pasta are his signature dishes.
He’s right about his tenderizing method. Poorly cooked octopus can turn rubbery and tough, but Kostakis’s rendition is soft enough to cut with a fork, especially toward the thinner ends of the arms, while still retaining a slight, pleasant chew.
The wine and bay leaves do more than just give it a pretty color; they also elevate its taste, even prior to grilling. Every mouthful is a symphony of Mediterranean flavors: The bay leaf is delicate and earthy, while the wine and vinegar contribute zest and acidity. Kostakis serves the grilled octopus with vegetables on a bed of fava, a puree of yellow split peas, which has an earthy aftertaste that perfectly complements the briny seafood.
A Greek Tradition
Since ancient times, octopus has been a staple of Greek cuisine, especially in settlements close to the sea. Depictions of the mollusk appear on Minoan pottery on Crete dating as far back as 1500 B.C., suggesting that the beast was appreciated both as a decorative motif and an important food item, as the Minoans’ diet was largely based on fishing.
Now, locals and tourists alike sample the delicacy often in the summer—perhaps because this is the best season to hunt the beasts in the Mediterranean Sea. (During the off-season, the octopus served in most tavernas is previously frozen, then thawed and prepped.)
Traditionally, experienced fishermen would catch the beasts by spearing them at night, quickly kill them, then slam them against a hard surface, such as the rocky shore, 40 to 50 times to drain the water and supposedly soften the rigid, muscular flesh. The battered octopi are then hung on a line to dry out in the sun, like linen, to dehydrate and tenderize before cooking fully—a common sight in many seashore villages.
Fortunately, you need neither of these steps to cook perfectly tender octopus, Greek-style, at home.
Simmered to Perfection
Many Greek chefs tenderize octopus with the simple method of slow-simmering it in water—or wine, in Kostakis’s case—and vinegar. Some add a wine cork in the water to supposedly aid the process, but Kostakis tells me the simmering is what really does the trick.
“You don’t need the cork,” he insists.
Since I moved to Crete in 2017, I’ve cooked octopus at home several times—though I never used wine. Instead, I tenderized my beast in water with lemon, salt, and Cretan spices (usually a mix of rosemary, marjoram, basil, thyme, and oregano). My method worked quite well, too, but the finished product never had the same depth of flavor as the dish Kostakis serves at To Karnagio.
If you want to cook fresh octopus, you must first clean it thoroughly with plenty of water and cut off the head, along with the ink sack and the beak (or see if your fishmonger can clean it for you). Kostakis recommends that home cooks use frozen octopus, which comes precleaned. Thaw it in the refrigerator overnight, then rinse it thoroughly before using it.
When you’re ready, bring a pot of water to a boil. Dunk the octopus in the water three times, to stop the tentacles from seizing up, before fully submerging it to simmer. Reduce the heat to low and add your seasonings: the juice from one lemon or a hearty drizzle of good vinegar, olive oil, herbs (try herbes de Provence, if you can’t find Cretan herbs), pepper, and coarse sea salt.
Or, if you want to follow Kostakis’s method instead, place your thawed and rinsed octopus in a deep, non-stick skillet and cover it completely with red wine. Add a drizzle of good vinegar, and a generous pinch of sea salt, whole peppercorns, and a few bay leaves.
“Don’t be afraid to add spices: more bay leaves, more peppercorns. There are no real measures to talk about; do what feels right,” Kostakis says. “For example, for a large octopus, I use five to six bay leaves, a good pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of peppercorns. They will not make the dish spicy.”
For either method, cover the pot and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes per pound. Use a knife to test if your octopus is tender enough: If the tip of the knife can pierce it with ease, you can turn off the heat and take your octopus out of the broth.
If you do it right, the octopus will have restaurant-quality features. If you miss the mark, it will be hard to chew and unpleasant overall. Take your time and let it simmer longer if needed. On the other hand, be aware that simmering for too long will cause the skin and tentacles to fall apart, and the dish will no longer look as pretty or appetizing as it should.
You can then serve the tenderized octopus as is, simply drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, vinaigrette, or lemon; or add it to salads, pasta dishes, or rice. You can also cook it for an extra 30 minutes in tomato sauce or pan-fry it until golden-brown on each side.
But octopus tastes best grilled, Kostakis tells me, as an appetizer—or meze, as the Greeks call it. There is one thing I’ve learned since I moved from Germany to Greece: everything tastes better grilled. That includes vegetables, lamb, seafood, and even bread—everything.
After tenderizing, drain and dry the octopus thoroughly and let it rest for several hours. Then, grill it over a charcoal or gas grill on high heat, three to four minutes on each side, until the thinner ends of the arms are slightly charred, though not crisp.
However you decide to serve your home-cooked octopus, use your imagination, and you will always surprise your guests—and maybe yourself.
A former military journalist, Mihaela Lica-Butler is a senior partner at Argophilia Travel News. Besides her work as a PR pro and travel journalist, she spends her time writing children’s fairy tales and cookbooks.