What is calamari? Everything you need to know about the mysterious yet delicious seafood
- Calamari is the pluralized version of calamaro, the Italian word for squid.
- It has a mild flavor, chewy texture, and is sold fresh or frozen at fish markets and grocery stores.
While scanning an Italian restaurant menu or shopping at your local fish market, you may have come across calamari. With rubbery flesh that can instantly be transformed into a tender, meaty delicacy after cooking, calamari is unlike any other seafood.
Whether you're an amateur home chef eager to try something new, or you're just curious about this unique and popular mollusk, here's what to know about preparing and cooking calamari.
What is calamari?
Contrary to some common misconceptions, calamari is not octopus — or pig rectum, as a popular myth asserts — it's actually the term used to describe certain species of squid. In fact, the word calamari comes from the Italian word for squid: "calamaro."
There are hundreds of species of squid, but not all of them are edible and only a handful are used to make the calamari available at restaurants and markets.
According to Herve Malivert, director of culinary affairs at the Institute of Culinary Education, these species tend to be no more than a foot long. They also typically have thinner, more tender flesh that cooks quickly, says Malivert. Calamari is milky white in color whether raw or cooked, but once it's cooked, it takes on a more opaque appearance.
Where does calamari come from?
Squid can be found in almost every ocean and sea on earth — except the Black Sea. In the US, much of this squid is fished off the coast of California (especially Monterey Bay) and Rhode Island.
Squid has long been a diet staple for many other cultures across the globe — particularly in the Mediterranean region, Southern Europe, and East Asia. In the US, however, squid was primarily used as bait until the 1970s, when popular fish like cod and flounder became more scarce. As a result, fishermen began selling squid to local markets, and chefs began exploring cooking with it — and by the 1980s, calamari could be found on many menus across the country.
Around 22 million pounds are fished from Rhode Island every year, says Crown Restaurant Group chef-owner Anthony Sitek.
The longfin squid is fished between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It can also be found in the Gulf of Venezuela and the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
The California market squid, also known as the pacific loligo squid, is mostly fished between Punta Eugenia in Baja, California and Monterey Bay, California, but can also be found off the southeastern region of Alaska.
What does calamari taste like?
Calamari doesn't have a very "fishy" taste. It's known for its firm, mildly sweet flesh, and chewy texture. Sometimes, it can have a subtle nutty flavor.
While it may be somewhat bland on its own, calamari can soak up any flavors of the sauces, seasonings, and other ingredients it's cooked with.
Quick tip: While calamari can have a chewy bite, it shouldn't be rubbery. According to Malivert, that's usually a sign that it's overcooked.
Where to buy and how to store calamari
Fresh calamari can be bought at most fish markets, and in some cases, in the seafood section at your local grocery store. You can purchase the squid whole if you'd like to clean it yourself or use the squid ink to add flavor to recipes.
Since cleaning a squid can be a bit of a messy process, though, you can also ask the fishmonger to do this for you. Cleaning the squid is important for eliminating all the parts that are inedible: the beak, cuttlebone, entrails, and the skin.
If you can't find fresh calamari, Sitek recommends checking the frozen section. Frozen squid can be bought whole, or already pre-cut into rings or pieces.
"Freezing it actually helps break down the muscle fibers, making it more tender after cooking," he explains.
After taking the calamari home, Malivert advises storing it in an airtight plastic bag resting on a bed of ice and ideally, preparing it within one day. Cooked calamari can last in the fridge for two to three days when stored in a zip-top plastic bag, and frozen calamari will last for up to two months.
To freeze it, just place the squid in a plastic freezer bag and squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing it. Make sure to label the bag and include the date so you know when it expires.
If you're able to plan ahead before cooking it, defrost the still bagged and sealed calamari in the fridge overnight. Or, if you're pressed for time, you can take the calamari out of the bag, place it in a large bowl under cool running water for 5 to 10 minutes, and drain it once it's no longer frozen.
How to cook calamari
Squid can be eaten raw, as well as prepared in a multitude of different ways, including: fried, grilled, sautéed, roasted, or braised.
According to Malivert, squid is best cooked for very little time using a high-heat cooking method — like grilling, sautéing, or deep-frying — to preserve its texture and flavor, and will only take 2 to 3 minutes to cook with any of those methods.
The other option is to slow braise it over very low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, which allows its collagen to break down into gelatin, resulting in a more tender texture that melts in your mouth. This usually entails simmering the squid in olive oil, white wine, and garlic, along with vegetables, herbs, and spices while stirring occasionally.
Quick tip: There are two edible parts of these squids: the tentacles and the tube. The tube, or the body of the squid, is often sliced into rings — but can also be stuffed, or cut into flat bite-sized pieces.
Popular dishes that use calamari
In America, calamari is frequently battered with flour and corn meal, deep-fried, and served with marinara dipping sauce. But across the world, it's used in a wide variety of other dishes. Here are some of the most popular, according to Malivert and Sitek:
- Paella: A Spanish rice dish that often includes chicken, chorizo, and seafood.
- Jjampong: A spicy Korean-Chinese noodle soup made with a medley of seafood.
- Frutti di mare: A spicy Italian pasta dish that usually also features mussels, shrimp, scallops, and clams.
- Fritto misto: A dish consisting of battered and fried pieces of seafood and vegetables — which also often includes shrimp, zucchini, and mushrooms.
- Ika Sansai: A cold Japanese salad with raw squid, bamboo shoots, and vegetables marinated in vinegar and ginger.
- Yakimono: A Japanese dish consisting of skewers of squid roasted over charcoal.
- Cioppino/Brodetto: An Italian fish stew with a tomato-based broth.
- Ceviche: A Peruvian dish made of raw fish seasoned with fresh citrus juices.
- Salt and pepper squid: A popular Chinese dish that consists of battered and deep-fried squid that's tossed with salt, black pepper, scallions, and red chilis.
- Kalamarakia Yemista: A Greek specialty made of squid stuffed with a medley of rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and fresh herbs.
Quick tip: If you're frying calamari, Sitek recommends soaking it in a buttermilk batter before coating it in the breading mixture. This not only helps to tenderize the meat and make the flour stick better but also adds some rich dimension to the flavor.
Calamari is squid meat that's fished from oceans all across the world. It can be prepared in almost any way you can think of, from grilling and braising to sautéing and frying. Since it has a mild taste and soaks up flavor, calamari can be used in many different dishes, like pastas, stews, and cold seafood salads.
You can find calamari at your local fish market, or at the seafood counter and in the frozen section at your local grocery store. Chefs recommend using it within a day or so if you buy it fresh and store it in the fridge, but it'll last for up to two months if frozen.
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