Cuttlefish
Fully Cleaned Cuttlefish [Order Sepiida, Family Sepiidae, Genus Sepia]

Cuttlefish are found throughout the costal waters of Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, but none at all in the Americas. Unlike squid, they are found near the bottom and in shallower water.

The topside of the cuttlefish is occupied by the cuttlebone, a stiff foamy structure of crystalline calcium carbonate that evolved from the hard shell these creatures once had. Now it stiffens the body and is used to control buoyancy. The photo to the left is taken from the meaty belly side. Cuttlefish have two very long tentacles with sucker disk pads at the end, just like squid, but keep them hidden deep inside, except to project them out at lightning speed to catch prey.

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Only two of the over 100 species of cuttlefish are much used for culinary purposes. Most are too small, too scarce, or too hard to catch, and one is extremely toxic.

Common Cuttlefish   -   [European Common Cuttlefish; Sepia officinalis]
Live Common Cuttlefish

This is the cuttlefish of Europe and North Africa. These mollusks can grow to a mantle (body) length of 19 inches and to a weight of 8-3/4 pounds, but are generally much smaller (to 12 inches) outside tropical waters. Common Cuttlefish are found in the Mediterranean, around the British Isles, and in the North and Baltic seas. This cuttlefish is considered an important seasonal catch in Tunisia.   Photo by Hans Hillewaert distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v4.0 International, attribution required .

Pharaoh Cuttlefish   -   [Sepia pharaonis]
Live Pharaoh Cuttlefish These Indo-West Pacific mollusks can grow to a mantle (body) length of 16-1/2 inches, and to a weight of 11 pounds. They are a very important catch in the northern Indian Ocean, and around Australia and the Philippines. 90% of the Australian catch is this species. Found as far west as the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, they are nice and meaty, weighing more per inch of length than the European.   Photo by Captmondo distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.


Buying:   I don't know about the East Coast, and suspect cuttlefish is not common in the "Flyover" regions of North America, but Indo-Pacific cuttlefish is easily available here in Southern California, found in the frozen food cases of many Asian markets. It's all cleaned, skinned and ready to cut for recipes, as shown in the photo at the top of the page. Expert workers do a fine job, without even pulling the head loose from the body. European Common Cuttlefish is pretty much unavailable here. The photo specimen was purchased from a large Asian market in San Gabriel, California, for 2016 US $4.99 / pound. From 1.76 pounds, it lost 1/4 pound thawed and ice free, so effectively $5.85 per pound, but 100% yield, so not such a high price compared to many fish.

Cooking:   like Squid and Octopus, Cuttlefish is an "eat it raw, cook it briefly at high temperature, or simmer slowly for 30 to 45 minutes" sort of beast. Generally, follow the recipe, unless you're pretty sure it doesn't know what it's doing.

Cleaning Fresh Cuttlefish:   We don't have to worry about that here in Southern California, since we can only get them frozen, expertly cleaned and skinned. I have only had to do the final pulling apart for slicing. Note that the small cartilaginous parts, particularly around the eye sockets and along the fin attachment, are perfectly usable, just a little more crunchy than the rest. The fins on the big Indo-Pacific ones are also very usable, but are usually discarded from the small European ones.

In general, fresh cuttlefish is prepared by carefully pulling it apart with the fingers, including pulling off the skin, with a minimum of cutting with a knife. I strongly recommend viewing the complete and very detailed video by chef Peter Weeden (available on-line) for dismantling a large Indo-Pacific cuttlefish. European cuttlefish may be simpler, since they are usually much smaller and only the belly and tentacles may be usable.

Yield:   A fresh large Indo-Pacific cuttlefish will yield about 50% edible. For the frozen and thoroughly cleaned Indo-Pacific cuttlefish we get here in California, figure 86% usable - to compensate for ice included. Other than the ice, they are effectively 100% usable. European cuttlefish probably yield less because there is less usable meat due to their smaller size. Of course, as with Squid and Octopus there is pretty severe shrinkage in cooking. 2 pounds 10 ounces of raw Cuttlefish was 1 pound 10 ounces (62%) after simmering for about 8 minutes. This is long enough for most of the shrinkage to have taken place.

Cuttlefish Ink   -   [Sepia officinalis]
Jar of Cuttlefish Ink

This ink is from a special ink sack in Cuttlefish, used to make a "smokescreen" when the cuttlefish needs to escape. It is pretty much interchangeable with Squid Ink, but considered superior to squid in Spain, where it is most used. It has long been used as a deeply black food coloring and flavoring, particularly in Spain, but also in Portugal, Italy and France.

Typical uses are for black pasta, "black rice" (not naturally black rice, but a dish of cooked rice colored deep black by Cuttlefish or Squid ink) and the famous black paella of Valencia. It is generally preserved with sea salt, but should still be stored in the refrigerator and used within 1 to 2 weeks of opening the container, or should be frozen.

Cuttlebone   -   [Cuttlefish Bone; Sepia species]
Whole Cuttlebone This is what remains of the cuttlefish's former external shell. It forms a "roof" over the body cavity, and extends for nearly the entire length of the mantle (body). It is loosely in place with only skin over it, and can be removed by making a short cut at the front of the mantle and squeezing it out. It is foam-like, and composed of Aragonite, a crystalline form of Calcium Carbonate.

This structure stiffens the cuttlefish's body, and also acts as a buoyancy control device by changing the ratio of air to water in it. It has been used in toothpaste and antacids, but today it's main nutrition use is as an easily consumed calcium source for caged birds, chinchillas and other confined animals. It is still used for molds in goldsmithing and in other crafts.   Photo by Mgiganteus distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.

Health & Nutrition

Like other cephalopods (and crustaceans), Cuttlefish is fairly high in cholesterol. That was once a big scare, but, as so often happens, the AHA was wrong. It is now known the body manufactures most of its own cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol has little effect for most people. In fact, populations that eat large amounts of high cholesterol shrimp and squid tend to have a low incidence of coronary disease. Eating too little cholesterol is now suspected to have negative effects on health. Your brain is made mostly of cholesterol, so you don't want to run short, or you may end up joining the Tea Party, or believing in conspiracy theories. Chem trails anyone?

Like octopi, cuttlefish are toxic, but only the Flamboyant Cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) is any danger to humans, with flesh as toxic as that of the lethal Blue Ringed Octopus, and it may have a toxic bite too. Fortunately, it's so scary looking it's unlikely to be eaten. It is, of course, found in coastal waters of Australia, which seems to be the world center for toxic critters. To be fair, it, and the Blue Ringed Octopus, are found as far to the north as the Philippines.

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