I've been following all the rule books on how to cook fresh/thawed octopus, specifically to "frighten" the octopus before cooking. The "frightening" is a quick 10 second bath in the boiling water, repeated 3 times, which shrinks the arms. I know I have to put spices in the water where I cook the octopus, and perhaps some sea-salt. All that will help to tenderize the octopus.

Now the question is: Why is it recommended to add a whole onion, including the skin? Is there some reaction with the onion and the octopus while cooking?

Note: This is a wide spread recommendation on how to cook octopus in Portugal.

2 Answers 2


I would suspect for the same reason you often marinade steak or meats in onions.

According to the answer onions contain proteolytic enzymes which are natural tenderizers, by breaking down proteins into smaller polypeptides or single amino acids, common in natural processes like digestion.

From Wikipedia

A protease (also called a peptidase or proteinase) is an enzyme that catalyzes (increases the rate of) proteolysis, the breakdown of proteins into smaller polypeptides or single amino acids. They do this by cleaving the peptide bonds within proteins by hydrolysis, a reaction where water breaks bonds. Proteases are involved in many biological functions, including digestion of ingested proteins, protein catabolism (breakdown of old proteins), and cell signaling.

It is easy to believe these would have on octopus flesh a similar effect that they have on other meats. Whether it is significant or not may be open to debate, some times old traditions tend to stick around even after being debunked as myths.

Keeping the skin on is probably just a practical consideration for preventing it from breaking into pieces and spreading all over, as well as easier removal.

Like other seasonings it probably also imparts some flavor, even if residual, which some people might find pleasant, adding to the advantages.

  • 3
    The skin may also impart some color to the octopus. Yellow onion skins can be used for dying fabric.
    – csk
    Jan 4, 2021 at 19:29

I read somewhere that when you can penetrate the onion with a sharp knife, the octopus should be just ready, too!

  • Not really... The onion is readily cooked (and ready for your knife test) way before the octopus is cooked to tenderness. I'm not referring to pressure cookers, which opened at the right time will have a soft onion and a tender octopus.
    – Vickel
    Dec 23, 2023 at 20:22

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