Best wood for smoking octopus | Get it beyond delicious with these choices

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 13, 2022

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Octopus is usually boiled or grilled but did you know that smoked octopus legs are beyond delicious?

The Japanese call this smoked tako and in Hawaii it’s known as smoked “He’e” octopus. These two regions of the world make the best smoked octopus ever.

While you’ll definitely find octopus on the menu of trendy restaurants, you can also cook it in your smoker with flavored wood chips and end up with tender and yummy octopus.

Best wood for smoking octopus | Get it beyond delicious with these choices

Smoked baby octopus or tentacles taste great in a salad or served with your favorite side dishes. But figuring out which wood to use for smoking this chewy sea creature can be challenging.

The best wood for smoked octopus is Hawaiian kiawe wood but since it’s hard to get a hold of, hickory wood is the next best thing. It has a meaty, bacon-like flavor that complements the delicate squid and calamari-like flavors of the octopus meat.

Let’s explore the best options for your smoker and talk about why you can smoke octopus without flavored wood chips.

Best woods for smoking octopus

Some people say smoked octopus tastes similar to smoked lobster, squid, or calamari but unlike those kinds of seafood, you won’t get the best results if you use fruitwood chips in the smoker.

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It’s hard to find a smoked octopus recipe that tells you which wood to use for smoking.

The best wood is Hawaiian mesquite, called kiawe but if you can’t find it in your area, you can use mesquite and hickory.

Mesquite and kiawe are very similar and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

You can smoke whole octopus or octopus legs but it’s important to de-slime it first and marinate it with seasoning before you start the smoking process.

The best meat is dry and tender rather than slimy. If you want a bit of oil though, you can always add olive oil or vegetable oil later on when cooking it.

Still looking for a good smoker? These are the 5 best BBQ smoker brands

Kiawe wood

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: slightly sweet, earthy, bold, savory

Kiawe wood (prosopis pallidia) is Hawaiian mesquite that is a bit sweeter than the traditional American mesquite tree. It is a great hardwood you can use as a heat source or for cooking, grilling, and smoking.

In fact, kiawe is not the same species as the mesquite found in the western United States.

Over 170 years ago, this type became naturalized in Hawaii. Kiawe imbues your grilled or smoked meat with the flavor of the tropical islands but it still gives the octopus meat a strong smokey flavor.

Pitmasters recommend soaking some of the kiawe wood chunks or chips for 30 minutes because this will create plentiful smoke to infuse the octopus flesh entirely.

Overall, the taste of kiawe mesquite is very strong and more smokey and intense compared to the mainland species.

If you really want to get a taste of kiawe wood but you’re far away from Hawaii, you can use some Kiawe liquid smoke.

It will make the octopus taste pretty good and you get a lot of that salty, smokey, and earthy taste of the natural wood smoke except it’s in bottled form.

Alternatively, you can season the octopus while you’re soaking it in the marinade with some kiawe wood smoke flavored salt.

Adding this seasoning will make the octopus have a slight amount of that kiawe smoke wood flavor.

Hickory

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: savory, bacon-like, earthy

It’s hard to beat hickory wood when it comes to smoking meat. Since octopus is not like fish, it can benefit from earthy wood smoke.

Hickory is primarily used in the South and Midwest regions for smoking and grilling food. It has a delicious smokey flavor and it’s used to give that classic Southern-BBQ taste.

Therefore, it’s suitable for smoking octopus too because the strong smoke improves the overall bland flavor of the octopus flesh.

When it comes to the smoke profile, hickory is bold, earthy, and bacon-like. There’s even a slight hint of sweetness but the overall flavor is bold and meaty.

Compared to fruit woods like apple, cherry, or mild alder, hickory is much stronger but not as intense as mesquite which can be a bit pungent.

Hickory wood is popular among pitmasters because it gives smoked foods a dark color so prepare to have a dark brown or black colored smoked octopus.

The great thing about hickory wood chips is that they burn slow and offer a clean but tasty smoke.

Their burn is similar to oak but the distinguished bacon flavor is hard to miss.

Here’s the thing: when you’re cooking octopus in your electric smoker, you might have a hard to adding larger wood chunks so it’s best to use hickory or mesquite wood chips which are easily available.

Hickory wood chips are also the best for smoking baby octopus because they burn slower than mesquite and kiawe so they don’t over-smoke the delicate whole octopus.

Mesquite

  • intensity: very strong
  • flavors: earthy, savory, very smoky, slightly pungent

Many people compare Hawaiian kiawe wood chips to mesquite. That’s because kiawe is Hawaiian mesquite but it has a bit of a different smoke flavor than mainland American mesquite.

The kiawe is sweeter and not quite as intense and earthy as the classic mesquite wood chips.

Therefore, if you can’t get your hands on kiawe wood from Hawaii, the classic mesquite wood is your next best option.

Overall, mesquite wood has a strong smokey and savory taste. It is also earthy, rich, and slightly pungent.

It’s most often used to smoke dark meat like beef, game, and pork. I want to mention that it isn’t a smooth or mild wood.

Although mesquite isn’t a good smoke wood for seafood, it works for octopus because this animal has very chewy and slimy skin which can benefit from the absorption of additional wood smoke aromas.

Mesquite burns very fast because it contains a lot of oil. So, you need to be careful not to over-smoke the octopus meat which is quite delicate.

The smoke will be too pungent if you over-smoke the flesh and you’ll taste some bitterness while eating it.

What woods to avoid when smoking octopus

If you want great smoked tako, you should avoid certain smoking woods and stick to the tried and tested strong hardwoods like kiawe, mesquite, and hickory wood.

Fruit woods aren’t ideal for smoked octopus because they don’t add enough flavor to the thick, chewy octopus flesh.

Most octopus recipes already require distinct brine and seasoning methods when you prepare octopus for the smoker.

Therefore, you want to use an intense smoking wood that will infuse the meat with plenty of flavor.

When smoking meat, softwoods must be avoided at all costs. Pine, fir, sycamore, cedar, cypress, and other trees contain sap and compounds that are hazardous when burned.

Toxins contaminate food, making it bitter and unpleasant to eat. The main issue is that they can make you sick if you eat them, so stay away from them.

Besides, conifers create creosote when burned and this ruins the flavor of the food and clogs up the smoker and grill.

How to prepare octopus for smoking

Octopus is a slimy and clammy animal. If you’re looking for the best smoked octopus that can pass any picky eater’s taste test, you need to prep the meat first.

So, you must clean the octopus first (this isn’t the same for a whole octopus that is very small or a baby octopus).

You achieve this by turning the head inside out so as not to break the organs. All the intestines and ink sac will be intact and can be detached without leaking things all over the flesh if done correctly.

First, remove the beak, then the eyes, and brain. You leave the rest of the slimy meat and octopus legs.

The next step is to de-slime the flesh using salt. So, you want to massage the octopus with a generous amount of sea salt or the special kiawe wood smoked salt I mentioned before.

At this point, you can use a stick or rolling pin to tenderize the meat a little bit.

The more tender the meat, the better it tastes. Smoked octopus just isn’t as great to eat when it’s full of slime.

Then, you must brine or marinate the octopus. You can mix some cold water, salt, syrup (or sugar), garlic and toss the octopus into the brine.

Leave it in the fridge overnight or for up to 30 hours so the marinade can penetrate the meat well.

The octopus will taste better if it’s brined and refrigerated overnight just be sure to drain some of the marinade liquid before you toss the octopus onto the smoker grates.

Now your octopus is ready for the smoker. Some people season it with salt or some sauce but you can just smoke it first and then season it after it is ready.

Not everyone prefers a salty flavor and some like sweeter octopus in a Hawaiian style.

How long to smoke octopus?

It’s important to mention that octopus meat doesn’t require a long smoke. Large octopus takes longer to smoke than baby octopus, of course.

For the average 12-20 inch octopus, you want to practice the low and slow-smoking method, just like with ribs.

Smoked tako that isn’t boiled takes about 3 hours to cook at a temperature between 190-220 degrees F, but no hotter.

Boiled octopus takes about two hours to smoke. The tentacles tend to get oversmoked so you can cut off the tips if you want.

Baby octopus is easy to overcook so smoke it at 140 degrees F for 1.5 hours until the flesh is dry and no longer clammy.

The internal temperature of the octopus should reach 130 to 150 degrees.

Use a wireless meat thermometer to monitor the temperature.

Takeaway

Once you remove the octopus from the smoker, you can chop it up into bite-size pieces and serve in salads, pasta dishes, rice dishes, tacos, or use it to make smokey takoyaki.

You’ll find plenty of smoked tako recipes online but the first step to tasty octopus is using a rich, flavorful smoking wood like kiawe, American mesquite, or hickory.

For this meat, you should skip sweet fruitwoods.

You can get a sweet taste from the Asian-style dipping sauce but even if you keep it simple and serve the octopus as is, or with a bit of lemon and garlic, you’ll have a delicious and healthy meal.

Read next: Is smoking food bad for you? (+ the healthiest way to smoke your meat)

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.