Squid In Its Own Ink

Squid cooked in its own defence mechanism might seem like the ultimate indignity for this aristocrat of the sea. It’s also supremely delicious, and so surprising and takes so little effort.

Squid in its own ink is one of the great slow-cooked dishes of the world. Most often considered a staple of Italian cooking, particularly around Venice, it should be better known as a dish available to any land that has squid girting, squirting its fair shores (any land, anywhere, should be hot on freshly caught squid with those incredible sacs intact). Unfortunately, as often as not the holders of the ink at the back of the squid’s big black eyes have been burst on their way through the market system, or as Mr or Mrs Squid, in a last, desperate act of defiance went the big squirt at some unlucky fisherperson.

This ink is powerful stuff. Once I’d removed the sac from the one large squid I took for the following dish, I squeezed it gently into a bowl (onto? there’s not much in volume, but boy oh boy, what power) and put in my finger, took a tiny bit on board, and licked it clean. For the next six hours, my tongue and my lips were black and the kids shunned me as though the devil himself was in town.

It tastes rich, and makes you think of waves and spray and that delicious weightless feeling you have when you’re at the beach, and everything’s miles away. Weightless, of the mind, not of the body.

The fact that squid can survive such a long-cooking process shows some of its remarkable versatility in the kitchen. Fact is when cooked very slowly, for a very long time, it goes through several changes of personality, ending up deliciously tender – like a mature relationship.

2 squid, fresh, cleaned yourself, saving the ink receptacles

2 cloves garlic, chopped finely

1 medium-sized onion or 2 small onions, peeled and chopped

½ cup white wine

½ red pepper, chopped roughly

2 baby carrots, chopped finely

several sprigs of rosemary

several leaves of basil

juice of 1 lime

zest of 1 lime

2 chillies – Use more if you need them. This is not about heat, but about drawing flavours together.

½ – ¾ cup fish stock or water or mussel ‘milk’

½ cup very thick tomato purée – This can come from a jar or tube or from chopped and well- cooked-down summer tomatoes.


When you have cleaned the squid, chop them into the traditional circles, retaining the legs. Discard the guts. The sacs are not as fragile as you might think. They are well covered by a muscle sheath, but are very obviously the weapons. In fact, they look a little like black torpedos.


Cook the garlic and onion in the white wine, reducing the wine heavily to not much more than a few teaspoons.


Transfer to a narrow-necked saucepan, and squeeze the ink into the pan. Add the chopped squid, red pepper, carrot, rosemary, basil, lime juice and zest, chilli, the stock or water, the tomato puree, and cook on very low heat for about an hour, until the liquid has reduced to just about nothing. All that’s left is the squid, surrounded by a serious Stygian darkness. The ’sauce’ should be very thick. Serve with boiled rice.

NOTE: If you wish this to be part of risotto, I suggest cooking as above, and adding the squid mixture half-way through the cooking process. To be perfectly honest, I prefer the squid mixture to be sitting on top of a sparkling white boiled rice, providing that stark colour variation, and a mix of flavours.


Squid is most often cooked in seconds, rather than hours. Long stewing gives them a new personality, but the tiniest amount of cooking will make them just perfectly tender and delicious. Deepfrying squid in batter is still the most common form of restaurant cooking, but I prefer to leave deepfrying to professionals in restaurants with flash deepfriers. A better, more healthy and more satisfying result comes from cutting them into the usual rings, tossing them in a little flour to cover them with the merest film, a little oil, a hot pan, and a few flicks of the wrist. Pile them up, add a little salt and lemon juice, and go for it.

Some other things to note.

  • The calamari is a cephalopod which, says my Chambers Dictionary, is the highest class of mollusc. So now you know why squid caught on the jigger spray everybody as soon as they hit the deck. They’re not as silly as they look. And when the kids ask, squid have ten legs, not eight, and yes, they can grow as big as elephants.

WINE: This is a powerfully flavoured dish that needs a powerfully structured drink. You could try one of the full-flavoured Australian methode champenoise styles. A big pinot is also a likely candidate.