Do You Know How To Clean A Sea Urchin?

how to open fresh uni, sea urchin

Fresh Sea Urchin
Meyer Lemon Juice, Single Varietal Olive Oil, Sea Salt

For me, the Farmers Market can be a dangerous place. No, not in the sense of personal safety, but hazardous for my wallet. Last weekend I came home with heirloom baby cherry tomatoes, wild arugula, avocados, fresh salmon. All intended for dinner that night. But also in the shopping bag were yu choy, epazote, unique baby red-speckled romaine, single varietal olive oil, a bottle of safe & organic pesticide purchased from the woman who invented it, and a live sea urchin harvested just down the coast off Dana Point. Impulse purchases.

Decades ago when sushi was just becoming popular here, a date took me out to a sushi bar. He warned, “Don’t order uni, it’s disgusting.” Months (or years?) later I tasted it, and could not believe what I had been missing! I was intoxicated with the exotic, mysterious gonads of a spiky purple sea creature. Over the years I’ve enjoyed uni sushi dozens of times, and have bought many little trays of fresh uni from the Japanese market for various dishes, but until last weekend, I had never handled nor cleaned a live sea urchin.

Sharing the joys of cooking with friends in my kitchen and through Taste With The Eyes is a pleasure and a passion. Should someone one day ask, “Hey Lori Lynn, do you know how to clean a sea urchin?” I want to be able to say, “Sure, let me show you.” And that’s why a live sea urchin ended up in my shopping basket…

Fresh Sea Urchin

how to open fresh uni, sea urchin

Texture = creamy, firm but light and buttery.

Aroma = a salty, clean ocean scent.

Color = hues of gold, yellow and orange.

Taste = sweet, crisp and clean, lingering.

How To Clean Sea Urchin

how to open fresh uni, sea urchin

After about a half hour of research on the internet, I was ready to tackle the live sea urchin in my refrigerator. I gathered the tools I thought I would need; gloves, towel, kitchen shears, knife, spoon, chopsticks.

It turned out that the kitchen shears worked great, and I did not use the knife. I also traded my nice kitchen towel for an older one in case it would be stained. The rubber gloves worked perfectly to keep my hands safe. I watched one video where a woman used chopsticks to remove the “black stuff” in the cavity but I found it to be too slippery, so I used my fingers. And a regular spoon is the ideal tool to remove the roe. No special equipment needed.

sea urchin mouth

Wearing gloves, turn the sea urchin upside-down to expose the mouth. Using a towel for stability, take the kitchen shears and pierce a hole near the perimeter of the skeleton. Then cut a circle of about a 3″ diameter out of the shell.

how to open clean fresh uni, sea urchin

Use the spoon to lift up the circular cut part of the shell, then remove it and the entire chewing organ known as Aristotle’s lantern, which looks like a white star-shaped flower.

how to open clean fresh uni, sea urchin

Pour out the liquid and discard the “black stuff” which is made up of its partially digested food, such as seaweed and other organic matter. Or if you are feeling particularly adventurous, drink the sea urchin liquor. The gonads of both male and female sea urchins are called “sea urchin roe” or “corals.”

how to open clean fresh uni, sea urchin

Use a spoon to carefully scoop out the roe. I gently rinsed the roe in a bowl of cool water and used my fingers to remove any “black stuff” still clinging to the orange roe.

how to open clean fresh uni, sea urchin

The fresh sea urchin was enjoyed simply with a squeeze of Meyer lemon juice, a drizzle of high quality olive oil, and a light sprinkling of sea salt. These components enhanced the flavors of the coral without masking its natural oceany flavors.

how to open clean fresh uni, sea urchin

Wild urchins are collected by hand by commercial divers. These fisheries are environmentally friendly with little impact on the habitat and with little bycatch. Rapid reproduction and natural defenses keep sea urchin populations at healthy levels. And more than half of the sea urchin roe consumed in the US comes from urchins caught off our California coast.

Two Super-Elegant Recipes Featuring Sea Urchin:

Inspired by Chef Jean-Georges

Santa Barbara Sea Urchin à la Jean-Georges

Santa Barbara Sea Urchin à la Jean-Georges
Black Bread, Butter, Jalapeño, Yuzu, Maldon Salt

(recipe here)

The captivating sea urchin roe makes for an elegant bisque
and its skeleton provides the vessel for a most dramatic presentation:

Sea Urchin Bisque Recipe

Sea Urchin Bisque

(recipe here)

25 thoughts on “Do You Know How To Clean A Sea Urchin?”

  1. Wow, what a great post! I love sushi, but I have never had uni because my mom (just like your date) tells me that it’s really gross! I’m not super food-adventurous, but maybe I’ll give uni a try next time we go out for sushi!

    1. I tried uni long ago and thought it was uninteresting and a little weird tasting. Never had it at a sushi place again. I just went foraging on the beach and got a bunch of mussels, a handful of limpets, and several good-sized urchins. Decided that I should give them a go again. Well, I suspect that passing judgement on uni that isn’t as fresh as it could be is always a mistake. The fresh stuff has an oceanic taste and is surprisingly sweet. There’s even a bit of fruity flavor, just a hint! If you can collect urchins yourself, or are sure that the sushi place gets theirs within a few days at most, then go for it! It’s not something you’ll have to endure, but something to really enjoy.

    1. Hi Peter – Of course you do 🙂
      During my research, I’ve seen lots of sea urchin in Greek cooking…including some delicious salad ideas. Gonna try.

  2. I’ve never had an opportunity to bring home freshly caught sea urchin. I’m so jealous! It’s great to see the cleaning process isn’t too, too difficult. I’ve always wanted to make uni sauce for pasta a la Le Benardin, but I’ve never tried it.

  3. What a great tutorial. I love uni, but haven’t had the pleasure of cracking open a live uni. I love uni, but I didn’t always.

    I’ll never forget my first uni experience.

    Several years ago, I was on a second date at a well known sushi bar. I wasn’t a seasoned sushi eater and the whole chopstick thing was intimidating. But I’d worked to source uni for a chef earlier in the week and, and I wanted to show off (read impress, my date). I ordered not one nigiri uni, but two. Not only was my date in awe, the owner, who took me for the fraud I was, stood over the table while I ate the uni. I was so afraid of being called out, I literally choked on the first piece. The owner walked away, upper lip curled, nose crinkled, possibly smug in her assumption of me. I ate the second piece, not because I was in love with the flavor. In fact, I disliked the creamy texture, but the flavor reminded me of peanut butter on the back of my tongue. That was the one and only time I ate at that sushi bar. The Date? Nothing more than friends with a silly story about uni.

  4. First – I need to steal the title of this post and fashion a play. Come on – what an enticing title! I have never had it – so first – must try it. I don’t know how abundant it is in land-locked MN. Lake-urchin, anyone? Great informative and fun posting.

  5. I have never seen the whole live sea urchin but if I do I will be prepared. I don’t think I would ever leave the house if I could make it at home.

  6. LL, I need to take a cue from your adventurous palate next time I’m at our farmers’ market. But I have a feeling there won’t be anything nearly as exotic as sea urchin! How lucky are you to get such a treasured treat right from the sea. xo

  7. Oh I have had it and I have liked it [if not quite loved it], but would never had the guts to shop for one when next at The Sydney Fish Markets! Always thought I would have bleeding hands all over if i tried to dismember one – BUT, with this very clear tutorial, I know just where I shall be heading first when I get to that favourite place of mine . . . 🙂 !

  8. Unctuous food! I have no story to share as I’ve only had it a few times, but I’m bookmarking your post in case I get the opportunity to have some at home.

  9. I couldn’t agree more, Lori. Whenever I have sushi, I have to have the uni. It’s incredibly delicious and the creamy texture is out of this world. I never understood why this delightful mollusk (?) is controversial.

    And thanks so much for the lesson—I’ve never actually attempted to open one of these guys, but with your help I may work up the courage…

  10. I’ve never seen uni pictures that were captured so beautifully! Natural beauty and you know how to capture it. I’m not a big uni fan (my husband on the other hand can kill whole tray of uni from a Japanese market), but I only eat REALLY good one that doesn’t leave me any aftertaste. It was a fun post to read, LL. 🙂

      1. The scissors and spoon worked like a charm! You’re right about chopsticks. Meanwhile, the uni we got wasn’t all that great. It was a bit funky (I suspect not super fresh and stressed out) and not very sweet. Nothing like what I’ve had at my favorite sushi bars. But they weren’t expensive (probably a dead giveaway at quality) so no harm done.

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