A Simple Guide to Sea Urchins

Growing up, I remember sea urchins being ubiquitous in the aquarium touch pools. I didn't think of these spiny, little sea creatures any other way until I was a young adult and had uni for the first time. Since then, sea urchin and food have been synonymous. In the past, I rarely found sea urchin outside a sushi restaurant, but lately, I’m seeing sea urchin more and more in unexpected places. In 2016, Nestle named it one of the top ten food trends due to their unique flavor. Chefs are finding more creative uses for sea urchin as they push the envelope, and it seems this little “sea hedgehog” is an ingredient that's here to stay.

About the Sea Urchin

Sea urchins are echinoderms most closely related to sea cucumbers and sea stars. Their spherical shells, or tests, are made up of plates and movable spines that protect them from predators. There are about 950 species of sea urchins that inhabit a wide range of depth zones in all climates across the world’s oceans. About 18 of them are edible. They primarily feed on algae and kelp, but are also omnivorous scavengers that will feed on animal matter.

Source: Shape of Life. A time-lapse video shows how urchins actively graze on kelp.

Sea Urchin as Food

When it comes to consumption, sea urchins are harvested for their gonads, also known as uni. These bright yellow to orange lobes are “stockpiles” of sugars, amino acids, and salts: a trifecta of sweet, salty, and umami. It’s been dubbed as the foie gras of the sea given its buttery texture and delicate ocean flavors. Like oysters, sea urchins also vary in flavor depending on its species and diet. Urchin lovers, for example, prize Hokkaido uni because of its flavor, developed from the urchin's diet of Hokkadio macro algae kombu.

The green, red, and purple species have the highest demand globally because their lobes tend to be larger and visually more appetizing. 99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

There are about 950 species of sea urchins… About 18 of them are edible.

99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

  Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

The Global and Domestic Market for Sea Urchin and Uni

The greatest consumption of sea urchin occurs in Japan, France, and Korea. Japanese consumption, however, wins by a landslide: the country consumes 80-90% of the current global supply. Sea urchin is a traditional staple in Japanese cuisine. Japan was the largest global harvester of sea urchins until the 1980s, but high demand and a decrease in domestic supply forced it to look abroad. From the 1980s to 1994, the US, particularly Maine, was the largest exporter of green sea urchin. Today, it’s Chile, which exports Chilean red urchin and accounts for 50% of global landings. Overall global supply has decreased over the last twenty years due to storms, decreasing kelp beds, invasive species, and over fishing. In 1995, global landings totaled 120,000 tonnes. In 2017, it decreased to 75,000.

In North America, the main sources of sea urchin come from the Canadian Maritime; Maine; and the Pacific coast from British Columbia to California. Green sea urchins are harvested from the Atlantic, while red and purple urchins are harvested from the Pacific. These days, domestic supply stays domestic to meet growing demand and ethnic markets. Domestic supply is also supplemented by imported product, mostly from Chile, during summer months.

How to Prepare Sea Urchin

Sea urchin is usually served raw as sushi, commonly seen in Japanese cuisine, but it has a variety of applications. Mediterranean cuisines have used urchin in sauces, pastas, and on breads for centuries. Modern day chefs are even transforming the ingredient into foams and mousses.

Preparing sea urchin is super easy with super tasty results. Bekah demonstrates how in this quick tutorial.

And as a bonus, here’s a recipe to try from our Pangea test kitchen —
Linguine with Uni and Meyer Lemon

Let's Get Sauced

By Bekah Angoff and Jessica Hertel

When ordering oysters at any establishment, there is an expectation of what that plate should look like: a mound of ice, your bivalves of choice, and a combination of lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, horseradish and mignonette. What do you use? Do you give everything a squirt of lemon and dig in, or is there a specific layering ritual with the sauces on hand? Whatever your calling, there are specific reasons for the presence of each condiment:

Lemon: Lemon is a normal accompaniment for seafood, as some with sensitive nosed like to lessen the aroma of fish with the fresh lemon. For oysters, the acid acts as a bit of a mask for the brine and the citrus aroma makes the oyster appear to be sweeter, which is the reason this is the number one side piece for an oyster.

Cocktail Sauce: The main component of cocktail sauce is ketchup; a thick and viscus substance that is sweet with a light touch of vinegar. Mix in some horseradish and a dash of tobacco and Worcestershire, and you have yourself a culinary wallop. The umami notes in the ketchup and the sharpness of the horseradish both enhance the sweet umami finish of an oyster.

Horseradish: When you isolate just the horseradish from cocktail sauce, you have a sharp and spicy bite with a punch of vinegar. This will give the appearance of more salt, but the aromatic pungency will mask most of or all of the finish of the oyster. A perfect condiment for brine hounds with an appreciation for a zesty zing.

Hot Sauce: Hot sauce is a very general term for a multitude of formats. Traditionally, Tabasco is used as the vinegary base is a palate reviver, and again, down-playing the appearance of salt in the brine. What the spice (capsaicin) does is add texture or heat to your palate in small doses but be careful about piling it on. The intensity of the heat can take away from the finish of the oyster, especially if you have a sauce with other aromatics in it.

Mignonette: Mignonette has that vinegar element that we love to use to lessen the appearance of salt but with a lower acidity found in red wine vinegar. The enhancement is slightly less than straight lemon juice. Also, with the addition of shallots and black pepper, we can round out the experience a bit.  The sweetness of the shallots will bring out the sweet notes of any oyster’s finish, and the pepper is just a little bit of heat (see above) that will help enhance the brine against the vinegar.

 the conference room set up for the tasting. each employee tasted and rated all of the sauces in a blind tasting

the conference room set up for the tasting. each employee tasted and rated all of the sauces in a blind tasting

Now that we know what the purpose of each traditional sauce is, what is the best option for each? Jessica and I took homemade and store-bought sauces for each category (except for the lemon – do you know how to make a lemon from scratch?) and set up a blind taste-test to see which sauce would reign supreme. We decided on mostly store-bought along with a classic recipe used at Pangea and set them up in our conference room for the whole Pangea staff to try a and evaluate. I’ll let Jessica take over from here to explain our findings.


Cocktail Sauce:

We all know the basic components of cocktail sauce: start with ketchup, some horseradish, and maybe some hot sauce and/or Worcestershire.  With so many brands to choose from are they all really that different? Surprisingly we found that they had some very clear differences in texture and flavor.  Some more pleasing than others. What we tried; Heinz, McCormick, Old Bay, Whole Foods 365, and Pangea’s Cocktail Sauce.  The nice thing about homemade items is that you can tweak them to your preferences. 

The Winners! –

1st - Old Bay - peppery, aromatic, with a zesty sweetness
2nd - Pangea’s Homemade – zesty and zingy with a subtle sweetness
3rd & 4th - Tied - Heinz & McCormick’s - flavor very different from each other Heinz had a BBQ note, McCormick’s was tomato heavy, and a pasty consistency
5th - Whole Foods - has a solid tang and zest, but consistency is watery and has no spice

Horseradish:

A horse is a horse is a horseradish, right? Wrong, they all differ quite a bit from one to the next.  Now there are not a lot of brands to choose from at your local grocer, Gold’s is the most readily available.  But with the handy dandy inter web and those giants of commerce Amazon being the giants they are we got our hands on a few others.  A basic homemade horseradish is pureed horseradish root, water, vinegar, and/or a salt sugar combo.  The notable differences in each were heat level and texture.  What we tried; Golds, Beaver, Tulkoff, and homemade.  Now if you have a food processor then making your own might be an option, but I have to say that hand grating a horseradish root is not only time consuming but tiring! Our recommendations would be to simply find your favorite brand and let them do the work!

The Winners! –

                1st - Tulkoff Ex Hot - clearly, we here at Pangea are fans of the spice!
                2nd – Beaver - also high on the spice level with a creamy texture
                3rd - Golds - texture was a little rough and unless you get the extra hot its somewhat mild
                4th - Homemade - it’s a pain to make and clearly not our forte

 the Hot Sauce blind test set up - remember not to double dip!

the Hot Sauce blind test set up - remember not to double dip!

Hot Sauce:

The variety is real!  The possible combinations of capsaicin providing peppers, to vinegar, spices, and additives are endless.  In a 1.4-billion-dollar industry there are hundreds if not thousands of different kinds of hot sauce.  Fun fact Tabasco accounts for 18% of the market.  So, we put the classics up against an awesome local product and tossed our own creation in the mix.  The thing to note with hot sauce is that one may be delicious on your breakfast but contains an element that doesn’t pair the best with your oysters (like sugar).   What we tried; Tabasco, Siracha, Cholula, Alex’s Ugly, Pangea Hot Sauce.  With so many products out there, have fun and try through some, or just get our recipe and make your own. 

The Winners! –

1st by a mile - Alex’s Ugly (good kick to it not too vinegar driven, great consistency)
2nd & 3rd Tied - Homemade & Cholula (Cholula – tangy and spicy and fresh.  Pangea – tangy spicy with a fruity element)
4th - Siracha (element of sweetness, and a pasty consistency)
5th - Classic Tabasco (runny and vinegar driven, with all the choices out there today try something new!)

Mignonette:

This category really ends up being more about the individual ingredients rather than what brand is best.  There are very few places that sell a premade mignonette.  Certain Wholefoods locations seem to be the only ones who make it based on our research.  Don’t fret, they are super easy to make, very little kitchen skills required.  Basically, they are just minced shallots, pepper (of the black or white variety) and vinegar.  Now the real differences are in the vinegar components, either straight, multiple kinds, or cut with a little wine or water.  What we tested here was what vinegar components worked best for oysters.  What we tried; Classic Red Wine Vinegar, Sherry Vinegar, Prosecco Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Pangea Blueberry White Balsamic.

The Winners! –

1st - Pangea’s Blueberry White Balsamic BY A MILE – white balsamic offers a subtle sweetness
2nd – The Classic Red Wine Vinegar – its hard to beat a classic - take the Camaro for example!
3rd – Prosecco & White wine Vinegar – with the addition of a pinch of sugar took some of the edge off
4th – Balsamic Vinegar, little harsher than the rest, and color is a bit off putting
5th – Sherry Vinegar – just not the favorite

Overall, the highest scores went out to Blueberry Mignonette and Alex’s Ugly Sauce for the clear front runners in their respective category. Alex’s Sauce can be found in many groceries stores around New England and the recipe for the mignonette can be found here.  However, we did also poll the staff to find out their favorite way to eat an oyster.  We clearly might be a little biased about the quality of our product, but the majority of Pangea staffers prefer to eat their oysters completely naked.