An underappreciated ingredient with a hint of the sea and a whiff of nostalgia
Whelks are associated, in most people’s minds, with childhood trips to the seaside. Eaten from small cups smothered in black pepper and doused in vinegar, they carry a hint of the sea and a whiff of nostalgia. But according to Borough Market demonstration chef Luke Robinson, they can be so much more than a somewhat unfashionable seaside memory.
“I really like them as an ingredient,” he says. “If cooked well they have a nice distinctive flavour, and most importantly a really lovely texture—not the toughness of people’s memories or imagination. The trouble is that it is very easy to overcook them, and they can become like rubber—then they’re not very nice at all. They just take a little bit of care and attention during cooking.”
Luke, a chef who is known for his seafood, has had the confidence to put them on quite a few restaurant menus—and they have always gone down well with customers. One particularly elegant dish he enjoys cooking is halibut in red wine with whelks and tokyo turnips. “Because the halibut is cooked in a red wine reduction, it is purple on the outside and white on the inside,” he continues. “The whelks are coated in a parsley puree, so there is also this vibrant green on the plate. It is beautiful.”
Tender and tasty
As Luke suggests, cooking whelks is not particularly forgiving. In the restaurant, the way he makes sure they’re really tender and tasty is by cooking them in a sous vide at 80C. And while not everyone has a temperature-controlled water bath at home, all is not lost. “There is a technique that I was taught by a fisherman that works really well,” Luke confides. “It starts with buying live whelks and putting them in the freezer when you get home. They have to be properly frozen, so put them in at least overnight. This breaks down some of the tissues.”
To cook them, place the whelks in a pan of cold water and bring it up to a simmer. “It is really important not to let the water boil, so it is worth keeping an eye on them. You want the internal temperature of the whelks to reach 80C, then remove them from the heat,” says Luke. “The best way to do this is with a simple kitchen temperature probe.” Once cooked, pull the whelk out of the shell, remove the little plastic-like disc on the foot end, remove the stomach sack and a small bit of muscle (identifiable by its feeling tougher than the rest of the whelk) and they are done.
Garlic and lemon
“Whelks love a bit of garlic. One very simple but delicious way to serve them is warm in a bowl alongside a garlic mayonnaise for dipping with a squeeze of lemon,” Luke says. “Anything that comes from the snail family can be a bit difficult for some people at first, but if you have not done so, give this way a try.” You can use whelks as a replacement for snails in any recipe. “I have used them in stir-fries,” says Luke, while Tom Hunt makes use of them in an economic seafood paella.
“They are more versatile than people think,” continues Luke. “Whelks are a wonderful ingredient which when cooked well, are well worthy of a place on any table. They are far more than those cold, tough beach shack molluscs people imagine.”