On my recent trip to San Francisco, I indulged in a bucket-list checkoff: ordering live uni from Santa Barbara Fish Market. Overnight shipping is a ridiculously cheap $9.95, to California addresses only. (Elsewhere it’s $49.95.) The sea urchins themselves are $12.95 each, which seemed reasonable.
They arrived in a big insulated box with a couple of cooler packs. I confirmed they were still alive (you can tell because the spines move) then refrigerated overnight and went at them the next morning. I had ready a bowl of salt water in which to deposit the meat, and a big bucket for the detritus. I also had a towel for handling, but the spines are not especially sharp.
One attacks the beast with a pair of sturdy scissors, starting at the mouth which is the only soft area and cutting upward. The first thing you realize is that there is a very good chance of slicing into one of the gonads, which I did immediately. Maybe with experience one can tell where they are located but to this novice the outsides were uniformly spiny, providing no clue of the insides. Once you cut into the shell you’ll quickly release a volume of liquid which you should deposit in your trash bucket, not your lap or on the floor. Continue cutting until you are able to split the sea urchin and expose the interior.
The first of my three urchins was fairly clean inside and the gonads on the walls were easy to find and scoop out out with a spoon. The second had quite a bit of mucusy gunk that needed to be separated from the lobes. The third, though it looked the same on the outside as the others, was defective. The gonads were dark and not plump, and the one bite I tried was tough and tasteless.
My entire crop is visible on the plate picture, less one lobe I scooped out and ate immediately. It’s about the same amount you get on one of those wooden trays for $10-20 in a Japanese market, and the store-bought uni would be clean and more uniform. I also confirmed that the wonderful briny taste I associate with uni is something that happens with a bit of aging. These were pleasant but very mild. And thus ends my uni experiment. I’m sure, as with shucking oysters, my skills would improve over time. But I’m happy to leave it to the professionals from now on.