Muscle Name: No idea, the main bones are the coccygeal vertebrae though, so there’s something
Other names: Cola de Res, Queue de Boeuf (French), Ochsenschwanz (German, obviously)
Cooking style: Low and slow. Real low, and real slow
A couple weeks back we explored the “nose” portion of the nose-to-tail equation, this week we’re dealing with the business end. Oxtail is a forgotten cut of meat that is too often lumped into the same category as offal. That’s a real shame because unlike the soft organ tissue of offal -which can admittedly be a bit of an acquired taste for an unfamiliar cook – oxtail is muscle and bone, just like everyone’s beloved ribeye. Okay, so it’s probably a bit of a stretch to compare oxtail to ribeye, but cooked properly an oxtail on it’s own can be a delicious hearty meal for a cold winter’s day, or it can provide a great base for soups and stews.
So what’s up with the name? Traditionally oxen are any bovines trained as a draft animal, although eventually the term has come to refer solely to castrated males over the age of 4. Agrarian societies have used oxen since 4000 BC to plow fields and pull heavy loads because they’re extremely docile, incredibly strong, and easy to work with; not at all like horses – those flashy troublemakers. The benefit of working with oxen is once they’ve outlived their long operational usage – up to 15 years in some cases – they can be a great source of delicious meat. What does all this have to do with oxtail? Nothing at all. These days you’d be hard pressed to find an ox on any farm in a developed country, I’ve personally never even seen one. At some point though the term oxtail began to be applied to the tail from any beef animal; male, female, castrated, uncastrated – I’ve even seen something labelled “veal oxtail” which makes literally no sense.
Getting an oxtail from your butcher should be fairly straight forward. Unlike actual offal, the tail freezes well, so at the very least you should be able to grab one from the freezer. The tails themselves can be over 2 feet long, tapering from a thick 2-3 inches at the base of the tail (the sacro-coccygeal junction for you bovine anatomy nerds) to just a half inch diameter or so at the tip. Clearly that’s not going to fit into a standard dutch oven, let alone all the looks you’d get with the tip poking out of your shopping bag; that’s why most butchers relish the opportunity that oxtail presents to bust out the rarely-used cleaver and chop the tail into sections. A shockingly obscure fact is that a reasonably sharp knife will cut between the vertebrae like butter; no hacking needed, just a little precision. If you ever come across an oxtail left whole, I strongly recommend bringing it home as is and separating out the vertebrae yourself – it’s an incredibly satisfying project. Just trim off excess fat and examine the tail for white seams marking the splits between bones; press your knife straight down through those and you’ll be braising in no time.
2 Oxtails, cut into manageable pieces
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Onions, chopped
3 sticks of celery, diced
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 healthy sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cans dark beer (just use Guinness, there’s really nothing better for braising)
1 pint good beef stock
1. Brown the oxtail (preferably in tallow) in a heavy, oven proof pan, then remove and sweat the carrots, onion, garlic, and celery until soft.
2. Add the beer and use a spoon to scrape all the delicious caramelized bits off the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the oxtail back in, along with the thyme, bay leaves, and beef stock and simmer gently for 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender.
4. Once the meat is done take it out of the liquid and remove the meat from the bones. It should be very easy at this point, but if it gives you any trouble a little more time simmering will change that.
5. Drain the cooking liquid through a fine strainer and reduce over medium heat until it thickens slightly. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve over the now boneless meat. Goes great with delicious dumplings or sourdough toast.
The science behind what makes meat tender is (to me at least) pretty interesting, and I feel a worthy bit of information to add to the flavor vs. tenderness debate. To begin with, let’s look at basic muscle structure. At their most basic level, all muscles are composed of sarcomeres, which are combinations of myosin and actin proteins combined into long filaments all arranged in a similar direction. These sarcomeres are bundled into larger filaments called myofibrils, which are themselves bundled into yet larger filaments known as fascicles. It’s these fascicles that you can see when you look at a very coarsely grained cut of meat, like a hanger or brisket.
If I haven’t completely lost you yet, here’s where all that info begins to have relevance to the topic tenderness. Actin and myosin within sarcomeres play a role in muscle contraction. For this reason, muscles that frequently contract (aka, move) or are required to do strenuous work (i.e., stand) are made up of sarcomeres that contain much more actin and myosin than muscles that don’t really do much (tenderloin, I’m looking at you again). For this reason, sarcomeres in more tender cuts are skinnier, as they don’t need to accommodate as much of the actin and myosin proteins. Skinner sarcomeres lead to skinner myofibrils, which lead to – you guessed it – skinnier fascicles. That’s why a tenderloin has an almost microscopic grain structure and a shank looks like a cross section of a trans-atlantic telecommunications cable.
So what’s my issue with tenderness? I like a tender steak as much as the next guy – I don’t know too many people who would turn down a juicy, well marbled porterhouse. But the problem with the popularity of middle meats is that there are so few of them. When you look at a whole steer, only about 25% of it is what would be considered tender – once those cuts are gone you’ve still got a bunch of flavorful, interesting cuts that would make an excellent meal. Nothing is more disheartening than losing a customer over a lack of tenderloin when there are piles of skirt, bavette, or top round in the case. With all of the great cuts available, middle meats can end up being a bit boring in the face of a well prepared cut from elsewhere on the animal.
There are some ways to increase tenderness (if you really must)
Dry aging is very in right now. The process, which involves letting large subprimals hang out in a humidity controlled refrigerator and letting enzymes break down over time, concentrates and enhances flavor while also increasing tenderness. In a perfect world all meat would be dry aged for as long as possible before consumption, but there are trade-offs, such as a pretty significant decrease in weight – which cuts into your margins as a butcher. The beef that I sell in the shop hangs for two weeks before going into the case, and the strips and ribeyes in the photo go into a dry age cooler for another 3-4 weeks.
The concept of mechanical tenderization is to break down a large, tough muscle into something smaller and therefore a bit more tender. Think of a short rib hamburger. On it’s own short rib cooked to mid rare will be insanely tough and chewy, but run it through a grinder a couple of times on a small die and you’ve got access to all of that great short rib flavor in a much more tender package.
Want to preserve tenderness? Cook your meat right. Tough muscles need to be cooked low and slow, and steaks need to be kept from overcooking. Stop overcooking your meat! Once a steak heats beyond mid rare and starts heading for medium territory, the muscle fibers contract heavily and juices being to leak out. Train yourself to like your meat little more on the rare side and you’ll be enjoying tender steaks in no time.
A pig’s head is really a thing of beauty. Used like a bulldozer, the skull is incredibly thick and well adapted to easily root up tubers and grubs. The cheeks are lean and heavily muscular to facilitate all the chewing that a pig does throughout the day (the phrase “eat like a pig” doesn’t come from nowhere). And to top the whole package off, the jowls are comprised of a heavy layer of creamy fat on top of streaky, tender meat. The head is a microcosm of the pig as a whole – tough, flavorful muscle, rich fat, and tender savory meat.
Let’s take a walk through the constituent parts of the head, and talk about some of the culinary potential each has:
Usually the first thing to be removed when breaking down a head, the jowl is the fatty outer covering of the cheek muscle. Looked at as a cross section, the jowl is a thick portion of very soft fat shot through with long streaks of pale meat. The traditional preparation of jowl is Guanciale, in which the jowl is cured like bacon, but left unsmoked. When cooked, the fat melts off leaving very flavorful and rich meat. Because it’s not smoked, Guanciale is a great project to do at home A good butcher can always set aside some jowls for you, just make sure that you specify that you want them fully cleaned as there is a large amount of glands an other “not-meat” that you don’t necessarily want to end up in your finished product.
Located underneath the jowls, the cheeks are responsible for facilitating the pig’s favorite activity – eating. Much like beef shanks, the cheeks of a pig are exercised so frequently that the muscle becomes tough and full of collagen. The trick is to remember that muscles high in collagen will shrink and become dry if they are exposed to hot, dry cooking conditions. That’s why the best way to cook these guys is to braise them in a flavorful liquid like wine or beer in order to hydrolyze the protein into gelatin. Cooked slow over a few hours, the cheeks become amazingly tender and full of porky flavor – Done right, it’ll beat a pork chop on taste any day.
The ears and snout can be a serious delicacy if prepared correct, but a serious disaster if not. Both first require a thorough washing to remove any lingering debris from the farmyard, an overnight soak in lightly salted water couldn’t hurt either – just to remove any lingering bits (the ears also need a thorough once over to remove any lingering hair). Once they’re fully cleaned they’ll need to be cooked low and slow to allow the collagen and cartilage to break down. I like to do my ears submerged in beef tallow for about 4 hours in a 325 degree oven – snouts won’t need quite as long. From there you can eat them as is, they’ll be pleasantly soft and sticky, or go the April Bloomfield route and cool them down before deep frying them to crisp the outside. Either way will be a delightful nose-to-tail treat. Or nose-to-ear. You get the idea.
Now we’re getting hardcore. Not too many people indulge in pig brains these days, but they do have a certain creamy texture that is definitely worth experiencing. To get the best results the brains should be rinsed thoroughly and soaked overnight in milk. From there, a gentle poaching in a well flavored stock will keep them from falling apart. Just a few minutes will do it, too long and you risk getting a tough, fibrous finished product. Pro-tip: Theres no real disguising brains so don’t bother trying to bury them under a sauce or a heavily dressed salad. Just put a little bit on a good piece of sourdough bread, squeeze some lemon on top, then close your eyes and go for it. People talk about acquired tastes, but this is more of an acquired texture. Also as with any soft offal you’ll want to get these as fresh as possible – it’s a no brainer (sorry).
The possibilities presented by a pig’s head are many and varied. It’s small enough to make it a great at home butchering project, and has enough different preparations to keep a family fed for a few days. Couple that with the fact that most butchers are willing to save themselves the work and part with one for cheap, and you’ve got a great way to spend a weekend.
Slow Cooked Pig Ears
4 ears cleaned well with any hair removed
6 cups beef tallow or rendered pork lard
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cloves of garlic, smashed
1. Preheat your oven to 300
2. In a covered pot, place your ears along with the garlic and thyme, and cover with tallow.
3. Keep covered and cook until tender, about 3 hours
4. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and Sriracha and serve over rice.