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.