There’s a flip that switches in our brains when the weather starts to turn and summer transitions to fall. The impulse for iced coffee is replaced with a craving for hot coffee flavored with baking spices. We ditch rosé in favor of more fuller-bodied white and red wines. And instead of ogling the grill, thinking of all the backyard barbecues to be hosted, you’re probably looking at your big sauce pot, dreaming of the many rich braises and hug-you-from-the-inside stews you’re going to make. If this sounds familiar, then chances are your recipe research into “soups and stews that are perfect for fall” has already yielded several results with the word “oxtail” in it.
That’s because this previously less-desirable cut—literally the tailbone of a cow or veal—is perfect for long, slow-simmer, wet cooking methods thanks to the toughness of its meat and its naturally high gelatin content. For the inexperienced, that cog-shaped cut of meat, bone, and marrow can feel like something of a Rubik’s cube—you know there’s a mountain of potential flavor in there, but how do you get it out? And is there anything you need to know when you’re shopping for it in the first place? Here are some helpful tips and tricks to get you started.
Factor in defrost time.
Oxtails may be a more popular, nothing-shocking-about-it cut than in the days before whole animal cooking or “low-brow” comfort and heritage foods became a big thing, but they’re still not as widely accessible as you might expect. If you have a good local butcher that regularly carries them fresh, that’s one thing. But for the most part, if your grocery store stocks them, they’re likely to be offered frozen, which means you need to plan for that stew at least a day ahead so that you can factor in sufficient time to defrost the meat in your fridge.
When shopping, look for uniformly medium-sized pieces.
If you’ve ever seen the tail of an animal—which I’m going to go ahead and assume includes everyone—then you know that it is larger and thicker at the base and more thin and narrow at the end. This can be problematic given that uniformity is most desirable when it comes to pieces of meat (or vegetable, for that matter) that are cooked together in the same batch for the same period of time—after all, you wouldn’t want to have smaller pieces that finish and potentially overcook in a pot with larger pieces that still need more time. To avoid such snafus, look for uniformly sized pieces of oxtail in the one-and-a-half- to three-inch-thick range. Bonus: By working with smaller pieces, you’ll cut down on cook time.
Veal, the more delicate option.
Technically, oxtail is a cut of meat from the tail of either a cow or veal. I know and understand that people might feel a certain way about veal, but, if you’re okay with it (and you’re getting it from a trusted, ethical source), it’s worth considering requesting it specifically. Where the tail of the cow produces a more robust, heartier, meatier flavor, oxtail from veal is likely to be more delicate in its profile, as well as more tender.
Trim (some of) the fat.
Admittedly, it’s a divisive stance, but a significant number of recipes and food experts recommend either looking for less visibly fatty cuts of oxtail, or trimming off some of the excessive fat before cooking. As much as I’m usually not a “less is more” person when it comes to fat, oxtail is already such a naturally gelatinous product that I understand why many instruct you to trim. After all, you don’t want the dish to be too excessively greasy or oily, or to be forced to spend all your time nursing over the pot, skimming fat from the top.
Time is on your side. (Unless, of course, you use a pressure cooker.)
“Low and slow.” “Low and slow.” “Low and slow.” If there’s any one constant refrain about oxtail cookery, “low and slow” is it. Why? Well, because the meat, what precious little of it there is, is going to be fairly tough (remember, it’s surrounded by fat but not marbled with it), not to mention to whole thing is super-rich in collagen, which needs time to break down into soft, rich, flavorful gelatin. Cooking the tail in liquid for several hours over low heat is the best way to unlock the unctuous, fall-apart-tender meat from this seemingly challenging cut.
Of course, if time is of the essence, you should definitely consider experimenting with a pressure cooker. What might normally take three-plus hours to achieve in a pot on the stove can be reduced to a speedy 45-ish minutes (without sacrificing flavor) with the help of this clever kitchen tool.
Brown before you braise.
Most oxtail aficionados will recommend following the conventional slow-cooking with meat wisdom: Brown before you braise. Cooking with oxtail is all about extracting as much flavor as possible from a challenging, less-than-forthcoming piece of meat, so really, the browning call is easy to understand. By searing the meat on all sides first, you caramelize its surface, enhancing and adding more complexity to both the flavor of the meat and the liquid it will be cooking in.
Avoid drowning your tails.
When you’re doing the slow and low braising thing with your oxtails, most recipes advise using an amount of liquid that is somewhere between just under and just over level with the meat. This has less to do with the final texture of the meat (that’s more of a temperature of the liquid concern), and more to do with wanting a final sauce or broth that has a richly concentrated flavor. Basically, the more liquid, the more thinly spread the flavors, and the less rendering of gelatin.
Don’t skip the cool-down soak.
Once the oxtail has sufficiently braised to fork-tenderness, you might need to remove them from the cooking liquid to reduce it down and make a sauce, or so that you can separate the meat from the bone. Either way, you’ll need to cool the liquid down, and when you do, do not take out the bones immediately while still hot. By letting the bones continue to soak in the liquid as it cools down, you’ll help prevent the meat from drying out.
Related Video: Jerome Grant’s Museum-Worthy Oxtail Pepperpot
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.