In days of old, oxtail came from oxen, but today it is simply the tail of beef cattle or veal of both genders. Eating oxtails dates back as far as the consumption of beef when all of an animal was used and no part went to waste. The tail made a wonderfully hearty soup that stretched a small amount of meat with the addition of any variety of vegetables. Oxtail soup has become comfort food for many.
What Is Oxtail?
Before skinned and cut into pieces for the market, an oxtail generally weighs 7 to 8 pounds. The tail is gelatin-rich meat due to a large amount of collagen. Once cut, the pieces of oxtail are different sizes, as the tail narrows toward the end; the marrow is in the center surrounded by meat and fat.
Cooks across the globe have long made use of oxtails with variations on a theme. Today, upscale chefs are using oxtails in inventive new ways. Because of the tail's high amount of bone and cartilage and a small amount of meat, it does need to be cooked low and slow for the best results.
How to Cook Oxtail
Although oxtails are being used for much more than soup or stew nowadays, long, slow braising in a liquid is the preferred method to derive a tender result while drawing maximum flavor from what is very little meat. Slow-cooking turns the bone and cartilage into gelatin that is rich in flavor and makes a delectable sauce. When braising oxtail, plan on long cooking time—at least 3 hours; oxtails work particularly well in slow cookers and pressure cookers. The recipe will taste even better if left to sit overnight.
What Does Oxtail Taste Like?
Although oxtail may not be pretty to look at, its taste is worth seeing past its knobby appearance. Simply put, the oxtail tastes like beef, and when cooked, creates a deeply rich flavor. Comparing braised oxtail to a short rib, the oxtail is more tender with a silkier texture.
Oxtail can be found in Italian, Russian, and British cuisines, as well as Asian, African, Jamaican, and Spanish. It will always be cooked slowly and served as a stew, soup, or braised in a liquid like red wine.
Because they are very boney with little meat, oxtails are ideal for making stock and happen to make the most flavorful beef stock. For the most part, the robust beef flavor comes from the bones and marrow, but the meat is also very tasty. The rendered stock will be thick and gelatinous due to the collagen released. This stock is the basis for oxtail soup—which includes the meat, vegetables, barley, herbs, and often sherry or Madeira—as well as rich, hearty stews.
Where to Buy Oxtail
Whereas oxtails used to be considered "throwaway" meat, often free for the asking (or close to it), it is now one of the higher-priced cuts of meat, reaching several dollars a pound. You may have to put in an order ahead of time as the availability will depend on supply and demand in your area. After all, there is only one tail per cow. (If you have difficulty finding oxtails in your locale, you can substitute meaty veal or beef neck, short rib, shank, or other various soup bones, but do not expect quite as robust a flavor.)
Oxtail is sold in sections, and since oxtail is really a tail, it is thick at one end and thin at the other, so you will get some pieces that are meatier. But keep in mind that since the oxtail consists of mainly bone, cartilage, and connective tissue, it has very little meat overall.
How to Store Oxtail
If you are not cooking the oxtail right away, you can store it in the refrigerator for three to five days, or if well-wrapped, in the freezer for up to a year.