It seems like every culture has its own twist on oxtails. An oxtail is not necessarily only from an ox; it is the common name given to the tail segment of a cow, ox or steer. Any culture that eats beef has numerous variations. From braised dishes to soup, all it takes is a few changes of ingredients to create a completely different flavor profile. It is a great dish to make this time of year when it starts to get a little cold outside. Oxtails also make great leftovers.
This is not your typical beef — you can’t sear it and serve it like a steak. It is full of connective tissue and collagen, which when heated turns into a rubbery mess. If you cook it properly, that rubbery mess cooks down to a fork-tender, delicious braised dish. These simple steps will ensure a tender oxtail. You may also use them with other tough cuts.
- Sear. Use a low to medium heat and be careful not to crowd the pan. You can take it slow. There is no rush. You are looking for an even crust around each piece.
- Deglaze/cover with liquid. Use a small amount of your braising liquid or other flavorful liquid once you have seared all your pieces of oxtail and reserved outside of the pot. Pour a small amount into the hot pan to release the fond that was created during the searing process. Then add the rest of the braising liquid; you want it just covered, not drowning.
- Cook to fork tender. There is no thermometer needed to tell the doneness; your fork will do that. A nice generic number that everyone uses to cook everything in kitchens is 350 degrees. This will kill your beef — it will become dry and stringy. Your ideal temperature in the pan is 180 to 210 degrees (200 to 250 in the oven). It will take 3 to 6 hours to take your meat from tough to tender (depending on the exact temperature and size of your meat). If the temperature becomes too high, your meat will become stringy and dry.
Liquids and aromatics give you a limitless amount of flavor combinations. Since beef is served in so many different cultures, everyone has a variation on oxtail. Most of the unique seasonings are specialty local items such as habanero peppers, tomatoes, white wine, soy sauce or ginger. The local specialties are what make the unique flavor.
Serves 3 to 4
2 to 3 pounds oxtails
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil as needed to sear
1 onion, large diced
2 cups dry red wine
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
1 to 2 quarts low-sodium or unsalted brown stock (beef or chicken), preferably homemade
In a bowl or pan, heavily season oxtail with salt and pepper. Heat a medium saucepan or pot (3 to 5 quart) to medium heat, and then lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Place just enough pieces of oxtail in the pan to cover the bottom while leaving space between each one; they should not be touching (too many and they will steam instead of sear).
Sear each piece on every side; it may take 4 to 5 minutes per side. When each piece is done, replace with another piece. Once all pieces have been seared, reserve to the side (you can use the same bowl you seasoned them in since they are still raw and not ready to eat). Discard all but about ¾ of the fat remaining in the pan and add the onions. Sauté onions for about 3 minutes over medium heat until they become fragrant and the edges start to become slightly brown. Add the red wine and simmer until the volume reduces by half. Add the seared oxtails back into the pan; add thyme, bay leaves, garlic and stock. Cover and place into a 250-degree oven for 4 to 6 hours, until meat becomes tender.
Once meat has started to become tender (after 2 to 3 hours), move the lid to slightly ajar so the stock will start to evaporate and thicken. Once the oxtails have become tender, remove pan from oven and place on the range with the lid removed. Keep at a low simmer until the liquid has reduced to the desired consistency. Season and serve over rice pilaf, risotto, grits, polenta, pasta or beans.
- General: Serve with your choice of side vegetables or add heartier vegetables into the braise along with the onions.
- Jamaican: Replace red wine with water; use about 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon ground allspice when seasoning; cut back on salt; add 4 tablespoons minced fresh ginger and 1 minced scotch bonnet or habanero pepper when you add stock. Serve with rice pilaf.
- Chinese: Remove thyme and bay leaf; replace olive oil with sesame oil; replace red wine with 1½ cups water and ½ cup rice vinegar; use about 2 tablespoons soy sauce when seasoning; add 3 to 4 pieces star anise, ½ cup chili paste and 4 tablespoons minced fresh ginger when adding water. Serve with rice pilaf.
- Italian: Replace red wine with dry white wine; add 2 sprigs rosemary with the herbs; replace stock with 1 quart white chicken stock and 1 quart diced tomatoes. Serve with pasta or polenta.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.