Cold winter days are synonymous with soup and slowly simmered stews. If you like tender short ribs, you will love oxtails. Oxtail is exactly that; the tail of a cow, with some highly valued marrow in the center and very tender meat around the bones. An average tail weighs between two to four pounds. They used to be most commonly found in Asian dishes but recently became popular in the United States because of their deep rich flavor and tender taste. This soup is a type of meat-in–broth dish, but what makes it so delicious are the tender oxtails, which are slow-simmered to develop a deeply rich flavor.
Nose to Tail Movement
Oxtail used to be a cheap butchers’ cut, but as demand has increased, so has the price. This is in part because of the Nose-to-Tail movement, a philosophy of using every part of the animal in food preparation, leaving nothing to waste. People are becoming more conscious of how much and what kind of meat they consume and how to be kinder to our planet.
Oxtail can be hard to find in a conventional grocery store, but they are widely available at local farmers’ markets. If oxtails are not available, beef shanks, beef short ribs on the bone, veal neck, and veal shank can be good substitutes. Learning more about shopping at farmers’ markets can be found here.
Braising, Fond, and Maillard Reaction
The oxtail has a lot of cartilage and connective tissue, so it needs to be cooked low and slow, using moist heat, in the cooking method called braising. During braising, “protein” (the meat) is browned at a high temperature, then simmered in a covered pot in cooking liquid. During this process, the fibrous, tough meat becomes very tender, and the cartilage and connective tissue turn into gelatin, creating a delicious, rich sauce. Gelatinous broths and soups have become popular in recent years due to their claimed health benefits. You can learn about them here.
The first step of browning the meat is called the Maillard Reaction and is one of the fundamental concepts of the culinary world. The Maillard reaction was first noted in 1910 by French physicist Louis-Camille Maillard, and it is a form of browning that occurs in foods when proteins and/or amino acids chemically react, creating sugars. During this chemical reaction, a byproduct called Fond is formed. Fond is simply the remains that stick to your pan while browning your meat and vegetable either on the stovetop or in the oven. You may know it from the “deglazing” process of making Thanksgiving gravy. Fond adds a caramelized texture and aroma.
Which Cooking Pot to Use?
Like most stews, oxtail soup can be cooked on the stove, in the oven, or in a presser cooker or OnePot to save time. Heavy pots or dutch ovens made from enameled or ceramic cast iron work especially well. They can be heavy to lift, but they conduct and hold heat superbly. For this recipe, I chose the oven method in my old enameled cast iron pot. If you take care of it well, they last a lifetime. Remember to keep the lid tightly on during braising while in the oven.
1-2 packages of oxtails defrosted
2 tbs oil
1-2 frozen tomatoes or tomato paste
1 large onion (or dry mix)
3-4 garlic cloves (or dry mix)
Salt to taste
2-3 whole Allspice
2-3 Juniper berries
1 parsnip root
½ celery root (if available)
Tip: Learn more about celery root and its uses here.
Add your aromatics (onion, shallots, garlic, and spices), then deglaze with stock, wine, beer, or even water. (The amount of liquid you use is up to you: as long as the meat is partially submerged, you can always rotate during cooking.) Using a wooden spoon, scrape up all those brown bits—that’s called the fond, and it will provide the delicious foundation for all the flavor you’re about to build—and stir into the braising liquid.
Gather all of your ingredients. In this dish, I forgot to add tomato paste or a couple of frozen tomatoes I keep in the freezer just for dishes like this.
To sear your meat, heat your heavy pot on medium-high, waiting until the pot is hot to add the oil (to prevent burning it). Use only oil intended for higher temperatures, such as avocado oil. When the oil is hot, add the meat and sear well until golden brown. Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside.
Add all vegetables and spices and cook for a few minutes until brown. Return the meat to the pot and add water until the meat is partially submerged. Adding hot water is preferred as it does not slow down the cooking process. Put the lid on the pot and place it in the hot oven. Check the meat a few times during the cooking process and rotate it and add more liquid if necessary. Do not open the oven door more than it is absolutely necessary since doing so decreases the oven temperature.
Meat contains fat, and as is the case with every stew, it needs to be strained. There are several ways to do this. For me, the easiest is letting the stew cool enough to just gently scrape the fat off with the spoon, not disturbing the gelatinous broth.
The soup tastes even better the next day after the flavors have had a chance to mellow, so it is best to make it a day ahead of time.
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