If you like beef on the bone but haven't tried oxtails, you don't know what you're missing. Unrivaled for richness of flavor, oxtails figure in the culinary traditions of many countries, including the UK, Italy, the Caribbean and throughout Asia. They can be a challenge to find in North American supermarkets; if your local one doesn't carry them, try butchers or grocery stores catering to a West Indian clientele. Tenderizing this tough meat requires lengthy cooking times, but your presence isn't necessarily needed throughout the process.
All About Oxtails
In an article for the "Los Angeles Times," food writer Merle Ellis describes the culinary history of oxtails. In pioneer days, oxen were used primarily as beasts of burden, and only slaughtered for their meat after they could no longer work. That's when people made two discoveries: Oxtails were not only delicious but tasted even better when the male oxen they'd been attached to were castrated -- steers. Even though oxtails now come from cattle, and not necessarily males, the name stuck. In the Caribbean, oxtail stew occupies pride of place as a down-home classic. The theory, says cookbook author Jessica B. Harris, is that oxtails were considered a throwaway meat, given to slaves after the masters had butchered the most desirable cuts for themselves.
Preparation and Cooking Tips
Oxtails, cylindrical in shape, vary in diameter depending upon which part of the tail they come from, dwindling in size toward the tip. Often, you'll see hard fatty tissue on top of the red, meaty flesh. Cut off what you can but don't worry about what you can't, because this fat will rise to the surface during cooking, allowing you to skim it off. Alternatively, let the dish cool in the fridge until the fat congeals, whereupon you can just lift it out. Cooking times vary depending on the size of the oxtails, but if you prefer the meat on the bone, yet tender enough to pull away with a fork, reduce the recommended cooking time by about half an hour.
Stovetop and Oven Cooking
Some recipes, including oxtail alla vaccinara, an Italian specialty, and Caribbean-style oxtail stew, are cooked on top of the stove from start to finish. Recipe recommendations range from 1 1/2 to more than two hours, but the rule of thumb is to cook until tender. Other recipes, such as British-style oxtail stew, are started on stovetop but from there, cooked slowly for about three hours in an oven set at 300 degrees. A Korean-style oxtail dish calls for stovetop cooking for 3 1/2 hours, until all the meat separates from the bone. After that, bite-sized pieces of meat are placed in serving bowls with rice, and broth flavored with onion, garlic and ginger is ladled over everything.
Crock Pot Cooking
The most effortless way to enjoy hearty oxtail stew or soup for dinner involves tossing all the ingredients into a slow cooker after breakfast then coming back eight to 10 hours later to a complete hot meal.
Years ago, when pressure cookers first came on the market, spontaneous eruptions sometimes forced people to scrape their evening meal off the ceiling and ever since, many home cooks have been wary of them. However, design flaws have been corrected and when used as directed, pressure cookers shouldn't produce any more nasty surprises. People brave enough to give them a chance will find the time needed to tenderize oxtails is half an hour -- shaving two-thirds off the stovetop cooking time.