Oxtail is a piece of a cow’s tail. It comes still on the bone, and is never sold boneless; in fact, there are many bones in it.
Though oxtails originally did indeed come from oxen, now they come from cows raised as beef or veal.
Classification of oxtail
It’s interesting to note that while it is beef, oxtail is also classed as “offal”, or a “variety meat.”
“Oxtail is classified as offal even though it is not an internal organ. Oxtail is mainly used for making soup to extract its rich flavours. It is more bone than meat, but the meat from the oxtail, once properly braised, is very rich in flavour.” Meat Cutting and Processing for Food Service. British Columbia Cook Articulation Committee. Victoria, BC: BCcampus. 2015. Page 82.
To prepare it for the consumer, the tail is skinned, and then the surface fat is trimmed in North America to the ½ cm to 1 cm (¼ inch – ½ inch) maximum allowed, as per the oxtail definition in Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications for the U.S. and Canada, item no. 721. It is then often cut into pieces 2 ½ to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) for sale.
“Item No. 721 – Beef Oxtail, Trimmed – The tail is removed from the carcass at the juncture of the second and third coccygeal vertebrae. Unless otherwise specified by the purchaser the posterior end of the tail shall be “tipped” to remove two to three coccygeal vertebrae and surface fat shall be trimmed to an average 0.25 inch (0.5 inch maximum at any point.) Purchasers may specify that the tails be delivered whole or disjointed.” Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications – Variety Meats and Edible By-Products. 1 June 1993. Page 8.
If buying whole from a butcher, ask for it to be cut into pieces 5 to 7 cm (about 2 to 3 inches).
Oxtail has gone up so much in price, that some people consider it not worth the effort, especially given the hours of cooking fuel that can be required.
The meat on oxtail is tough, and needs low and slow cooking. But, it contains a lot of fat and cartilage that render during cooking, making it extremely flavourful in soups, stews, and braising.
1 medium sized oxtail will weigh about 1 ½ kg (3 ½ pounds), enough for a stew for 4 people.
Trim away as much of any remaining fat as you can easily do before cooking.
It is not really necessary to soak or precook it, as some recipes call for.
During the first few minutes of cooking, skim off and discard any scum that appears on the surface.
Some suggest cooking it the day before, leaving it overnight in the fridge — this allows you, the next day, to skill all the plentiful fat off very easily, then you can push on with finishing the dish you are making.
You may wish to shred the meat off of it and then proceed with your recipe.