Winter time is the time for big hearty soups. One of my favorites is a good brown bean soup, using a recipe I got from my mom. Its a fairly simple recipe and uses a pack of dry mix oxtail soup for flavour together with beans, veggies and meat balls. However, one day I saw that our butcher actually sells oxtails! I reasoned that if I used real oxtail I wouldn’t need that pack of soup anymore. So I decided I had to try to make this soup with ‘fresh’ oxtail. It was an exciting challenge!
Luckily our butcher doesn’t sell whole oxtails, instead, they’re sold chopped in pieces. We got this nice piece of oxtail shown on the photo below. Before we dive into the recipe, let’s first do some oxtail science research, why on earth would we want to use the oxtail for soups (and why wouldn’t we just grill it? ok, there’s a bone in it which makes it a little hard, but apart from that, why not?).
A hard-working oxtail
Have you ever seen a cow that wasn’t moving its tail? No? Well, that should be your first indication that this oxtail requires some special cooking. In a previous post we discussed the different types of meat and concluded that hard-working parts of a cow should be cooked slow and long. These hard-working parts, like a tail, have very strong and tough muscle cells. The tail has to be able to continuously swipe away flying insects, especially flies.
To support these strong muscle cells, the oxtail also has more connective tissue to help the muscles contracting. Most of the connective tissue is made of collagen which is tough to eat when raw. However, when collagen is heated for longer periods of time it will melt into gelatin. That way the connective tissue tends to become softer over time.
Let’s have a look at the photo above. You can clearly see several round bundles of muscle fibers, on the right side 4 round bundles sit next to each other. These bundles are held in place by connective tissue which is white. On the outer side there is also a layer of fat (you can see this well in the image on top of the post). It clearly has a very different structure from a steak. With this different composition, it will also require a different way of preparation.
Preparing an oxtail
Since the oxtail contains a lot of connective tissue and tough muscles, this is a type of meat that has to be prepared slowly. It takes patience to prepare it, taking at least several hours. Only after several hours of simmering the meat will fall from the bone easily and will become tender and soft. Don’t even try to take the meat from the bone before cooking. Apart from the fact that the meat isn’t easy to cut through, there’s this bone in it with a ‘hard to cut along’ shape (see photo below)!
So, I started my soup making well before dinner time. I kicked off by browning the oxtail in a large pot. It was hard to brown the meat properly because of its shape, but a ton of delicious flavours came from the pot and I saw some browning. This browning of the meat produces flavours and smells that cannot be formed by just boiling the meat, that’s all because of the Maillard reaction. Once I had this nice browning effect, I added hot water and my other soup ingredients (this type of soup is very flexible, I added: carrot, leek, onion, potato (to get some thickening), brown beans, meat balls, bay leaf) and left it to boil on a low low heat (just bubbling).
The tail slowly started to fall apart into larger pieces. The separate bundles seemed to fall from each other first. I guess the connective tissue between these bundles dissolves easiest. It took several hours (at least 4, if not more) before the entire tail had disintegrated. Within the soup a lot of very fine meat strings could be found which would just melt in your mouth and I was left with one piece of bone in my soup, it’s a fascinating shape isn’t it?:
Somehow, I hadn’t yet managed to fully capture my mom’s brown bean soup flavour. My soup wasn’t perfectly balanced, first of all I think I used too much water with my one piece of oxtail (over 3 liters for one piece…) which diluted the flavour. I also added too little salt and other flavouring. Adding a stock cube did solve most of my problems there!
However, simply cooking with oxtail was a great experience, and deemed a succes! Some more pratice will improve my oxtail cooking skills! It goes to show how many fascinating pieces of meat there are. Come to think of it, just the other day I saw a post from Miss Foodwise on cooking with heart! Never tried that before, but that’s a really interesting muscle as well! Any ‘special’ cuts of meat you’ve cooked with before (preferably one that requires some more sciency research)?