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. It’s 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!
Luckily our butcher doesn’t sell whole oxtails, instead, they sell them chopped in pieces. This was a reasonable quantity to work with and the final soup turned out great, full with flavour. The oxtail had done its job and whereas you would never put an oxtail on the grill (it will never cook properly), there’s a good reason it works well in soup: the tail of the animal had to work a lot during it’s life!
A hard-working oxtail
Have you ever seen a cow that isn’t moving its tail? No? Well, that should be your first indication that this oxtail is perfect for soups. In a previous post we concluded that meat that comes from the hard-working parts of an animal should be cooked slow and long. These hard-working parts, such as a tail, have very strong and tough muscle cells to continuously swipe away flying insects, especially flies.
Let’s have a look at the photo above. You can clearly see several round bundles of muscle fibers. These bundles are held in place by connective tissue which is whitish. On the outer side there is a layer of fat and in the middle sits a piece of bone (which protrudes into the meat as well). It clearly has a very different structure from a steak and as such needs to be treated very differently.
Preparing an oxtail
Since the oxtail contains a lot of connective tissue and tough muscles, this type of meat has to be prepared slowly. Only after several hours of simmering the meat easily falls of the bone and becomes tender and soft (similar to meat stews!). 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!
Breaking down collagen
So what happens during that long cooking process? It is mostly the connective tissue that is slowly transformed over time. This type of meat contains a lot of connective tissue, which makes it tough and strong to start with. Connective tissue consists of mostly collagen, a protein. However, if you heat up collagen and cook it for a longer period of time it will start to break down. It hydrolyzes into smaller molecules, forming gelatin. Gelatin dissolves in warm water and is easy to eat and digest.
- approx. 400g of oxtail (more will give a meatier flavour or simply more soup)
- half a leek
- Heat up a soup pot and add a little oil or butter. Add the oxtail pieces and caramelize the outside until it's a nice brown. (This is an optional step but browning induces the Maillard reaction and creates all sorts of flavour molecules!)
- Add the chopped carrot, onion, leek and whichever soup vegetables you prefer. Brown them in the pan as well to create even more flavour.
- Once everything is nice light brown in colour, add enough water to cover everything and close the lid.It is best not too add too much water, you want there to be enough flavour in the stock, especially if you plan on using it for several dishes. Diluting afterwards is always easily done.
- Bring the water to the boil and continue to boil softly for another 3-4 hours. (If you have an InstantPot you can also pressure cook it, it will then take about 45-60 minutes, it depends on the size of your oxtail mostly.)
- The meat is done when it simply falls of the bone, it really shouldn't take any effort to take it off! Remove the bone and finish of your soup by bringing it up to taste with some salt (you could also add some fresh herbs here).
The tail will slowly start to fall apart into larger pieces. The separate bundles separated first. At the end, the soup contains a lot of very fine meat strings which just melt in your mouth.