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Jul 23, 2010 06:52 AM

In search of great Oxtail - what is the secret of boosting flavour

Come on you specialists show me how to make really flavorful great oxtail.

I am so frustrated. I have tried using a 2 day red wine marinade and followed half a dozen recipes. It is very nice - beautifully cooked in my Dutch Oven - but not great oxtail like I have had in a restaurant. It lacks flavor.

I am beginning to believe that the reduction at the end is the crucial stage?

Maybe the Heston Blumenthal oxtail is the best recipe? I have even seen one surprising suggestion of browning first and then adding oxtail to the marinade!

So please lets see how you do it.

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  1. Unless I am making Chinese oxtail soup (which I highly recommend by the way), I brown my oxtail first and then braise.

    Begin by seasoning some flour with your choices of spices and what not (e.g. cayenne pepper, cumin, salt, garlic salt, etc.). Then dredge your oxtail in the flour mixture and then brown them, either in your pan or in a preheated oven.

    Then braise in a red wine with your typical aromatics like onion, leeks, garlic cloves, carrots, celery, etc. I also like to add a couple of chunks of ginger to the mix, but that's a personal preference. I like to braise it for at least a couple of hourse (sometimes as long as 3.5 hours) until the liquid has reduced to a nice thick consistency.

    No matter how you do it, getting the most flavor out of oxtail starts with browning them first.

    Good luck.

    20 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      I find that the browning that occurs during long cooking is as effective, if not more so, than any browning at the start. This does not occur if the meat is kept well immersed, but in a braise the meat is partially exposed to the hot air above the liquid, and develops a good color with time.

      I also cook meat like this in several stages. The focus of the first is to cook it till tender (or nearly so). Then it goes into the fridge. At a later time I'll remove the fat, add aromatics (sauteed vegetables), and focus on developing flavor.

      Are you salting well enough? There have been threads about how salty restaurant food is compared to home cooking. Blandness in home cooking is often traced to undersalting. I like to add salt until the other flavors 'pop'.

      1. re: paulj

        Paulj : I am probably under salting! Thanks for this.

      2. re: ipsedixit

        Thank you - that is a good tip on ginger. My favourite too!

        What is your view on the level of liquid surrounding the oxtail? Some chefs seem to say half way up while others say nearly cover.

        1. re: Mistral

          I usually try to cover my oxtails with the liquid (wine and stock). Bring to a boil, then simmer and simmer and simmer ...

          Good luck and enjoy.

          1. re: Mistral

            If you cover in liquid, make sure your oxtail takes up most of the pan - in other words, braise in a pan not much wider than your oxtail.

          2. re: ipsedixit

            ipsedixit - Could you please share your Chinese Oxtail Soup recipe?

            1. re: Jen76

              Sure, here it is:


              2-3 fresh oxtails
              2 large onion
              1 head of cabbage
              2-3 large carrots
              3-4 large tomatoes
              5-6 stalks of celery

              Blanche (or parboil) the oxtails.

              Then add the oxtail to a large pot of boiling water that will be the base of your soup.

              Wash and chop all vegetables into large chunks

              In a shallow pan, brown the potatoes and onions until the edges are crispy (optional step, but it brings out the flavors of the vegetables when cooked in the soup)

              Then throw everything into your soup pot

              Bring the pot of water to a vigorous boil, then lower the heat so that the soup simmers at a gentle boil for at 90 minutes (if not more). The longer you boil it, the tastier the soup. It is best eaten with the beef is falling off the bones.

              Salt and pepper (white ground pepper) to taste before removing from the stove.

              Regrigerate overnight if you want to skim off the layer of fat. I personally like that layer of fat, but this is personal.

              Good luck and enjoy.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                Regular green cabbage? This sounds very simple and yummy. I love soups so will definitely give this a try. Thanks!

                1. re: Jen76

                  Yup, regular American green cabbage. Honestly, you can really use any type of veggies that are in season (sometimes I'll use jicama instead of potatoes for example). I would just avoid strong flavored veggies, things like kale, which can overpower your soup.

                  Good luck.

                2. re: ipsedixit

                  Similar to my mother-in-law's except she doesn't use cabbage and celery and adds ginger. Really simple but very tasty.

                3. re: Jen76

                  Not ipsedixit.
                  Oxtails covered with water, carrots, celery, white onion, shitake mushrooms, Chinese dry orange peel size of a quarter, slice of ginger size of a quarter, couple tablespoons of soy sauce, black pepper, green onion garnish, and cilantro garnish.

                  1. re: monku

                    Thanks, monku. Will try your version as well! Sounds good. But, I'm not sure I can find the Chinese dry orange peel. Could I use orange zest from an orange off one of our trees instead?

                    1. re: Jen76

                      I just made a Crete style pork and chickpeas recipe that called for orange zest. I used that plus some pieces of this dried orange peel (soaked in boiling water). Initially I thought I'd gotten too much of the bitter orange pith, either from the fresh zest or the dried. But by the time the dish was done (using cubed pork shoulder), the bitter note gave the dish a distinctive flavor without being unpleasant.

                      The dried peel appears to be just that - dry stiff pieces of orange peel, from thin skin oranges, black on the outside, lighter on the pith side. No evidence of special processing or trimming. A quarter size piece is going to add a hint of the bitter orange flavor, not the more delicate aroma of zest.

                      1. re: Jen76

                        I'm wondering if you could dry an orange peel and use it. There's a different flavor profile it adds than orange zest would. It's basically an could probably get away with using a dry bay leaf.

                        1. re: monku

                          Yes, easy, instead of searching out the Chinese dried peel. Remove peel from washed oranges with sharp knife or vegetable peeler, leaving pith behind, or peel and scrape off pith with spoon, cut into strips or whatever size you want, dry in 150° oven until done. Store well wrapped against moisture in dry, dark place and reconstitute before using, although when I add it to a braised dish, rehydrating is not necessary. In the winter when it's dry in the house, I leave the orange peels in a bowl on the counter until they're dried.

                          Dried peel has a stronger flavor than fresh zest.

                          1. re: bushwickgirl

                            You're right it's a stronger flavor and not a bright flavor like a zest.

                            I just checked the small bag (what I thought was a lifetime supply) of Chinese dry orange peel in the pantry and it seems to have lost it's scent.

                            1. re: monku

                              Maybe time to make a fresh batch? Although I don't think loss of scent is an indication that it's lost it's flavor, you'd have to try some in a dish to see.

                              1. re: bushwickgirl

                                You might be right about maybe not losing flavor. I'll put some in water and see if it still got life.
                                Otherwise I've got some oranges that I can get a start on making some home made dried orange peel.

                                1. re: monku

                                  Even scentless dried orange peel still retains its flavor.

                          2. re: monku

                            Pretty sure I can dry an orange peel in the hot, dry sun and heat outside! Will have to give that a whirl.

                  2. If you've followed multiple recipes and you're consistently feeling like something is missing, I wonder if there is some common basic technique that you're missing or just not quite pulling off.

                    It's always hard to interpret a statement like 'it lacks flavor,' at least as far as troubleshooting a recipe goes. You may not be adding enough salt, sugar, or acid to make the flavors and aromas you've developed pop on the tongue. That would be an easy fix- just adjust to taste right before serving.

                    Similarly, you may not be browning the meat enough, and thus not creating enough savory flavor and depth. Reading your post, this struck me as your most likely problem.

                    Restaurants are famously unafraid to use large amounts of fat in their recipes. It's possible that all you're missing when braising oxtail at home is a big hunk of butter mounted into the sauce just before service.

                    Your ingredients could be a problem - if your aromatics are stale, you could be depriving your oxtail dish of most of its top-notes. If you feel your dish needs more of an herbal kick, try withholding some fresh herb until right before service.

                    If your recipes call for stock and you're using store-bought salty brown water, that might also be your problem. Good restaurants make their own. Better stock would go a long way to creating a fuller flavor. I make demi-glace from dark chicken stock every couple of months, freeze it in ice cube trays, and add it in small amounts to any sauce that needs more backbone. It's a great little trick to elevate a lot of what comes out of my kitchen.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      Adding butter to an oxtail stew is gilding the lily. My problem with oxtails is too much fat, as opposed to not enough. I usually don't add beans to my chili, but I find that black beans are good addition when I make the chili with oxtail because they absorb some of that excess fat.

                      To me using stock in an oxtail stew is a case of carrying coals to Newcastle. The meat, bones and cartilage should provide enough of that same flavor and gelatin that a good stock has.

                      I might add that I like to cook the oxtails till the cartilage rings start to separate from the bone. Sometimes I'll separate the meat and fat from the bones, and cook the bones longer to extract more flavor.

                      1. re: paulj

                        It wouldn't be unheard of for a restaurant to skim the natural fat off a sauce and then still mount with butter at the end just to get a better emulsion and get some air into the sauce.

                        Quote: 'To me using stock in an oxtail stew is a case of carrying coals to Newcastle. The meat, bones and cartilage should provide enough of that same flavor and gelatin that a good stock has.'

                        Once again, though you can certainly braise oxtail without stock, it is far from unheard of for a restaurant to braise an oxtail in it. A solid half of the recipes I see for oxtail call for stock to some extent. Matter of preference.

                      2. re: cowboyardee

                        Interesting tips here.

                        My aromatics are fresh - I pay a premium for the best.

                        I am not using my own stock due to time considerations at the moment - yes it is store bought - I am sure home made would be far better.

                        I am probably missing fat too - butter mounting sounds good.

                      3. To quote Mario Batali, the difference between good restaurant cooking and bad home cooking is the level of browning achieved. Make sure your meat is a deep, deep dark brown. Proper browning takes a long time. I tend to avoid dredging in flour first. I find that the flour burns much too quickly, and burned flour in a pot even before you really get cooking is no way to start a long braise.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Shaw Oliver

                          Actually, the "difference between good restaurant cooking and bad home cooking is the" amount of butter used.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            Yes and no. I assume you're half-way joking? Restaurants certainly do use quite a bit of butter, salt, etc. but there is real truth to browning properly. Often people only get a little bit of golden color and consider that "brown." Real browning takes lots of time and I have taken more than 20 minutes sometimes to brown pieces of pork shoulder properly.

                        2. Reading the replies so far, I have these thoughts: (1) I go along with those who commend careful browning; (2) I'm thinking about under-salting as an issue (you mentioned this possibility); and (3) there might be something to be gained from the flavor profile in the braise, like adding some tomato paste and anchovy (or a few splashes of fish sauce) in addition to the herbs/spices.

                          1. Make sure you get a heavy sear on these first, as in saute them until they are golden all the way around. When you are about 2/3 of the way through the browning process- add some tomato paste to them and let them finish up with the tomato paste. Take them out and add your aromatics (I'm guessing carrots, celery, onion for you?) and cook with some garlic and herbs. Deglaze the pan and add some stock and add the oxtails back in. Simmer and let reduce.

                            The marinating for 2 days won't do much as the marinade won't penetrate the meat any deeper after a couple of hours. Also, if you feel you are missing something, add a little acid (some vinegar) and make sure it's seasoned properly (salt and pepper).