Smothered Oxtail

Tuesday, April 28, 2020


Sundays are meant for smothering something in a rich, slow-cooked gravy. Chicken quarters and pork chops were the first cuts of meat I learned to smother in my cast iron skillet. Later, rabbit would become my protein of choice, and then turkey wings. The process and ingredients, all nearly the same. After the meat is browned and set aside, onions and garlic cook in the grease and are then sprinkled with flour to make a roux. Water or stock is whisked in, and once bubbling, the meat is returned to the pot to simmer gently until cooked. Sometimes you may want to flour the meat before browning, sometimes it's just the flour added to the pot, sometimes it's both. It all works out. Done right, the meat is tender just as the gravy is thick and glossy. Tough, well-marbled bone-in cuts that take well to braising do better than lean meat, but so long as you monitor how long the meat cooks you can smother just about anything. You can embellish with the addition of celery and bell pepper, spices, herbs, wine. Old school smothered dishes are usually pretty basic though. People were working with what they had. It took me years to appreciate the simplicity of these dishes. Without so much as a fleck of parsley or carrot poking through the surface, they're a bitch to photograph. Just a sea of brown. But these days all I see is flavor, and time, and culture. That means more than anything you could dress up to look fancy.


Oxtail is such a richly flavored cut of beef that I took the opportunity to edit myself. I tend to go crazy with flavoring braising liquids, so much so that it becomes challenging to settle on a consistent recipe. But for this, I wanted regular soul food seasoning. If you have good beef stock use that, but chicken stock is fine too - it's actually the better choice if choosing between store-bought stocks. Water will also do it, honestly. Oxtail bones will create their own broth in the time it takes the meat to cook. Other than that - I stuck to the onion, garlic, flour. Your usual all-purpose seasoning will do, or use the spices I listed. Smoked paprika is always a bit of an upgrade to me over the paprika used in most seasoning blends, but it's not enough to be a deal-breaker if swapped out for regular paprika.


The crazy thing is that oxtail used to be an incredibly cheap cut of meat, something mostly poor people cooked. It's the tail, after all. Not exactly a prized steak. But now? The secret's out. The lowest I can find oxtail for is around $6/lb but I've paid well over $10/lb at higher-end butchers. This is domestic Wagyu oxtail I ordered from Crowdcow. Wagyu! Absolutely worth the splurge, but have to say that the irony isn't lost on me! If you can't find oxtail these days, this recipe would also work on beef short ribs or turkey neck bones.

Smothered Oxtail

Ingredients:
4 lbs oxtail, trimmed of excess hard fat
1 tbsp Kosher salt, more to taste
2 tsp black pepper, more to taste
1/2 cup AP flour, divided
2 tbsp neutral cooking oil, like canola or grape seed
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 whole head of garlic, top sliced off
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground mustard
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
4 cups chicken stock, beef stock, or water
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
2 tsp apple cider vinegar

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 5 hours (8-10 hours using a slow cooker, up to 2 hours if using the Instant Pot. See notes at end of recipe for alternate instructions.)
Yield: Serves 4
Recommended equipment (affiliate links): Dutch oven or slow-cooker or Instant Pot, tongs, wooden mixing spoon

It's best to season your meat the night before if you can remember. It's a noticeable difference from seasoning just before you cook, in my experience. Toss the oxtail in salt and pepper and refrigerate for at least an hour. When ready to cook, pat the oxtail dry and toss in 1/4 cup of flour. Get your pot nice and hot, just shy of smoking. Add the oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Brown the oxtail on all sides, taking the time to allow it to get crusty, like the middle piece below. This will take at least ten minutes, but more if you need to brown the oxtail in batches. Don't crowd the pot, otherwise, they'll just steam. 


Control your heat so that the meat browns without the oil burning. If you're done browning your oxtail and the bottom of the pot is blackened, it's better to clean it out before proceeding or it could impart bitter scorched flavors into the gravy. The goal is to have lots of crusty browned bits in the pan, which is where your flavor starts. So control your heat.

Set the browned oxtail aside. Reduce the heat to medium-low. You should have quite a bit of beef fat left in the pot, but if not add oil or butter to get to about two or three tablespoons. Saute the onions until translucent, then add the spices, garlic, and bay leaves. Fry the aromatics for a minute, until fragrant. 


Sprinkle the onions with flour, then stir to dissolve. Cook the roux for a few minutes until bubbly and light brown.


Preheat your oven to 275°F. (You can cook this as high as 350°F. Lower and slower yields more succulent results. But coordinate with whatever else you need to cook that day.)

Pour in your stock or water, scraping up the fond at the bottom of the pan.


Give the liquid a taste test. It should be adequately seasoned, but a tad undersalted - this is to account for the gravy thickening later. (If you let your oxtail marinate overnight, you're in better shape because the salt was already absorbed deep into the meat. The gravy itself can be adjusted towards the end.)

Bring the liquid up to a boil, then return the oxtail to the pot. If the meat is not mostly submerged, add water to level it off. Cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Transfer the pot to the oven.


Cook for approximately 4 hours, until the meat is fork-tender and can be easily tugged off the bones. Oxtail is done when it's done, there's no schedule you can put it on. When I think I've got about 30 minutes or so left, I leave the lid open to let the gravy reduce a little more. If you see a ton of oil floating at the top, skim it or drag a piece of bread across to soak it up. Oxtail renders a ton of fat, but the flour helps to keep most of it in the gravy.


Once the meat is fully tenderized, remove it from the pot. Discard the bay leaves. Squeeze out the garlic and mash it against the side of the pot before whisking into the gravy. Stir in the vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, if using, then simmer the gravy for a few minutes. The acidity helps to brighten the flavors and the Worcestershire sauce has anchovies to boost the savory umami notes. I'd say it's more important if you used water, less important if you already started with good beef stock. Decide based on how it tastes, if you need the Worcestershire or not. If the gravy is too thin, let it cook longer to reduce. If it's too thick, thin it out with water. Give the seasoning a final taste for salt and pepper before returning the oxtail to the pot to warm through.

Serve over rice, mashed potatoes, or coarse stone-ground grits. I had my oxtail over white rice with a side of okra and tomatoes.


Slow-cooker Instructions:  Brown the oxtail in a heavy-bottomed pot or skillet. Follow the recipe all the way through adding the stock or water. Once the liquid comes to a boil, carefully transfer it to your slow-cooker, along with the oxtail. Cook on high for 4 to 6 hours, or on low for 8 to 10 hours, depending on the size of your oxtail pieces. Add the Worcestershire sauce and vinegar in the last half-hour; you can also squeeze out the garlic cloves and mash them into the gravy. If necessary, you can remove the meat and cook the gravy on high, uncovered, to reduce it further.

Instant Pot Instructions: Set the Instant Pot to sauté on high. Follow the recipe as written, browning the oxtail in batches. Cancel the sauté function and switch to sauté on low heat once you move on to cooking the onions and aromatics. Make sure when adding the broth or water that you don't exceed the max fill levels. After the oxtail is returned to the pot, secure the lid and set the Instant Pot for pressure cooking on high, 40 minutes. Allow the steam to release naturally for fifteen minutes. If your oxtail pieces are very large, you might need to pressure cook them longer, so I usually do that in 5-minute increments if necessary, using the manual steam release. Once the oxtail is tender, you can remove it from the pot and proceed with the rest of the recipe. Switch back to sauté on low to simmer the gravy as you finish it. 

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