Oxtail is one of my absolute favourite cuts of meat; it’s rich, gelatinous, almost unctuous texture is coupled with an intensely meaty flavour. Add to that the fact that it’s intensely easy to cook in advance and it was always going to be a winner for our Halloween Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett pies that we cooked for our recent party (I’ll post everything we cooked soon!). The pies went down so well that every last one was scoffed down despite us implying that the contents were erstwhile barbershop customers. But the beauty of this oxtail recipe was once we made it, we used it for so many other purposes as well. We made ravioli, a ragu sauce for pasta, we had it with mashed potatoes and I even made an oxtail croquette (In the past I’ve made an oxtail and beef mince burger)– plus it freezes brilliantly. If you can’t find oxtail then shin of beef, beef cheek or any other slow braising cut of beef will work well (though the cooking time will be a little reduced as oxtail requires particularly long cooking). What I want to share with you though, is the secret ingredient I picked up from a few restaurant kitchens.
When you cook a stew you end up with a lovely liquid thick with gelatine which has been produced from the breaking down of the collagen in the connective tissue in the meat. However, this liquid is often too thin or watery to mix with the meat and use directly as a filling (you don’t want an overly watery filling and noone wants a soggy bottom on their pie). Most recipes will call for you either to reduce the liquid until it’s thicker or to stir in some flour (sometimes this is even done on the meat itself before cooking). The problem is both options dramatically alter the flavour. Reducing it concentrates the flavour and can make it start to taste a little of Bovril (for non-Brits Bovril is a sort of intensely concentrated meat tea which I have been assured many times since arriving in this country is delicious but frankly is not). Adding in flour mutes the flavours of everything else. So I learnt that instead you can use a Japanese ingredient called agar.
Agar is derived naturally from seaweed, is completely flavourless and odourless, calorie free and is available in all major supermarkets nowadays. It’s a very heat resistant gelling agent which basically means that like gelatine it can set a liquid into a solid jelly but unlike gelatine it won’t re-melt until it hits 85 degrees Celsius. This makes it perfect for making very thick sauces, stews, pie or ravioli fillings. You simply mix in the agar to the sieved liquid (you need to whisk it thoroughly and heat to a boil), leave to set in the fridge and then blend until smooth and creamy. Then you re-introduce the meat and warm through for a thick, unctuous stew with a subtly complex flavour. This isn’t always necessary for your everyday stew – if you’re serving it ladled over creamy mashed potatoes which will soak up the liquid then you’re already onto a winner and I simply hope you invite me round for dinner. However, if you want to push the boat out and try your own oxtail ravioli or pies, you want to make unbelievable pulled oxtail burgers or the richest oxtail pasta ragu then give it a go, I promise you won’t be disappointed. This method also works brilliantly if you’ve got Christmas or Thanksgiving leftovers and you want to make a rich creamy turkey pie, simply set cream, milk and stock (in the ratio 1:1:1.5) with agar and blend before adding to your turkey, mustard, salt, pepper and some slowly cooked leeks. Cover it with puff pastry and bake in the oven – I cannot stress to you how good this is!
Once you’ve shredded the oxtail meat and mixed it with your liquid* it will keep in the fridge for over a week or freeze for six months. You can use it to fill pies or ravioli but you can also simply reheat it with a little water (I use the water from cooking pasta) to create a wonderful thick pasta sauce or stew to ladle over polenta or mashed potatoes. In fact, it also amazing if you mix some into an otherwise vegetarian bean chilli – it totally rocked my world when I did this. I made a very large quantity of this oxtail and we didnt get bored of it all week. We weren’t even bored of it when I defrosted some a few weeks later – actually I wouldn’t be surprised if we make it again this weekend.
* The liquid is technically referred to as a fluid gel. This means you’ve introduced a gelling agent (agar) but prevented that gelling agent from forming a solid through the addition of a shearing force – in this the blender. This is exactly the same process you do when making a custard, by constantly stirring you stop the egg (technically the hydrocolloids in the egg yolk) from producing a set custard which is exactly what you would get if you put the same mixture in the oven.
** The oxtail needs to cook for a long time (6 hours+). Therefore I tend to put it in the oven before going to bed and turn it off in the morning.
*** For a recipe for hot water crust pastry (for the pies) click this link. We wanted our pies to go a little flat so they looked authentically like Mrs Lovett’s, but if you want them perfectly straight then either refrigerate them before cooking (if freestanding) or place in muffin trays with straight sides.
Ingredients: (this is for a large quantity – it can easily be scaled down)
- 2.5 kg oxtail jointed but still on the bone
- 2 onions roughly chopped
- 4 carrots roughly chopped
- 2 leeks roughly chopped
- 1 bulb (head) of garlic cut in half with rough white skin removed but not fully peeled
- 1 litre beef stock (Can substitute with water but get a richer taste from a stock)
- 750ml red wine (optional – substitute with more stock or even water)
- Splash of port (optional)
- Splash of brandy (optional)
- Agar – follow the instructions on the packet. I find 1 tablespoon flakes or 1 teaspoon powder per cup of liquid. In this recipe I used 6 tablespoons of agar flakes.
- Spices/Herbs – I used 1 star anise, 3 bay leaves, ½ tablespoon peppercorns, ½ tablespoon coriander seeds and 2 dried cascabel chilies
- Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius
- Place a large pot with a tight fitting lid over a medium-high heat and cover the base with a glug of vegetable oil (or any other high smokepoint oil). Season the oxtail pieces all over with salt and brown in the hot oil on all sides – this may need to be done in batches
- Remove the oxtail from the pan and add the vegetables (except the garlic) and the spices. Cook until lightly caramelised – approximately 10 minutes
- Deglaze the pan with first the brandy and then the port scraping off all the caramelised goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the wine and cook for 5 minutes until the alcohol has evaporated.
- Add the beef stock and the oxtail, if the oxtail is not fully submerged add a little water to submerge it. Add the garlic, cover with aluminium foil and place the lid on firmly. Place in the oven for at least 6 hours but up to ten.
- Turn off oven and allow to cool in the liquid. Braised meat is like a sponge, as it cools it reabsorbs the liquid making it more moist and tender, if you remove it too early it will go dry.
- Remove the meat from the bone and shred, don’t squeeze it too hard, just pull it apart gently. Take the garlic and squeeze it into the meat, it will add a lovely gentle garlic hum.
- Strain the vegetables and skim off the fat which rises to the top – keep it, it will make amazing roast potatoes!
- Taste the liquid and reduce a little if you think it needs to be more concentrated, once you’re happy with the flavour, season it with salt and pepper and heat to a boil. Add the agar whisking all the time. Don’t worry if it smells a little like seaweed, agar does when it’s fresh out of the packet, that will disappear and it won’t taste of it at all. Cook for a few minutes to dissolve the agar and transfer to the fridge to cool and set.
- Once set, break up and place in the blender. Blend on high until smooth – it will take a few minutes. Add as much as you think necessary (I use almost all of it) back to the shredded meat and reserve until needed.
- If making pies, fill the pastry (recipe here) with the oxtail filling, seal and brush with egg yolk before baking in an oven preheated to 190 degrees Celsius. They should take about 30-40 minutes. If you want to bake them freestanding (not in moulds) then you should refrigerate for 30 minutes before baking and you should consider slightly decreasing the fat to flour ratio or substituting in 10% bread flour rather than all plain flour.