What Is Oxtail Really?

Have you ever eaten oxtail? If you have, it was probably in the form of a Jamaican oxtail stew or a hearty, filling oxtail soup. But what is oxtail, really? What, even, is an ox?

According to The Spruce Eats, oxtails once came from "oxen," a term which refers to castrated male cows, but today the term refers to the tail of beef or veal of either sex (via the Los Angeles Times). Therefore, the oxtail you buy in the store today might come from an "ox," from a heifer, or from a young cow. Before being packaged and going to market, the tail is skinned and cut into cross sections that come out as rounds of meat with a piece of bone at the center. Full of connective tissue, oxtail is rich in collagen and will naturally thicken soups, stews, and braises with gelatin when it's cooked. Read on to get to know this cut of meat better.

Where does oxtail meat come from?

According to the Los Angeles Times, the cooking of oxtail can be traced to the use of oxen as beasts of burden, which was common all over the Old World as well as some parts of the Americas. "Oxen," today known as "steers," are more docile and therefore more suitable to be used as work animals. Additionally, when the animal came to the end of its working life and was slaughtered for food, people discovered that oxen were not only milder in temperament but also tastier than bulls. For that reason, although oxen (steers) are generally no longer used as work animals, the practice of castrating male cows for the beef market continues today.

Back in the day, when nose-to-tail eating was a given and every single part of the animal was used, folks developed recipes to utilize oxtail; generally, it was used in long-cooked dishes that break down the tail's connective tissue to produce a rich broth (via The Spruce Eats).

What does oxtail taste like?

If you like beef, you'll love oxtail. Deeply meaty with an abundance of flavor, oxtail can be compared to short rib, but when cooked it's actually even more tender than that cut (via The Spruce Eats). Much of oxtail's deliciousness is thanks to the section of bone at the center of each round; because the bone is cut crosswise, each section contains a hearty knob of marrow (via The Takeout). As the oxtail cooks, the fat-rich marrow melts, bathing each piece of meat and lending its buttery, nutty taste to the dish as a whole (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). 

Oxtail is common in cuisines around the world (via The Spruce Eats). One dish that's particularly well known is Jamaican oxtail stew, which features soft butter beans and spicy Scotch bonnet peppers. Additionally, Eastern European regions often include the cut in a hearty beef and barley soup, and Italians like to braise oxtail with wine, pancetta, and tomatoes.

Is oxtail healthy?

Due to its high amounts of marrow, oxtail is a relatively fatty meat, containing about 13 grams of fat and 250 calories per 100-gram serving, as noted by The Spruce Eats. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, bone marrow is an extremely valuable fat, and an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals that was a prized ingredient among traditional cultures. More than a third of oxtail's fat is saturated, and recent research suggests that saturated fat can support liver health and balance hormones (via Greatist). Oxtail is also a good source of protein, providing about 30 grams per serving (via The Spruce Eats).

Because it's rich in collagen, oxtail is known among certain cultures for being excellent for skin, nail, and hair health. According to SOFFLI, the Korean oxtail soup called kori gomtang is famed for brightening, tightening, and clearing the skin. To get the benefits of its collagen, you can also prepare and sip bone broth that's heavy on the oxtail.

Why is oxtail so expensive?

For much of its culinary history, oxtail was considered a "throwaway" meat, a scrap not fit for the higher echelons of society. According to the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, the cuisine we today call "soul food" originated during the era of slavery in the United States, when enslaved Africans "were given only leftovers and the parts of animals that the plantation owners didn't eat, such as pig's feet and ears, ham hocks, hog jowls." They were also given oxtails, which found their way into spicy stews or into a brown gravy served over rice. 

Prior to its more recent culinary renaissance, butchers used to sell oxtail for pennies on the pound so that they wouldn't have to throw it away at the end of the day (via The Spruce Eats). More recently, thanks to the nose-to-tail movement among chefs and home cooks alike, oxtail has become more and more popular and its price has risen as a result. Today, a pound of oxtail will cost you anywhere from $5.50 to $7.99, depending on the quality of the meat. Our tip to find cheap oxtail? Check out your local Asian and Latin American groceries, which tend to stock this popular cut at lower prices.