Twice-cooked oxtail stew


Oxtail1Aaaaah, there’s nothing to get the year off to a good start like a nice, new food blogging event! Particularly when it’s something that you helped to conceive, on a little scrap of paper over a lovely meal with good friends

And how co-operative of the weather to turn foul and cold just in time to get me in the mood for cooking something warm and saucy and comforting to fit in with this month’s theme of stews!

Isn’t it funny how tastes change over the years?  When I was a kid and my mom announced that dinner was to be some sort of stew, I would groan and moan and lose all interest.  Stews were, well, boring!  Far better to have crumbed pork chops every night 😉  It was totally inexplicable to me why my father’s eyes would light up with joy when he heard we were having stew.  And to him, the King of All Stews was definitely oxtail stew.  In fact, oxtail stew holds the distinction of being the only dish i have ever seen my father order two portions of in a restaurant – this probably happened 25 years ago and I still remember it, which gives you an idea of how unusual this was!  So given my father’s penchant for oxtail, it is hardly surprising that it is the stew I remember best from childhood.

At the time (we are talking the 1970s here), there was no "nose to tail eating" movement as there is today.  Cheap cuts of meat were just that – cheap and difficult.  There was no Fergus Henderson-style cachet to cooking them and they were very infrequent visitors on restaurant menus.  So I am still amazed at how regularly my mom cooked oxtail.  I suspect it had to do with the fact that she shared a flat with a dietician when she first got a job.  Money was tight and her flatmate taught her how to eat well on a budget – and oxtail was certainly a cheap and potentially delicious cut of meat.  Either that, or as a bone-obsessed radiographer, my mom could not resist the perfectly-shaped ox vertebrae that are left behind when the meat has been picked off 😉

But it wasn’t just in my family that oxtail was popular – most moms had a recipe for oxtail stew, and to this day, an oxtail potjiekos (say "poy-key-cause") is a treat that few can resist.  In fact, a potjiekos is ideally suited to oxtail as it is a day-long affair.  Literally translated as "pot food", this is a method of cooking where meat, vegetables and rice are simmered together over a fire in a traditional three-legged cast iron pot.  It originated when the Voortrekkers (Afrikaners who emigrated from the British-ruled Cape Colony in their ox-wagons in the 1840s and 50s) used to make camp each night on their trek into the interior of South Africa.  Dinner was whatever had been shot during the course of the day, together with whatever vegetables were available.  Each night, these were put in the pot and stewed until tender, with the larger bones being added to thicken the stew as their cartilage dissolved into gooey goodness.  These days, a potjiekos is a perfect excuse to spend five or six hours in the outdoors, sampling some fine local brew while pretending to pay close attention to a fire and a simmering pot.  And oxtail is the ideal meat for this because it can’t really be overcooked (provided the liquid is topped up) and thus drinking time is maximised.  What more could a man want?!

The stew I made on Friday was a cobbled-together recipe that is drawn half from oxtail potjie recipes, and half from oxtail stew recipes.  Sadly, my mom never wrote down her exact recipe (she probably thought it was too basic to warrant recording!), but the one thing I remember vividly from her oxtail-cooking days was the fact that we never ate the stew on the night it was cooked.  As a child, this always struck me as silly.  I mean, why spend all that time cooking something… only to put it in the fridge and then cook something else for dinner??  But Mamma would always say "yes, we could eat it right now… but just think how much better it will be tomorrow!"  I just put it down to general parental weirdness at the time, but now I see her point – you get double the simmering time if you cook it twice, meaning that the flavours really have time to develop and the cartilage dissolves into glutinous heaven.  Served on rice or mashed potatoes, you would be hard-pressed to get a richer and more decadent-tasting stew at the (very reasonable) price.

I got my meat at Borough Market, at the stall across from the greengrocers with the singing cashier – the name totally escapes me now.  Anyway, they tie up their oxtail in such cute bundles that are flat and can fit easily into freezer drawers.  Bonus.  I have never seen oxtail at a supermarket in London, so you probably woudl have to try a specialist market or your friendly local butcher.  I can’t recall the price now – maybe £5 for 8 chunks?  I remember it seemed pretty reasonable at the time, but then I bought it on the same day as an eye-wateringly expensive piece of beef fillet which would have made anything else seem cheap by comparison!  It is true, though, that you are paying for a lot of bone and not much meat, but because the meat is very fatty it is rich and goes quite far.  So without further ado, here is my recipe for twice-cooked oxtail stew, just like Mamma used to make.



1 large oxtail cut into about 9 joints (this should provide 3 substantial, 3 medium and 3 small joints)

1 large white onion, thickly sliced

60ml cooking oil

3 bay leaves

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into thick rounds

1 stick of celery, roughly chopped

3 whole cloves (or about a teaspoon of ground cloves)

juice of one lemon

a dash of Worcestershire sauce

30ml tomato paste

2 cups of beef stock or water

salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste

45ml brandy


In a large heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat about 2/3 of the the oil then brown meat quickly over high heat together with the onion.  On another plate, start warming the rest of the oil in a large stew pot.  I started with the smaller pieces of meat and transfered them to a large stew pot when they were browned.  Add the carrots, celery, bay leaves, garlic, cloves, lemon juice, tomato paste, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Add enough stock (or water) barely to cover the meat.  If you are using stock, you may want to go easy on the salt, but if you are using water the salt will be necessary.

Allow the oxtail to simmer with the lid on over low heat for about four hours.  By this time the liquid will have reduced but not by a great deal.  Remove from the heat, allow to cool, and if possible, put the whole pot in the fridge overnight.  The following day (or even the day after that), remove the pot from the fridge for about an hour to bring it towards room temperature.  Stir in the brandy and put back on the stove at low heat to bring it to the boil.  Allow to simmer for as long as you can – I gave mine another 3 and a half hours!  If desired, you can also add some potatoes about an hour before you want to serve, to make this a complete one-pot meal.  But I chose to leave out the potatoes and served mine on brown rice with steamed broccoli on the side. I also thickened the gravy slightly with thickening granules (less tricky than cornflour!), but that’s a matter of personal preference.

The taste is hard to describe.  Imagine the richest beef stew you have ever tasted, and imagine pulling chunks of meat off the bone using only your fork as it’s so tender. And then there’s the unctuousness of the gravy…  Because the ratio of fat and cartilage to meat is quite high with oxtail, there is a lot of gelatinous goodness that cooks out, making the gravy quite thick and making the meat glisten in a particularly appealing way.  Because of all this, a little goes a long way and after only three joints each, Nick and I were quite content to push our plates aside and relax on the sofa with the last of the sublime bottle of 1995 Welgemeend Douelle.

[Check Andrew’s site for the "Waiter, there’s something in my…" round-up tomorrow!  And remember, I’m hosting next month’s edition, so do check back here in the first week of Feb to see what the theme will be.]

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  1. says

    ohmyohmy. i grew up eating oxtail, but for some reason, i had some notion that it was a premium cut of meat, probably because my parents both really enjoyed it, and seemed particularly thrilled when they found it in the markets. i now almost believe it’s a premium cut as it is now quite common in the markets here, and often times the most beautiful pieces of flesh and bone in the case. i don’t buy it as much as i ought, because i lack the patience for the twice cooking it needs, and because pressure cookers scare the bejeebus out of me. but mmmmm, this recipe sounds divine. oxtail and brandy? i’ll look for a boiler suit and welder’s mask, dig up that pressure cooker for this.

  2. says

    I could swear that we must be related, Jeanne! I too used to be most disappointed to hear that we were having stew. But Mom always made stew with beef – usually chuck steak. There was only once that we had anything with oxtail in the house. Mom had inadvertantly bought Campbell’s oxtail soup instead of Campbell’s vegetable beef soup (a staple lunch item when I was growing up). We completely freaked out and all simply refused to eat the oxtail soup, being horrible picky children. I really can’t understand how it is that my mother didn’t just decide to take us back to the factory to exchange us for better children! 😉 I don’t know whatever happened to that oxtail soup. Heh. It was probably smuggled into a stew. Wouldn’t that have been divine justice? :-)
    Happily for my mother, we all eventually grew out of our pickiness…
    I’ve seen oxtails at the butcher shop. I think we might need to try your stew!

  3. says

    Mm mmmm! Something I’ve always wanted to try cooking with/ordering in a restaurant but never dared to. Now you’ve inspired me – I’m off to the butchers! Sounds delich.

  4. says

    My wonderful, old-fashioned, butcher told me that you should NEVER ask for the oxtail(s) to be “chopped up” – you should always ask for them to be “cut up”. Apparently it makes a world of difference to the flavour of the dish. Anyway – thanks for posting what is a really tasty shteww, ideal for hungry ladss after a day of negotiants trying to wangel a place on the train/coach/ ferry

  5. says

    ag nee…Nou’s ek sommer baie lus.
    Translated into damn I’m hungry now hehe.. Geesh thanks for this – now I have to think of Oxtail all day at the office, drooling by the time I get to the butcher. Then stare at a simmeing pot for 4 hours only to put it back in the fridge till the next evening when I’ll be simmering it for another 3 hours or so before chowing down like crazy.
    Thanks, thanks very much. Now I can’t wait.

  6. says

    Jeanne- I’ve seen oxtail on sale here few times – very cheap!! – and have really been wanting to cook with ‘novel’ cut of meat (well, for me at least). I need to print out your recipe a.s.a.p!

  7. says

    I do love oxtail. It always seems a touch on the expensive side given the meat:bone ratio but, like you say, if you compare it to fillet steak by weight, it is very reasonable indeed. I buy it for a treat occasionally. Next time I should really cook it twice like you did – the stew looks totally gorgeous!
    As much as I agree with the nose-to-tail movement, I just want to say to them: Shhh! Don’t tell everyone how good offal is! That way there’ll be more left for us! 😉

  8. says

    Hi Andrew
    Oh yes – you must! It’s such a great lazy stew. All you really need is the patience and self-control not to eat it on the night you made it! Now, I’ve never had oxtail soup…
    Hi Santos
    Woo hoo – pics of yuo in boiler suit doing battle with the pressure cooker please! A bit of a niche market, I know, but interesting to your fellow-food bloggers I’m sure :) I also grew up thinking oxtail was a special and expensive treat (it certainyl was priced that way in restaurants!) and was quite surprised to see it’s actually an unpopular cut.
    Hi Elizabeth
    First Beowulf, then Brive, now oxtail. Yep, I think we might have been separated at birth!! Still laughing at the idea of your mom trading in her picky kids, LOL. And yes, yes – I think it’s time to grab the ox by the tail and get cooking!
    Hi Yorkshire Deli
    Yes – be daring, be inspired! It really is a very simple stew to make – all you need is patience. And the rewards are substantial :)
    Hi Herschelian
    Who woulda thought – chopped or cut! So… one is with a knife & a sawing motion; one is with a cleaver and a hard whack?? I’ll have to ask the guys at Borough what they do! Glad you liked the recipe though :)
    Hi Aquila
    Ag, ek is jammer om jou so vroeg in die oggend honger te maak 😉 But yes – do try the recipe. It’s *well* worth the wait. Is oxtail still easy to get in SA? I don’t recall having seen it at Pick & Pay on recent trips, but I guess I wasn’t really doing much grogecy shopping!
    Hi Pille
    Oh, if you see it, just get it! This recipe is so easy and so very rewarding. It’s a lovely introduction to challenging cuts My next project is to try cooking it as above, shredding the meat off the bones and making phyllo pastry parcels full of it. Fusion food, South African style!
    Hi Ros
    I saw on your bog that you had also cooked oxtail – it seems to be a real rarity in this country! And next time, do try the twice-cooked method. It takes more than a little self-control to put that pot in the fridge, but it is oh so wonderful the next night when you just plonk it on the stove and sit back with a glass of wine while you wait :) And when you see the meat literally falling off the bones, you know it’s time to eat!

  9. says

    Ooooh! It looks just like my Gran’s oxtail stew. Ok, I have to make this. Shall I tell you something funny? Here in Holland an oxtail is an ‘ossenstaart’ which makes sense, except that in Afrikaans a ‘start’ (tail) only has one a. For the longest time after we came here I couldn’t work out why it was an ox cake (taart). Weird. I’m going to try your recipe. Oxtail is still cheap here!

  10. says

    Gosh that looks deliciously rich and warming and it sounds succulently sweet with the addition of brandy. I will definitely give it a try when our weather cools down a bit. YUM!

  11. says

    Must admit, I’ve never really looked for it at Pick ‘n Pay, but I think I may have noticed it at Spar (along with the kangaroo tail) – Steve’s Spar was going through a phase I think.
    Anyhow, my butcher has them all the time – so it seems relatively easy for me to get hold of some.

  12. says

    That looks fabulously delicious Jeanne! This means I’ve got another recipe for oxtails which I only know how to cook one way. I oftentimes see oxtails on sale in Morrison’s and sometimes in Tesco.

  13. says

    Wow! Seven and half hours cooking time! And there I thought I was setting records with my three and a half hour version. Have you experimented with a pressure cooker yet?

  14. Shane says

    Your oxtail looks great!! I live in the Okavango delta in Botswana. My recipe ingredients are very similar to yours but cooking a bit different. Mine is cooked on the fire starting in the morning in big round flat based cast iron pot. No spices to start. Brown meat, then add water, boil away for most of the day. Lot of time to spend with friends and a couple of beers. When the bones turn white, we allow the water to cook off. By this time there is enough fat to pot braai the meat which we do until there is a bit of caramelizing (not burning) going on on the bottom of the pot. Then all spices mixed with water and added for a further cooking of about one to two hours. Actually the fire is left to die down and the pot left to rest. Later fire is stoked up and the pot is heated up and ready for supper. I have cooked this in a pressure cooker but nothing can compare to the flavor of the hunting pot and the fire flavor. Still a winter favorite!! But oxtail has become almost as expensive as fillet in Botswana. You can get it for around five to seven USDollars/kg (I know, don’t laugh, it is expensive for us in Botswana)ps. we had a Swedish student visiting and she arrived in Africa as a vegetarian, I have photos of her stuffing a hugh chunk of oxtail into her mouth and the juices streaming down her face. Having seen the pot bubbling away and the aroma drifting through the bush air she could not resist. She is no longer a vegetarian..

  15. Shane says

    Sorry, to add to my previous comment, the reason for the no ingredients policy at the beginning of the cooking process. Is because it tends to burn very easily and starts to make gravy before the meat is ready.

  16. John Moatshe says

    I tried Shane’s recipe for my friends over the weekend and it was the highlight of the the evening ,it woks just as well ,