Nothing can be more comforting and wholesome than a bowl of oxtail stew. But if you’ve ordered this dish in a restaurant, you may have noticed it can carry a pretty hefty price tag, similar to that of much fancier meals. So why are dishes with oxtail so expensive?
Why has oxtail become so expensive? Oxtail can be pricey due to three factors: availability, demand, and preparation. Because it’s only a small portion of the cow and has become a widely-loved dish requiring a great deal of cooking time, the price of oxtail has sky-rocketed over the years.
Not Actually from an Ox
Though it’s now cut from beef or veal, oxtail gets its name from its original source: the tail of an ox. Oxen are large-horned, domesticated members of the bovine family that are traditionally used for farming or transportation.
There is very little actual meat on the cut, as it’s carved at the base of the spine. Typically oxtails are 1lbs-1.5lbs. You can buy oxtail in smaller, jointed segments or whole if you require more meat.
An International Delicacy
In the US, oxtail had previously been considered by some as offal (animal flesh that’s considered less desirable, such as sweetmeats and other organs).
But in places like Jamaica, Korea, Indonesia, China, and Italy, oxtail has long been a traditional part of their cuisine, and even a luxury. When people from these regions moved to the US, they brought their amazing recipes with them.
Once an import, oxtail has now been adopted by American chefs and home cooks alike.
What Makes Oxtail Special
The most expensive cuts of meat are the primal cuts, the parts of the animal that are first to be butchered from the carcass. From primal rib and loin come the priciest secondary cuts: fillet tip, and rib-eye steaks, for example.
But what makes these cuts so expensive is mostly absent from oxtail. Oxtail is coveted not for its combination of muscle with some lean fat (found in things like tenderloin cuts) but for its combination of collagen-rich meat, coupled with bone, and fat.
When oxtail is prepared correctly, the collagen in the meat breaks down and comes together with the marrow and flavors in the bone to create indescribably tender meat with a richness and depth of flavor not easily found.
Reasons Behind the Expensive Price Tag for Oxtail
There are three main reasons behind the price of oxtail, which can range anywhere from $5 to $10 a pound, depending on where you live. They also aren’t typically available in bulk amounts.
The small amount of available meat, the patience required to prepare it well, and the rising demand are all behind the cost hike of this amazing offcut.
It may seem obvious, but there just isn’t a lot of tail. The tail accounts for less than 1% of the meat from a cow and usually isn’t any bigger than 6-7lbs before being butchered for sale. This means that there just isn’t that much to go around to begin with, and due to rising popularity, it’s becoming rarer.
Though it started as a niche offcut used primarily in multi-national communities, demand has taken off in a big way since being discovered by American chefs.
This is not the first time this has happened: lobster and caviar used to be cheap staples, but sky-rocketed in price since being incorporated into fine-dining.
Another reason demand has increased is due to concentrated efforts to keep any part of the cow out of landfills.
Snout-to-tail eating adopts the philosophy—long held by many indigenous cultures—that you should use every part of the animal in cooking. Not only does it reduce waste, but it’s also been lauded as a healthier, more ethical way of enjoying meat.
In order to truly get the best out of oxtail, you need to take your time cooking. Though not necessarily difficult, most recipes for dishes like oxtail stew or ragu can take anywhere from 2-5hrs to complete.
Because oxtails are so rich in collagen, they require a great deal of heat and moisture to properly break it down into gelatin. Once it has, it mingles with the fat and marrow, resulting in sumptuously tender meat.
It’s not something you can grill or fry, so most quick recipes for oxtail are off the table, which explains the cost of oxtails when you’re eating out.
For home cooks, you can cut down on that time with a pressure cooker or instant pot, but traditional methods give you the most taste.
Q. Where are the Best Places to Buy Oxtail?
A. One of the benefits of oxtail becoming more popular is that it’s now stocked in a lot more places than before. Once only found in Asian shops or at niche butchers, you can get oxtails from pretty much any butcher’s shop or the meat counter at your local grocery store.
Just like other cuts of meat, not all oxtails are created equal. Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher about what their oxtail is, and if there are organic, grass-fed options.
Q. How Can You Get the Most Out of a Small Cut of Oxtail?
A. If you can only get your hands on a couple of pounds of oxtail and don’t have the makings of a large braised meat dish, oxtail is the perfect thing to create an incredible no-leftovers-because-we-ate-it-all stew or soup.
Stews and soups let you get the wonderful flavor out of oxtails, without it being the main element of the dish. Pho is the perfect option, as a great bowl needs a great broth to bring out all the elements.
Q. Are there Similar, Less Expensive Cuts of Meat You Can Experiment with Before Buying Oxtail?
A. Depending on what kind of meal you’re preparing, absolutely! Though they won’t necessarily give you the same richness and complexity, a meaty cut of veal, beef neck, short rib, or soup bones with fat and meat left on them are all great stand-ins until you’re ready for the main show.
Given the cost, you might be wondering if oxtail is worth it. The short answer is that it depends on you!
It can be daunting to prepare a new dish with a new ingredient. But if you want to expand your repertoire or explore other cultures via your taste buds, you can’t go wrong with oxtails. In pasta, ragus, soups, or braised, oxtail can add amazing flavor and complexity to your dish.