If you’ve seen recipes for oxtail or ox tongue, you may be wondering why you don’t find ox steak or ox ribs. You find all kinds of cuts of beef in a store, but never a beef tail. Are ox and beef from the same animal? What’s the difference between ox and beef?
Ox and beef both refer to meat from cattle. The different names come from farming history, where castrated bulls became docile working animals called oxen. Today, beef, including oxtail, comes from male and female cattle and tastes similar whatever the source. Oxtail is simply a historical name.
Fans of beef may be nervous about trying something labeled “oxtail.” Don’t panic. You’re buying meat from the same animal as your steak. And don’t let the word “tail” put you off – you’re missing out on a luscious cut of beef that makes wonderfully warming winter dishes. Let’s look at why some meat is called beef and some ox.
The Difference Between Cattle, Oxen, Bulls, And Cows
The word “cattle” refers to domestic bovines kept for meat, milk, and leather. Female cattle are called “heifers” until they have a calf, after which they are called “cows.” We call males cattle “bulls.”
Historically, cattle were also used as beasts of burden because they are strong and steady. They pulled carts and wagons or led plows. Both male and female cattle worked on farms. However, bulls can be aggressive, and farmers realized that castrating them as young calves made them more docile and suitable for farm work. These castrated or neutered bulls were called oxen.
At this time, farmers slaughtered cattle that could no longer work or produce milk, including cows and oxen. So the meat could be called beef or ox, depending on if it came from a cow or bull versus an old, worn-out ox. Initially, ox meat was for the poor because it was often tough and stringy, so butchers would distinguish between beef and ox.
However, farmers realized that the meat from young oxen had a better flavor than the meat from bulls. This discovery has led to the standard farming practice of castrating young bulls intended for the beef industry, even though they are no longer used for farm labor. While these young bulls could be called oxen, they are called steers in the US beef industry. Most commercially farmed beef comes from steers.
As farming mechanized, draft animals like oxen and horses were phased out. You will no longer find many oxen in the United States, and their meat is not available in butcheries. However, farmers still use oxen in Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia.
The only traces of oxen left in the American beef industry are the terms “oxtail” and “ox tongue,” which now come from any beef cattle.
Is Beef Cow Or Ox Meat?
The label “beef” simply means that the meat is from cattle. The beef you buy in stores could come from female cattle (cows) or castrated male cattle (steers or oxen).
Today, meat labeled “ox” or “beef” comes from the same animal, male or female, castrated or not. The words “oxtail” and “ox tongue” have become familiar names for specific beef cuts, so butchers keep the name, even though the meat doesn’t come from an ox.
“Veal” is the meat of calves – baby cattle between six and eight months old – and is pale pink rather than red. “Rose veal” is the meat of calves between eight months and a year. The flesh of cattle over a year old is red and referred to as beef.
Does Ox Taste Like Beef?
Because technically an ox is simply a castrated bull, its meat will taste like any other beef. These days, meat labeled as ox is often the same meat as beef, so could be male or female.
The flavor of beef largely depends on the animal’s age, the tenderness of the meat, and the amount of marbling or fat, less on whether it is from an ox, steer, or heifer.
Generally, older animals have tougher, drier meat than young animals, whether cows, bulls, or oxen. However, their flesh has had more time to develop flavor, especially if they’ve been grass-fed. Meat from older animals also develops flavor as it ages after being butchered.
Today we commonly eat younger animals because their meat is tender, but the steers and heifers have not had time to develop much muscle, so their grain-fed beef sometimes lacks flavor.
Cows have more fat than bulls, so their meat is juicier, moister, and more tender than meat from male cattle. Because steers or oxen have lower testosterone levels than bulls because of their castration, they often have more fat, making their meat juicy and moist like that of cows.
Meat from an adult bull is leaner and more muscular, and some people find it tastes unpleasant. However, the average beef consumer would not be able to tell whether the meat they’re eating comes from a male or female.
On that note, check out my post on cooking a restaurant-quality steak at home.
What Meat Do You Eat From An Ox?
You eat the same parts of an ox or steer as you would any cattle: rump, sirloin, chuck, rib, loin, shank, etc. You can also eat the offal or organ meat, such as the tongue, heart, brain, stomach (tripe), liver, and kidneys. Oxtail is categorized as offal.
Oxtail or ox tongue could come from a cow, bull, or steer, not necessarily an ox. A few cuts of beef retain their historical names for commercial purposes, not to identify the source of the meat: you’ll find oxtail, ox tongue, ox heart, and ox cheek.
Just as the tongue and heart refer to the animal’s organs, the oxtail refers to the actual tail. Eating the offal dates back to when all parts of an animal were used – similar to the “nose to tail” movement in cuisine today.
What Does Oxtail Taste Like?
Braised oxtail, oxtail soup, or oxtail stew has a delicious flavor and silky texture from the gelatin that cooks out of the bone and cartilage. The flavor is rich, and the meat becomes succulent and falls off the bone. Beef lovers compare the taste of oxtail to beef shank or rib.
If you cook oxtail long and slow, you will enjoy the sweetest, most tender beef you can find. This exquisite flavor is why oxtail is no longer regarded as cheap meat. Today you may have to order oxtail and pay a hefty premium.
It may look a little unappealing when you buy oxtail, with lots of bone, connective tissue, cartilage, and proportionately little meat. The meat you buy will not be a long tail shape – oxtail gets butchered into crosscut sections, but you will see from the sizes of the pieces where in the tail they came from.
Depending on the size, sometimes you will need one oxtail for every two people eating. Trim the fat before cooking and brown the oxtail before adding the rest of the ingredients.
Cooking oxtail in a slow cooker, crockpot, pressure cooker, or low oven will yield the best results, giving the meat time to soak up flavor and become moist and tender. Oxtail is best cooked the day before serving so that you can refrigerate it overnight. The fat solidifies on the surface for easy removal.
You’ll find recipes for this delicious comfort food in the cuisines of many countries, including Asian, African, Jamaican, Spanish, British, Italian, and Russian traditions.
Although beef and ox were historically different, today, beef comes from male and female animals. Oxen are no longer found on farms, so any meat labeled “ox” is beef – “oxtail” has become the name for a beef tail.