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Cooking Techniques

How To Prepare and Cook Ox / Beef Tongue (Lengua)



What’s the difference between ox tongue, beef tongue and lengua?… There is no difference. What is commercially sold as beef tongue or ox tongue come from the cow. Lengua is the Spanish word for tongue.

Beef tongue

But why does it say ox tongue in some recipes and beef tongue in others?

The difference between ox and beef tongue

First, let’s go into the distinction between an ox and a bull. It appears that in farming, there is a practice that animals not intended for breeding are castrated, especially when the animals are meant to do work like plowing or cart-pulling. Castration gets rid of aggressive and territorial behavior, and it makes farm animals easier to work with.

Ox is a term often used to refer to cattle (male, usually) that has been castrated. Male cattle that has not been castrated is a bull. Whether castrated or not, meat from cattle (the layman term is cow although some insist that “cow” only refers to female cattle) is called beef.

Beef Tongue (Lengua) With Gravy
Beef Tongue (Lengua) With Gravy

In today’s commercial meat production, we know that the tongue we find in the market or grocery, whether labeled as ox tongue or beef tongue, most likely came from an animal that was raised in a farm and intended for slaughter for human consumption. Ergo, the label “beef tongue” is probably more appropriate.

So why not just label them all as beef tongue? The usage of “ox” to label meat is likely a carry over from medieval days when all cattle were both farm workers and source of food. At the time, every male cattle was an ox.

If all that sound far too academic with no practical application for the everyday cook, just remember — when you buy tongue that comes from an animal whose meat is called beef, then, it can either be called ox tongue or beef tongue.

How to prepare ox / beef tongue for cooking

Beef tongue is delicious. But not everyone eats it. It is categorized as an offal and, in cultures where offal is considered “exotic”, a lot of people shirk at the thought of eating an animal’s tongue. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Lengua al ajillo
Lengua al ajillo

When cooked properly, beef tongue is very tender. A good cook can bring the level of tenderness to “melt in the mouth”. How is that done? Let’s start with preparing the tongue for cooking. The procedure may vary depending on where you bought the tongue.

If you buy from the market, the tongue often comes with extras that you will need to discard — often, a lot of fat and the esophagus with all the cartilage. Sucks, really, because the price is based on weight and the weight includes all the things you have to get rid of anyway. If you can cajole the butcher, tell him to get rid of all the extras. He’ll likely do it — but only after the meat has been weighed and the price determined. At least, you’ll have less work to do once you have the tongue in your kitchen.

If you buy tongue from the grocery, you will most likely get a fully “dressed” tongue — nothing to trim prior to cooking.

The following procedure is for a fully “dressed” tongue

When you unpack the tongue, it will feel slimy in your hands. Rinse, scrape the surface with a knife and rinse again. Place in a pot of water, add a few tablespoonfuls of vinegar and “wash” the tongue in the solution. Alternatively, rub the surface with rock salt. At this point, you can cook the tongue. But if you’re still uncomfortable, drop into a pot of boiling water, cook for about ten minutes then drain and rinse. Discard the water.

Place the tongue back into the pot. Cover with water. Add all the aromatics you want — garlic, peppercorns, onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves, bouquet garni AND salt — bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer until tender.

Depending on how old the animal is, this can take anywhere from three to four hours, or longer. You can use the pressure cooker or the slow cooker. All will work. But the cooking time will always vary depending on the age of the animal. Just remember — tongue cooks longer than regular stewing beef.

How To Prepare and Cook Ox / Beef Tongue (Lengua)

Drain the tongue and cool. If the tongue has been sufficiently cooked, you can peel off the skin easily. If the skin is still stubbornly attached to the meat, the tongue is most likely still tough and will require longer cooking.

How to cut the tongue? You can slice it, you can dice it, you can cube it. But you have to chill it first. If the skin came off easily, that means the tongue is very, very tender and cutting it while still warm, or even at room temperature, will make the meat fall apart. So, wrap it in cling film or place in a covered container and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours or until firm.

As a side note, Alton Brown has a scientific explanation as to why it is easier to cut very tender meat after chilling. I don’t remember it very well but, from my perspective, it is about the fat. Fat is soft at room temperature, fat melts when heated and fat hardens when chilled. Beef tongue is high in fat. When all that fat integrated in the meat hardens in the fridge, then, the meat is easier to cut.

After cutting the tongue into the desired shape and size, it is ready for the final stage of cooking. Pour sauce or gravy over it, use it as pie filling, make kebobs… By the way, all the photos above are clickable and they link to the pages where the corresponding recipes are located. There are more ox / beef tongue recipes in the archive; just use the search bar to find them.

Ox / beef tongue recipes