Where's the Beef?

Turkey Necks: the New Oxtails

This inexpensive cut of meat has flavor to spare.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 3, 2014

My grandmother, whose own mother was an expert chicken-killer, has never understood why chicken breasts caught on. It was the chicken thighs she prized most from the chickens Nana would slaughter for supper on their small East Texas homestead; the thighs with dark, rich flesh and moist fat surrounding the meat. "I don't understand why anyone would want to eat the driest, blandest part of a chicken," she'll often say, staring dissolutely at the aisles of flash-frozen, abnormally enlarged chicken breasts lining the shelves at the Tom Thumb where she now shops in Dallas.

She passed her love of chicken thighs on to both my mother and me, where we favor the thighs not only for their flavor but their inexpensive price per pound. They make the best chicken stocks and soups, the best grilled chicken, the best sautéed chicken for a simple dinner with cornbread and vegetables cooked down with either butter and molasses or a little ham hock.

As with chicken thighs, oxtails have long been prized for their flavor and fair price. Unlike chicken thighs, however, oxtails have to be braised for a long time in order for the knobbly bits of cartilage and connective tissue to break down and form a silky smooth gelatin that coats the dark, fatty meat. (This is the same reason oxtails make an excellent pho base.) And unlike chicken thighs, oxtails have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years as the cut of meat which was once found in abundance on steam tables at soul food restaurants or in Jamaican, Korean, and Spanish dives has found its way onto high-end menus.

Tomato braised oxtail on quinoa and arugula cake at Toronto Taste 2012.

Image: Renee Suen

Here in Houston, you'll find oxtail tacos at Pistolero's in Montrose or oxtail-topped Korean rice cakes at Nara in River Oaks; you'll find it in specials at The Hay Merchant or Eatsie Boys; you'll find it in ramen at Kata Robata. In New York, you'll find a dish of bone marrow (another previously marginalized meat product) and oxtail marmalade at Blue Ribbon Brasserie in Soho and in an oxtail terrine at Salt & Fat in Queens. Look for oxtail sliders at Contigo in San Francisco, or oxtail ravioli at Longman & Eagle in Chicago.

I have my own theories about why oxtail has become the new hot thing; they involve lots of obnoxious white liberal terms such as "cultural appropriation" and "identity work" as we bougie foodies look for the next unusual, "ethnic" foodstuff to incorporate into modern American cuisine to prove how accepting and enlightened we are as a society. Or, as Samantha Kwan put it back in 2003, "food consumption provides individuals a means for the conscious manipulation and display of self." And if you want to get down to brass tacks, oxtails are still fairly cheap as compared to other cuts of beef—this makes for a great profit margin per fancy oxtail dish.

That said, the retail price of oxtails is on the rise: at Central Market, you'll now pay $4.99 a pound for what was once considered "peasant food." They're more expensive still at B&W Meat Market, where the oxtails are $5.99 a pound—or $59 for a case. I can remember paying roughly $2 a pound for oxtails 10 years ago; then again, Houston has always been a haven of cheap meat.

You can buy a whole turkey neck, as seen here, or have your butcher cut it into oxtail-sized portions (recommended).

But while oxtails enjoy their star turn—and a well-deserved one at that—I have a suggestion for another equally deserving cut to take its place as an inexpensive, delicious braising meat. An oxtail understudy, as it were: turkey necks. They're already on their way up, too, being proclaimed both "nasty" and "dirty" in a loving context by Serious Eats just five years ago; any good Bourdain-abiding foodie loves the nasty bits.

You won't find them on most menus—high-end or otherwise—and you won't find them in most grocery stores, but turkey necks add an intensely rich flavor to gumbos, stews, soups, and even just a simple pot of beans. And like chicken thights, these birds are cheap: only $1.19 a pound at B&W. Pay a bit more and you can get them smoked at Fiesta, adding an additional depth of flavor to whatever you're cooking.

The downside, of course, is that you'll need to pick around the tiny bones when your turkey necks are finished cooking down. But oh what a trade-off for that velvety turkey gravy over buttered rice—especially on a cold, dreary day like today. And of course, you'll risk the raised eyebrows of friends (and neighbors, like mine) when you try to serve them turkey neck stew. Just tell them: "You're on the cutting edge, darlings. One day they'll be serving turkey necks at Eleven Madison, and you'll be able to say...'I remember when turkey necks were cheap!'" That kind of gloating is priceless, after all.


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