Undoubtedly one of the most interesting cuts of beef, ox cheek (also known as beef cheek) has witnessed a rise in popularity during recent years, and for good reason. But while they’re slowly becoming available in some supermarkets, ox cheeks are still criminally under-appreciated. They’re also remarkably economical, although considered a specialty cut due to the fact they’re less readily available than desired, and each animal has only two cheeks. Most good butchers will sell ox cheeks, however; and if they’re not stocked, they can be ordered in with some notice.
Prized for their rich flavour profile with greater depth than most cuts of beef, a perfect ox cheek recipe requires the meat to be slow-cooked, ideally featuring exposure to both high and low heat. Given cows typically spend almost eight hours chewing food each day (upwards of 40,000 jaw movements), the cheek muscles are particularly strong, which makes the cheeks tougher than most cuts in their raw state. But providing the excess sinew is trimmed (your butcher should do this for you), all of that collagen breaks down while cooking and becomes slightly gelatinous, while the increased blood flow to the muscles also contributes to the exceptional flavour unmatched by premium cuts. A reward for taking the time to slow-cook the ox cheeks.
This ox cheek recipe cooks the meat for around three hours. After heavily searing, to achieve a deep, golden-brown crust (treating the meat like steak), they’re finished in the oven with stout and chicken stock, which prevents the cooking liquor from becoming overly rich after the braise, juxtaposed to beef stock. Once cooled down in the liquid, which is then quickly reduced over the hob, the braised ox cheeks make a perfect pie filling, but are also enjoyable as they are, with mashed potato; or in pasta dishes. Ox cheek is also a suitable, inexpensive alternative to short rib.
Layered with caramelised onions and carrots cooked with star anise, this ox cheek pie recipe is topped with a croissant pastry lid, inspired by a pie recently made available by chef Robin Gill, but puff pastry or shortcrust pastry can also be used as a suitable alternative. Moreover, the leftover cheek is ideal as the base for a hash, mixed with fried potatoes and onions, plus a splash of stout.
- Heavy-based saucepan (ideally oven-proof)
- Cartouche (a greaseproof paper lid for your pan, which should touch the top of the liquid)
- Pastry brush
- 1.2-1.5 kg ox cheek trimmed of excess sinew and silver skin
- 1 onion
- 1 leek
- 1 carrot
- 1 stick celery
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- Thyme a small bunch
- 1 heaped tsp peppercorns
- 400-500 ml stout or porter
- 1.5 l chicken stock
- Vegetable oil or other neutral cooking oil
- Pastry to top the pie (I prefer puff or even croissant pastry, but shortcrust is fine)
- 1 egg to egg-wash the pastry (alternatively use a splash of milk)
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the caramelised onions
- 2-3 large onions
- 50 g butter
For the carrots
- 4 carrots
- 3 star anise
- Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
- To begin, cut the ox cheeks into four pieces and season with salt.
- Add a splash off vegetable oil to a heavy-based (ideally oven-proof) saucepan, casserole, or Dutch oven, and heavily sear the ox cheek in batches, so to avoid overcrowding the pan. Set aside, with their cooking juices.
- Once the ox cheek is seared, add the onion, carrot, leek and celery to the empty pan. Sauté for a few minutes over a medium-high heat, until the vegetables begin to colour, being careful to avoid burning the onions.
- Add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns, and continue to cook for another minute. Add the stout or porter to the pan and increase the heat. Cook until the beer has reduced by at least half.
- At this point, add the ox cheek and their accumulated juices back to the pan, followed by the chicken stock. Stir to combine and bring to a rolling boil, cover with the cartouche (but not a lid), and cook in the oven for 3 hours, or until tender.
- While the ox cheek is cooking, thinly slice the remaining onions and add to a pan with approx. 50g butter and cook over a low heat until golden. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Once cooked, remove from the pan and set aside. (You can add a tablespoon of sugar at this point, to speed up the process, but it will slightly impact the overall quality and taste of the caramelised onions).
- Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the carrots. Add to a pan with a dash of cooking oil and three star anise. Slowly cook until soft and the edges begin to colour. Once cooked, remove from the pan and set aside.
- Once the ox cheeks have cooked, allow to cool in the cooking liquid for around 20 minutes. Strain the cooking liquor into a clean saucepan and cook over high heat to reduce to an ideal gravy thickness, skimming any impurities that rise to the top.
- Once cool enough to handle, shred the ox cheek, discarding the vegetables.
- Fill a pie dish or cast iron skillet with a layer of caramelised onions, topped by the carrots, then the ox cheek. Once thickened, pour some gravy over the pie filling, reserving some for serving. Season with salt and pepper.
- Drape the pastry over the top of the pie, allowing it to overhang the pie dish by approx. 1cm. Alternatively, layer thin strips of pastry (see photograph). Tuck this excess pastry between the dish and filling, to compensate for shrinkage while cooking. Brush with a beaten egg or a splash of milk and bake in the oven at 190C/gas mark 5 for 15 minutes, or until golden.
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