Tongue tied

How to cook a cow tongue

October 24, 2009

So last summer, my husband and I bought a quarter of a cow. Hung, butchered, wrapped, and frozen, it filled our entire chest freezer. Most of it wound up as ground beef, but a few less-than-choice cuts come with the territory. Thus far, we’ve tackled beef liver and beef tongue.

The liver was, to put it succinctly, a bust. We soaked it in milk for a few days, on the theory that this would dull some of the, well, livery taste. (It’s a good theory, since, as Matthew Amster-Burton explained in his column on milkshakes, the fat in dairy can flatten out sharper flavors.) Then we pan-fried it, ate a few bites, looked at each other, and gave the rest to the cat.

It was just too strong a taste for us. And, heck, we like liver, at least the kind that comes in poultry; we’re happy to pan-fry that stuff and spread it on bread any day. But this? This was overwhelming.

At least, until I unwrapped the beef tongue. Holy cow. Holy cow.

raw beef tongue
One raw beef tongue, ready for braising.

This was, recognizably, a tongue. An enormous tongue — from a 1,000-pound steer, remember? A black tongue, covered in bristly-looking taste buds.

I was, momentarily, horrified. I mean, I was perfectly willing to butcher and grill three of my chickens, but those were birds. Not mammals. For an instant, I fully understood vegetarianism, on that visceral level where disgust and revulsion congregate.

But we had friends coming over for dinner the next night, friends who had also bought a quarter-cow with us and had expressed a willingness to try the tongue. And I had come up with an ambitious plan for cooking it: braising it and saucing it the way we’d had something sort of similar — beef cheeks — at a popular Walla Walla restaurant, Saffron. (Thanks to local food-and-wine magazine Northwest Palate, we also had the recipes for both beef and sauce.)

So I dropped the tongue — thunk — into a Dutch oven and began braising it in red wine. It simmered for a few hours, and then I let it cool. It was still black, and quite firm. I poked it with a finger, watching the rubbery surface bounce back. Jesus. What was I supposed to do next?

“Call Anya,” my husband said. “She’ll know what to do.”

It was 8:30 on a Friday night, but why not? Anya Fernald — the former director of Slow Food Nation and the current force behind Live Culture — knows meat. She’d already suggested asking our cow’s butcher for eye of round, so we could cure our own bresaola in a wine fridge. (Alas, our butcher’s skills were limited to only a few basic cuts, and eye of round wasn’t one of them.) She would definitely know what to do.

Fortunately, she was home. “OK, first you take off the taste buds. Then cut off the cartilage at the back. Then slice it really thin,” she said. “Do you have a meat slicer? No? Well, take it to your local butcher shop and have them cut it for you. Buy a sausage or something, then hold up your tongue and say, ‘By the way, would you cut this for me?’ Once you’ve got it sliced, fan it out and pour a sauce over it, like a tonnato sauce or a salsa verde. Salt. You’ll need salt. And that’s it.”

Excellent. I took a knife to the taste buds and lo, they peeled away like, well, leather. The next night, my husband tackled the cartilage and the thin-slicing while I reheated my version of Saffron’s sweet-and-sour eggplant sauce.

Our friends arrived. If the tongue was truly terrible, I thought, we could always ditch it and boil water for pasta, using the eggplant as a pasta sauce. But it wasn’t. It was good. Soft, pleasantly chewy, and good. Our pals even took some home with them as leftovers.

Will I tackle a beef tongue again? Probably not; I like lengua tacos, but not enough to devote an entire day’s worth of braising and chopping and saucing to them. Still, it’s good to know that nose-to-tail cooking at home can be successful.

Related recipe: Eggplant Agrodolce

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by the weekly veggie on Oct 26, 2009 at 7:08 AM PDT

Wow, way to go! I admire your willingness to give it a try.

2. by Kim on Oct 26, 2009 at 6:11 PM PDT

Very brave. Of course, it helps to have friends-in-the-know. I’ll ask for Anya’s number the next time I’m faced with a meaty conundrum.

3. by Talley on Oct 28, 2009 at 11:37 AM PDT

I recently had a similar experience tackling cow kidneys and tongue! I agree: once you get over the mental hurdle, tongue can be really good! it sure does look weird though... those spikes!

we used our leftovers to make tongue sliders that we liked even more than the main dish.

4. by Leslie Hubbard on Oct 28, 2009 at 11:47 AM PDT

Oh, awesome. I’ve got a portion of a grass-fed beevie coming soon and I ASKED for the tongue ... having absolutely no idea how to cook it. LOL But I do love an adventure. This info will be a lifesaver, no doubt.

5. by anne reade on Oct 28, 2009 at 11:58 AM PDT

Tongue had always been a favorite in my home but it has gotten quite expensive and hard to find. It can be boiled, then sliced and served with mustard. When cold and on rye bread, with mustard of course, it makes wonderful sandwiches. Small caves tongues are absolutely delicious when cooked in sweet and sour sauce with raisins but they are almost impossible to find. Think I will contact the meat department at COSCO and see if they can find a nice tongue for me. Wonder if my grandchildren would try it?

6. by judestera on Oct 28, 2009 at 12:01 PM PDT

I remember my mother cooking tongue a long time ago and vaguely recall her boiling it and then slicing it thinly and we had it on sandwiches. I liked it then and recently was thinking about trying to make it myself so now maybe I will.

7. by Ursula on Oct 28, 2009 at 12:59 PM PDT

I love love beef tongue, we grew up eating all sorts of offal. When I visit home this is the dish I request my mum makes.

8. by Richard Yarnell on Oct 28, 2009 at 3:24 PM PDT

I’m surprised at both of you: publishing negative comments about two or three perfectly useful and tasty parts of a beef, none of which should be allowed to go to waste.

1) In my grandfather’s day, they used to give beef liver away: they don’t do that anymore.

2) Almost everyone overcooks liver of all kinds. Sliced thick or thin, it should be very pink in the middle, otherwise the texture becomes granular. Milk is not necessary. If you find mature beef liver too strong, slice some onions and cook them together - actually, start the onions first so you caramelize them but don’t overcook the liver. The sweet onions will offset that strong taste.

3) Kidney’s do take some extra prep: as a kid, when we entertained a lot in a town that had no caterers, my job when we served beef and kidney pie, was to clean the kidneys. Read first and decide whether you want to tackle the project - in my opinion, it’s worth the trouble.

4) Again, you shouldn’t publish what you botch unless you fess up. Basic tongue is simple, tasty, and a tradition in many cultures. Here’s one EASY way: Wash the tongue. In a deep vessel, cover it with water adding a little sugar, cider vinegar, bay leaf, whole mustard, and garlic. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the tongue is cooked through. Remove from the water and let it cool enough to handle. The skin will peel off easily. If the tongue is cooked, you won’t need a knife. Slice thinly if you’re going to make sandwiches (you really don’t need a butcher for this, just a well sharpened blade) or thicker if you’re going to plate it.

You can strain the cooking liquid, reduce it, and make a gravy, adding vinegar to taste. Or you can stew some stone fruit (plums, apricots, etc) and top the meat with those. Total prep time should not exceed 15 minutes and cooking time will depend on the size of the tongue but not exceed 90 minutes.

Now, try again, both the liver and the tongue, and then print a retraction - these morsels are by no means waste meat.

Richard Yarnell
Beavercreek, OR

9. by Caroline Cummins on Oct 29, 2009 at 4:50 PM PDT

Richard --

The suggestion to soak the liver in milk came from several different cookbooks; it seems to be a common practice. And yes, we served the liver with caramelized onions, and only pan-seared it. It was still disgusting.

The tongue wasn’t botched; as I mentioned, we quite liked it.

Finally, I’m not sure why you mentioned kidneys, since we haven’t tackled those yet.

Enjoy your offal!

10. by caleb bo baleb on Oct 29, 2009 at 4:52 PM PDT

Richard, I’d love to see a demonstration of the proper cooking techniques for liver. I did just what you described, except apparantly I didn’t know when to stop. We have another package, but with so much cow and so little time, it will be a while before we get to it. Thanks for emboldening us.

Your fourth point makes no sense; everyone agreed the tongue was delicious. It was the transformation of the animal into meat (the part of the process that consumers generally ingore) that was overwhelming.

11. by Susan@MyLifesJoys on Oct 31, 2009 at 11:41 AM PDT

Way to go Richard- beef tongue is awesome and thats how my Dad always prepared it. Boiled then peeled -I must try it one day soon myself.

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