Ox Tongue, Simply

It was while my little daughter was sliding her umpteenth slice of ox tongue down her tiny throat, like sardines into a pelican’s gob, that I started to wonder what it is in the pickle that helps preserve the tongues, and then makes them go pink when you cook them.

Would she turn pinker if she kept up the intake? What else might be hidden in these gross appendages?

I asked about this at a couple of butcher’s shops, and the reply was they used a pre-prepared pickling mix to pickle the tongues. It was also surprising to hear that the market for ox tongues was dwindling. Only old-time Australians, it seems, enjoy tongue any more. I rang the supplier and was told there was nothing to fear from the pickle. There was no saltpetre (potassium nitrate, one of the components of gunpowder), no sodium nitrate, and only a tiny (acceptable) amount of sodium nitrite, a simple salt which has been linked here and there to the development of carcinogens.

What you get in ox tongue is pretty much the same as you get in ham and bacon and salami and all those things we eat so much of we don’t even think about what is used to cure them. I suppose we look at tongue with such distaste because of where it comes from, what it does when it’s still at work, what it looks like, and how it feels.

It was suggested that children should probably eat fewer cured products than adults do, because of their smaller body mass. But maybe that rule applies more to ham than to tongue. Even I, who love tongue dearly, would serve it but a few times a year. So I think the little ones will survive on the salt, sodium nitrite (125 parts per million), spices and sodium erythorbate. (This is an extract of ascorbic acid or vitamin C, which is used to stop the meat from discolouring. It is the ingredient which stops hams going grey once they have been cut.)

So slip a tongue into your menus. There is no better way to enjoy it than sliced and sluiced with an intense beef stock, mashed potatoes on side; tongue and salad is a wonderful mix, much better than ham; and of course, why not warm, just from the pot, sliced, daubed with hot mustard and stuck between slices of crusty bread?

There is nothing to the cooking. Buy the tongue from a butcher you know and trust: there is nothing worse than buying a licker and discovering that it hasn’t been pickled correctly, and there are rivers of grey and pink running through it when it is cooked.


Toss the tongue into a large pot of water and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. The tongue will take at least 2 hours to cook, and that’s that. All that has to be done during all this is to change the water in the pot once or twice to reduce any extra salt content. Remove any scum which could come to the surface.


After 90 minutes, and after the water has been changed, throw in some old-fashioned vegies — potatoes, carrots, parsnips, leeks, turnips — and herbs. The tongue is done when the tip gives to a gentle squeeze.


If you are going to use it straight away, peel away the tough, hairy section — it comes off like the peel of a mandarin — and you will be left with a luscious, tender, subtly flavoured pink mass of loveliness.


Tongue keeps wonderfully well, and is just as good re-heated gently the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. It is far better hot, than it is cold.

How to use it:

  • Serve with beef stock, mashed potatoes, and shelled peas tossed with finely chopped bacon in a gentle vinaigrette.
  • Make a dressing of hot mustard, a little mild vinegar, a lot of full-flavoured olive oil, salt, black pepper, a sharp cheese and fresh herbs, especially parsley, and toss the warm tongue through the dressing. Serve the sliced warm tongue on top of the best mix of greens you can find, tossed with a walnut dressing, some cubes of a sharp cheese, and half a dozen chopped walnuts. It might sound a little strange, but I ran into a salad like this in a tiny hotel called Ma Clocher, in a tiny non-designer ski resort in France, le Mont Dore. This salad was based on cubes of delicious ham, but warm tongue is better.
  • Cover one slice of thick, crusty white bread with rich butter and the other slice with a thin layer of hot English mustard. Slap a slice of warm tongue in the middle. Munch away.

WINE: Depending what accompaniments you serve with it, tongue will go with just about anything. Stay on the lighter side with the reds; the whites need something with a firm acid structure. I like the idea of an Eden Valley or Clare Rhine riesling with lots of fruit and acid structure.