Getting past the ick factor: Boiled Beef Tongue – a Fearless Friday Post

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We haven’t done it for a while, but Fearless Fridays are where readers of this site share their culinary adventures. For some, it’s simply the act of preparing a meal in their home instead of hitting the drive-through. For others, it’s trying new foods, recipes, or techniques. It’s a chance to push against our boundaries and maybe discover new favorites. Not every attempt will be successful, but everyone is encouraged to share. If you wrote about it on your blog, post a link below. If not, just share in the comments.

How have you been fearless lately?  Tell us about it.

For over 25 years, my husband would, every so often, gently and without much hope, ask if I would make beef tongue, so we could have cold tongue sandwiches like his mom used to make. He would do this by pointing out a tongue in the store or mentioning it was advertised on sale. I would respond, without fail, by immediately changing the subject while trying to avoid cringing too visibly.

Now you know two things about me: 1) I’ve been married a really long time, and 2) the idea of boiling a tongue really squicked me out. No, I mean, really. Especially after I found out it involved peeling. Meat that you have to peel.

Well, it’d been a few years since he asked me, but eventually, it happened. My husband recently saw beef tongue on sale in an advertisement for a butcher shop we like. And he, ever so casually, mentioned it to me. I did not say anything in reply but did a little bit of self-talk instead. It went something like this:

You have cleaned and prepared squid, gutting it and fishing out that plastic-looking bit. For heavens’ sake, you have plucked and gutted freshly-killed chickens. You have not only changed countless diapers but cleaned up after children who were being sick out both ends of their bodies. You tell people you’ll eat anything they serve as long as it’s not okra. You’ve killed rodents with a broom and a washing machine and evicted snakes from the house. Repeatedly. You have cleaned men’s restrooms in several factories without batting an eye.* You most certainly can manage to cook and peel a tongue without fainting.

I had to admit, it was a good argument, but I didn’t completely believe me.

Still, I was determined to face my fears head-on. And? I was hoping Heather would let me use it to bring Fearless Fridays back to Home Ec 101 – so I could be all brave and determined kind of in public.

So…without telling my husband (in case I chickened out) I stopped by the butcher shop to buy the dreaded tongue, determined to cook it immediately. Unfortunately, it was frozen, so I had more time to think about it, which was…unhelpful to my determination. While it thawed, I found every reference to tongue in my cookbook collection and confidently armed myself. I was ready to rumble.

So, to paraphrase Zaphod Beeblebrox, “Let’s meet the meat.”**

Beef tongue in its unnatural habitat.

This was a two-pound beef tongue, shrink-wrapped and frozen. My books suggested a tongue no larger than 3 pounds. I got the impression that the larger they are, the tougher they can be. Once thawed, I slit the plastic (over the sink, in case it was messy) and removed it to a plate to pose for more pictures. There was a slit in the tongue, and I could not determine why. Bovine body piercing? The blue spots that look vaguely like a tattoo are just an inspection stamp. They use food-grade dyes for that. I’m pretty sure. 

hard core cow

Looking the tongue over, the red parts looked surprisingly like…beef. Go figure.

Then there were the not-red bits. Which looked like…a tongue. And felt rough, kind of like the wet sandpaperiness of a cat’s tongue, raised to the power of a cow. I had to stop thinking about it at that point.

I’d found instructions that said to scrub the tongue with a brush and to soak it in cold water for a couple of hours, but it looked really clean and not bloody at all, so I merely rinsed it really well before it went into the pan.

Various seasonings were suggested by each source, from simple salt & pepper to an entire melange of aromatic vegetables and herbs. I opted for some of my basics for meat cookery. Onion, bay leaves, salt & peppercorns. I wanted to use white wine vinegar, but it was out, so I subbed some of the vinegar from a jar of pepperoncini and threw in some of the pepperoncini as well. I added water to cover and set it over high heat to bring it to a boil. It hadn’t quite reached the boiling point when the tongue was sticking up out of the water, and there was no room to add more. So, I switched to my stock pot, which I knew I should’ve been using in the first place but didn’t want to wash the huge thing. So, instead, I ended up having to wash it AND the deep skillet I shouldn’t have tried to use in the first place. Yep. *facepalm*

Anyway…brought it to a boil, reduced it to simmer, and loosely covered…opinions varied on how long to cook it, so I was really unsure about this part. After about 3 1/2 hours, it seemed to be “tender enough,” – which I determined by cutting into it with a sharp knife in the thickest part. Time to remove it to a plate to cool.

can a tongue stick its tongue out at you?

The tongue had stiffened up quite a lot, and the rough skin felt even rougher. Once it was cool enough to handle, I used my sharpest small knife to slit the skin on the underside. At this point, once the meat was cooked, the squick factor for me was reduced but not entirely gone.

I’d assumed that it would peel away rather easily, but that was not the case. After it was slit, I took hold of the skin, trying to pull it off in one piece (as some sources said could be done) but it tore and only came away in small pieces. I had to use the knife to loosen more of it and keep pulling.

Once I’d pulled off all the rough skin, there still seemed to be a layer of skin on the tongue, which none of my cookbooks said anything about. It was softer but still had tongue-like roughness. At this point, I was pretty sure I’d done something wrong, but I still didn’t know what.

The remaining skin was even harder to remove – and in the end, I used my ceramic paring knife to carefully slice it away, revealing some very beefish-looking meat underneath. At last, it looked like something I could eat. Probably. Oh, and most of my sources said to cut away the roots. I didn’t know what that meant, specifically, and there didn’t seem to be anything that qualified, so I let that step go.

Once it was completely cool, I sliced it thinly to be used for cold sandwiches. And since I’d made it through the process without losing my lunch, I went ahead and made one for myself. I really wanted to use horseradish and ketchup (my favorite on cold roast beef), but the horseradish was out, just like the vinegar (time to go shopping), so I used ketchup, mild banana pepper rings, onion and lettuce on a toasted roll.

Tastes like  chicken  roast beef.

After tasting the meat, which I liked, but the flavor was lacking, my husband and I are both pretty sure that I overcooked it. A lot. And that a good bit of the flavor ended up in the cooking water because of that. I think 2 hours is probably sufficient for a 2-pound tongue. That may have been a factor in making it harder to peel. Also, I think I let it cool too much before peeling. Next time (which will happen…..eventually), I’ll cook it about an hour per pound and try to peel it while it’s still very warm.

I was kind of proud of myself for getting over the squeamishness I’d so long associated with preparing tongue. There was nothing to fear, really, after all. It’s just meat from a different part of the cow so that I can handle it. But I still won’t eat okra.

*I was a temp on a crew that cleaned the offices and restrooms of several industrial-type businesses in the city after hours. As the fill-in person, I got restroom duty. I wish they had just let me take a firehose to some of them. Sheesh. The second-worst job I’ve ever had.

**Former president of the galaxy and quite the hoopy frood, in Douglas Adams’  The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (3rd book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Required reading for geeks.)

Bobbie Laughman is an elder caregiver and freelance writer who isn’t afraid of spiders or snakes but will kill to avoid eating okra. Send questions, comments or offers to help hide the bodies to

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19 thoughts on “Getting past the ick factor: Boiled Beef Tongue – a Fearless Friday Post”

  1. You are better than me. I’ve cooked chicken feet and chicken necks for stock, chicker livers and hearts, and peeled and deveined shrimp with the heads still on. This one – can’t do it.

  2. Wow, you are a braver woman than I am!   I actually have thought about cooking a beef tongue.  But every time I see that, that, tongue!  I just can’t do it. 

  3. I should not have tried to read this while I was eating, even though I was only eating something as benign as spinach salad with hard-cooked eggs. Suddenly, the egg whites stuck in my throat alarmingly and…
    …I had to stop.
    Someday, I’m gonna have you over for fried okra and YOU’RE GOING TO BE SO EMBARRASSED that you publicly denounced such a glorious food!

  4. Wow, beef tongue! Have to say I was squirming some as I read this, but kudos to you for tackling it – bravo! 🙂  I generally feel that I ought to try things once before deciding if I like them – but there are certain things, such as tongues or, as I heard about the other day, horse tartare, that I freely admit I would struggle to remain true to my mantra. Really enjoyed this post though – loved the quote “And felt rough, kind of like the wet sandpaperiness of a cat’s tongue, raised to the power of cow.” ha! 🙂

  5. You mean I don’t need to buy a pressure cooker to make lengua? holy smoke!
    Now to get past the squick factor…

  6. My mom made beef tongue regularly when I   was a kid (over 50 yrs ago) and because I cook as little as possible I had forgotten about it.  she  used a pressure cooker and vinegar and spices, but I don’t remember anything else.  The “ick” factor wouldn’t bother me, but having to eat an entire tongue, since I don’t think I could convince my husband to try it, would get a little old I think.  I think I will go to the good deli and see what they have —

  7. ack!!!!!
    Really, really want to be fearless, but this would truly have me run for the hills ..
    you lost me at peel the meat 😉

  8. Might I suggest that next time you just throw it in your roasting pan, with a regular beef roast, and cook it that way? (crock-pot, even easier.) The purpose of also having the roast is: There WILL be someone who discovers Mom made TONGUE, and that person will refuse to try any.  And yet they will still get to eat with the family, you will enjoy SuperMom status for having that extra beef handy to dish up.  Could be I’m speaking from experience.

  9. Actually, apparently you didn’t cook it long enough, which is why the skin didn’t peel off more easily. You are supposed to boil a whole tongue for roughly 5-6 hours with a variety of herbs and roots. (the Russian recipe I followed the two times I’ve made it suggests Celery and Parsely roots, an onion, green peppercorns, bay leaves and sea salt). The longer you cook it, the more tender and flavorful the meat will become as it mingles with the herbs, and the more easily the skin will peel. Slow cooking it is the key 😉

  10. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found
    that it is truly informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels.
    I will be grateful if you continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from your writing.

  11. Great blog, Bobbie. 🙂

    I luuurve Beef (ox)-tongue. I have made it a couple of times recently and find your approach to the actual cooking very similar to mine.

    The recipes I looked at seemed to make it appear more complicated than is necessary.

    I reckon that the scrubbing of the tongue, that nearly all recipes include, is a hark back to the past, when meat in general was not so “hygienically” prepared. The tongues I have bought have, like yours, seemed clean enough. I did scrub the first one I cooked and it made no difference at all, as far as I could see.

    The same applies regarding the root of the tongue: It seems to me that modern butchers shops sell ones that have the root removed already.

    Now here is a challenge for you Bobbie:

    Have you ever made head cheese (brawn as we call it here in Britain)? If not, why not try that? 🙂 Pig’s heads are very cheap here and they come complete with the most striking blue eyes 😉

    Cheers me dear


  12. This is disgusting. If you have to “get passed” an ick factor – good gawed why would you eat it…disgusting, disgusting disgusting…

    • Disgusting is in the eye of the beholder. Or, more precisely, the mind.

      The ick factor in my case wasn’t anything to do with EATING it. If I’d ever been served tongue prepared by someone else, I would have eaten it without batting an eye. No, the bit that made me cringe, that I had to overcome, was just the idea of peeling the skin off the tongue. It was all in my head.

      The meat was actually quite delicious. I just had to get over myself.

      And WHY did I bother even trying?

      Because I love my husband. Reason enough for me.

  13. We boil veal tongue all the time! it makes a fantastic soup, and once the tongue has cooled, and sliced thinly, you have the perfect ingredients to go with a bowl of noodles!

    I’ve also had beef tongue in japanese restaurants and they actually cook it as you would a steak, which is rather different and interesting.

    The longer you boil the tongue the better the soup and the more tender the tongue will be if you don’t want to boil it for so long prepare for some heavy chewing.


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