Friday, July 30, 2010

Bison, It's What's for Dinner

I'm no vegetarian but I don't eat nearly as much meat as I used to. I doubt many of us do anymore. And, we're all looking for ways to make those selections a bit healthier.

Enter the shaggy American buffalo. Known scientifically as bison to distinguish it as a bovine more related to domestic cattle than to Asian and African Cape buffalo, our American buffalo has become a beef alternative.

According to the USDA, there are about 150,000 bison raised on public and private lands in the U.S. They're huge -- a bison bull is the largest animal indigenous to North America. A bull can be taller than six feet at the hump and weigh more than a ton. They're free ranging for most of their lives, eating hay or grass until the last 90 to 120 days of their lives, when they're fed grain -- not unlike a lot of domestic cattle. Even with the grain diet before slaughter, there's little marbling, which is why bison meat appears to have a deeper red color than beef before cooking. Neither hormones nor antibiotics are given to bison. 

Because bison meat is very lean, it will cook faster than traditional grain-fed beef and more like grass-fed beef, so bear that in mind if you're grilling a bison steak or a burger.

I tried the bison sold at Whole Foods recently. I picked up both a New York steak and a package of ground meat produced by Nature's Rancher. Whole Foods says the bison they buy is raised in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado with many coming from Ted Turner's ranches. They're processed at 30 months of age after spending 14 days in the feed lot. (FYI, Nature's Rancher's ground and tenderized steak bison meat was subject to a recall earlier in July with worries it may have been contaminated with E. coli. If you purchased products, check the sell-by date and go to the Nature's Rancher site to see if they are among those recalled.)

The bison I tried was not subject to recall and, in fact, was really delicious. I broiled the steak, seasoning it just with salt and pepper. To accompany it, I made a tomato relish of chopped heirloom tomatoes and red onion, julienned basil, diced jalapeno, minced garlic, and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

The steak cooked quickly; just a few minutes on each side left it medium rare. It was more tender than I expected and had a lovely sweet flavor.

The following week, I pulled out my pound package of ground bison (it's packaged as "ground buffalo") and let it defrost overnight in the refrigerator. I used half to make burgers, which I gently mixed with salt, pepper and fresh jalapenos, then stuffed with about a tablespoon of Purple Haze goat cheese before putting them on the grill.

The rest of the ground bison went into a tomato and red pepper pasta sauce I had made. I'll be honest; the sauce was just okay so I had frozen what I hadn't eaten to give me time to figure out what to do with it. With the ground bison, I figured I'd defrost it and make a ragu. The flavors were tremendous. I wanted to dive into the bowl once the pappardelle was gone and lick up every last bit of the sauce. The meat gave it a richness and sweetness that the vegetables alone just couldn't produce.

Bison comes in most of the same cuts as beef. I saw tri-tips, rib-eyes, and filet mignon at Whole Foods. But it is pricey at around $20+ a pound. The New York steak was about half that. The ground bison is pretty reasonable.

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  1. i prefer bison to beef by far but because it is so low fat, it can taste tough and less flavorful. i like to add chopped onion so that it holds more moisture and tastes more like a typical american burger while still healthier choice

  2. I can suggest a far more affordable bison option for San Diego area residents. Participate in the the co-op buys from Glacier Grown, a Montana pastured-based bison ranch that makes a bulk delivery to co-op buyers in the fall ands sometimes in the late spring. I've been buying a half bison from this ranch for the past three years and will do so again this fall. I have no affiliation except as a repeat customer.

    glaciergrown dot com

    Keep in mind that buying in bulk is somewhat different (better, IMO) than buying individual retails cuts, but the cost savings is huge, your meat is from one well cared for animal (not co-mingled from different animals and ranches, which is especially risky with ground meat), you can specify how you want your order cut & wrapped, and you are supporting a small family operated ranch (no offense to I think Ted Turner, but I think he is is doing fine without my bison dollars).

    Yes it takes some spare freezer space to buy meat in bulk (buying a spare freezer has been a fantastic way to save money on a better quality of meat for my family). The ave half bison is actually smaller than a side of beef and will fill a typical side-by-side fridge freezer. In my "spare" 13.7 cu ft freezer, 2/3 of a half bison fills two of the four shelves (I usually share 1/3 of my order with some other folks).

    The cost calculation is different, too. With bulk buying, one pays based on the "hanging weight" - the body wt minus the head, hide, organs, & lower limbs. Glacier Grown posts their per pound hanging weight price including delivery to the SD area on their website. The final weight in the delivered packages will be 25-30% lower than the hanging weight because of scrap loss during the butchering process (also depends on how the customer wants the meat cut - some cuts have more waste). After allowing for the scrap loss in butchering, my orders have averaged under $8.00/lb. That's for all the cuts - from ground to tenderloin. Of course, individual orders will vary somewhat depending on how the customer wants the order cut up, and whole bison orders drop the # price even lower (so get friends to share the order).

    Custom cut & wrap is great - I have learned I prefer my order to be steaks only from the most tender areas (2/pack), and every thing else cut & wrapped as small roasts, stew meat, meaty soup bones, and ground meat (2# packs each).

    As someone has mentioned, bison, like other game, is very lean with little fat inside the muscle and if overcooked or cooked the wrong way, will be hard to eat. Low and slow is the way to cook all grassfed/naturally foraging meats or else the results are tough and inedible. Well-done steaks, even medium are overcooked and will disappoint, so sear a minute or two then moved to an area off the flame for a few more minutes. Rare or medium-rare are best for the steaks from the more tender parts of the animal, or braise/crockpot/slow roast the less tender cuts. Most importantly, learn the anatomy of the animal so you know which cuts are from a more tender area (the muscles aren't worked much ) and which are less tender (the muscles get a lot of work) so you can match the basic cooking method and timing appropriately. It isn't rocket science.

    The best guides for properly cooking pastured meat (including bison) is Shannon Hayes' books The Grassfed Gourmet cookbook, and The Farmer and the Grill. The former book is available on Amazon and the latter is available on the author's website (www dot grassfedcooking dot com ).

    Oh yeah, the taste is fantastic. Supermarket beef is so boring & bland now. Can't eat it.

    1. wow - THANKS for that great info! Been searching forever for somewhere in SD to buy bison, but am not anywhere near Whole, buying on-line and supporting small farmers is perfect.

  3. We are a new producer of Local Natural freerange, hormone free, grass fed, grain finished, black Angus beef.
    We are a small operation that is selling 1/4 and 1/2 side of this gourmet beef in Alpine.
    We are just guys trying really hard to do things the right way. If you have any questions e-mail me at

  4. Thanks, Joel. I sent you a note. Please get in touch. I'm interested in hearing what you're doing.

  5. Great post Caron. I just might try bison. I've dropped 15 pounds since our dinner at my place (!) with some healthier eating and running. :-)

  6. Not only is bison delicious - tasting much like high quality beef - it is also extremely healthy (low cholesterol, high protein, high iron, low fat - less than skinless chicken even!). Our family raises bison near Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of Montana - we run Glacier Grown which was referenced by the above commenter. Twice a year, we deliver to the San Diego area. We sell mostly in bulk, but we do have a limited supply of individual cuts available so that people can try our meat. Our animals are completely grass fed and grass finished; we do NOT finish off in a feed lot. We grow without the use of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, or antibiotics and the animals are free range from birth to harvest. If you are interested in bison or would like additional information, please visit our site www dot glacier grown dot com or contact us.

  7. Henry's often has bison at prices comparable to beef.