When someone mentions bison, they're likely to conjure up images of Native Americans hunting huge herds of the beasts on picturesque, sweeping plains, or at least of some really bland exhibit in a natural history museum depicting the same.
But the interest in bison meat for human consumption has brought the animal back from numbers dwindling around 1,000 in the early 1900s to more than 300,000 on modern farms and ranches today. Indeed, this is not your great-great-great grandfather's buffalo.
Bison are big animals — the largest land mammals in North America since the end of the Ice Age. Mature bulls can reach more than 2,000 pounds.
They can adapt to most climates, especially cold ones, which makes them attractive to ranchers. Bison use their big heads as a kind of snowplow so they can forage beneath the wintry mess.
But don't go confusing a buffalo with a cow. Bison are not domesticated, so they require special consideration when deciding how to keep them healthy and happy. They are surprisingly athletic. Adults can run in bursts up to 40 mph and can jump six feet in the air.
Still, the National Bison Association (NBA) insists that they are not hard to care for. The golden rule of bison ranching: a well-fed buffalo won't roam.
So why the sudden interest in the meat? It's actually not that sudden. Demand for high-end cuts of bison originally boomed in the '90s, which sent everyone scrambling to build herds and competing to buy animals, Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association (NBA) said. But the consumers' appetite for the meat didn't last. After about a four-year slump, demand went up again in 2003, except this time people were interested in using the less expensive cuts for things like burgers and meatloaf, not just the high-end steaks.
"[Consumers] are gravitating toward all the cuts of meat, which is very important to the ranchers. You've got to be able to sell the whole animal to make a living at it, " Carter said.
According to the NBA, bison meat has less fat than turkey, beef and chicken. It's loaded with Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which studies say may actually help reduce body fat while preserving muscle tissue. The NBA also says that eating a 5 oz. serving of buffalo 4-5 times a week can help the health conscious reduce cholesterol levels.
"We think the demand is up because more and more consumers are making the connection between diet and health — how what they eat relates to how long they live and how well they live," Carter said. "People have started to come back to red meat, but they're looking for a variety."
But unlike many healthy foods, bison meat actually tastes good. Really good. Think along the lines of a really flavorful (but not gamey), rich, sweet beef steak, but one that has 70-90 percent less fat than normal.
"A number of consumers have a perception that it's going to be wild or tough, but actually it's very nutrient dense and flavorful. We like to call it robust. Particularly for women, it's very advantageous. It's low in fat, high in iron," Carter said.
Carter believes that even the most squeamish meat-eaters would enjoy a bit of buffalo in the right situation.
"First-timers should just go to a restaurant and try a bison burger as a way to sample it," Carter said. "We're starting to see more and more restaurants that are featuring bison on their menus. Ted Turner's chain of restaurants is probably the most visible, but we've also got Ruby Tuesday's, Fuddruckers, and other casual dining restaurants."
One of them, Hut's Hamburgers in Austin, Texas, has been serving up buffalo for some time to rave reviews. According to Kim Hutchinson, co-owner of the famed Austin eatery, customers crave the bison burgers not only because they are delicious, but also because they won't wreck their diets.
"The longer we've had it on the menu — we started selling it 15 or 16 years ago before anyone thought about doing it — we've increased the number we sell. It's a healthier version of the original," Hutchinson said.
Bison burgers have much less fat and cholesterol and far fewer calories than comparable portions of beef, pork or even chicken, Hutchinson said.
"There are just so many good things about buffalo. It's healthy. It has great flavor. If you have hickory sauce or mustard on it, you're not going to tell the difference between it and the beef burgers. We have to mark them because they look so much like the original," she said.
And it seems buffalo fever doesn't discriminate. Hutchinson says the ladies are just as likely to dig into a bison burger as the guys.
"[The popularity of] bison burgers is across the board. People can come in and get their comfort food, because that's what burgers are. And they can have buffalo and not worry about their cholesterol getting sky high."
Now You're Cooking
If you decide to make bison a part of your menu at home, you have to be careful not to over cook it. Since the meat has very little fat and no marbling to slow down the heat, it cooks quickly. There is very little shrinkage on the grill. What you see raw is pretty much what you will get to eat, so novice bison-cookers should take extra care not to dry out their dinner with some over-zealous grill action.
The NBA says that you can use the meat in any of your favorite beef dishes, but suggests turning the temperature down a little to accommodate the meats cooking tendencies. For example, if you normally cook your pot roast at about 325 degrees, turn it to about 275 degrees to keep the roast tender.
So, if you're a meat lover and you're looking for something new, or maybe just looking to lose a little around the middle but don't want to ban burgers from your life, jumping on the bison meat bandwagon might serve you well. And you wouldn't be alone.
"The thing we find is the best way for folks to become regular bison consumers is to take that first bite," Carter said. "It's really a wonderful experience."
Feeling so inspired by all this talk of the potential culinary greatness of bison that you want to make a veritable buffalo buffet? Try the recipes below, courtesy of members of the NBA:
1 pound ground bison
4 burger buns, toasted
Salt and pepper
First off, get your fire going. You'll want to grill the burgers over medium-hot coals. Shape the bison into patties about ½ inch thick. No seasonings needed. You can add whatever condiments you like later. Grill the meat uncovered, turning once, just until the pink has disappeared. Season to taste with salt and pepper, put on the bun with your favorite fixings and chow down.
1 pound bison sirloin
2 medium zucchini or yellow squash
1 large red bell pepper
1 large onion, quartered
8 cherry tomatoes
½ cup low sodium soyn sauce
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
Cut bison sirloin into 1 ½ inch cubes and place in glass bowl. Combine marinade ingredients and pour over bison cubes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and marinate refrigerated for 8 to 24 hours. (If you prefer, you can put the meat and marinade in a zippered plastic bag to marinate.) Cut squash and bell pepper into ½ inch slices. Alternate meat, squash, pepper, onion and mushrooms on each skewer, ending every one with a cherry tomato. Grill covered 4-6 inches over medium hot coals for 8-10 minutes, turning occasionally and brushing with the remaining marinade mixture. Serve on a bed of rice.
1 pound ground bison
1 medium onion, chopped
1 15 oz. can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
2 16 oz. cans peeled tomatoes
½ cup water
2 teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoonn ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
In a non-stick skillet, sauté the ground bison and onion until the meat is browned and the onion is tender. Add the pinto beans, tomatoes, water and seasonings. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Add more water if you notice the chili becoming too thick. Add chopped cilantro and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve in bowls garnished with shredded cheese and/or diced jalapeno peppers, depending on how spicy you can stand it.
Hump Roast Crock Pot
3 pounds hump roast (chuck)
3 6 in. pieces of celery
One can beef broth
½ bottle dark ale beer
Season roast with Montreal steak seasoning, rubbing in well. Brown roast in olive oil in hot skillet. Cook in crock pot on low heat for 6 hours. (If you're not a fan of beer, or you just want to try something different, substitute the ale for 1 can Cream of Mushroom soup and one cup red wine.)
Thanks to Joe Pellar, TwinButtes Buffalo Ranch
1 pound buffalo skirt, flank or round steak (cut in ½ inch thick slices)
Juice of 2-3 limes
½ teaspoon pepper
1 large tomato, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
1 large green pepper, sliced
Flour or corn tortillas, warmed
Pound meat into ½ inch thickness (if necessary). Sprinkle both sides of steak with marinade and place in zippered plastic bag. Marinate in refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours. Drain marinade and broil meat over medium hot mesquite coals, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Serve in tortillas and garnish how you like it.
Thanks to Jane Allo
Kerry's Pulled Bison BBQ
5 to 6 pounds bison (two large arm shoulder roasts)
2 cups ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup honey
¼ cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons brown mustard
¼ cut dark molasses
¼ cup barbecue sauce
Place meat in Dutch oven. Add enough water to almost cover the meat. Cover tightly and cook at 250 degrees for 8 to 10 hours until meat is tender and falls apart. Drain off the liquid and pull the meat apart to your liking. Place pulled bison into large pot with the sauce. Mix thoroughly and reheat at low temperature until hot. Serve on warm rolls, or eat it all by itself!
Thanks to Kerry and Frederick Wildt, Wild-T-Bison Farm
Five Spice Braised Buffalo
1 buffalo chuck roast (about 5 pounds)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 slices ginger root
1 cup scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
2 tablespoons bean sauce
¼ cup dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 cup sherry
1 cup chicken bouillon stock (1 bouillon cube)
4 tablespoons peanut oil
Mix bean sauce, soy sauce, five-spice powder, sherry and stock. In a large Dutch oven or wok, heat 4 tablespoons peanut oil until very hot and brown roast well on all sides.
Remove meat and pour off oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the pot. Turn heat to medium-low. Stir-fry garlic, ginger and scallions for 1 minute. Place roast on top of garlic, ginger and scallions. Pour the combined sauces, powder, sherry and stock over the roast and bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for about 3 hours or until tender.
While roast is simmering, baste every 30 minutes. Make sure there is always enough liquid and that the roast isn't sticking to the bottom of the pot. When roast is tender, remove liquid and de-fat. Pour liquid back into pot and boil down juices over medium-high heat until it forms a thick syrupy glaze. Place roast on serving platter and pour the glaze over the meat.
Thanks to Anita Shaver