Bison is big
Delicious and healthful, bison meat is becoming increasingly popular
An NPR segment in January reported that the nation’s bison ranchers were meeting in Denver to discuss how to recruit more people to raise bison, as the increasing demand for their meat was pushing prices too high. Bison meat, the story said, was selling for an average of $7 per pound, up $2 a pound from a year earlier.
In Chico, ground bison meat sells for anywhere from $8.99 to $13.99 per pound, with bison steaks fetching up to $22.95 per pound. And, people—like me and other health- and flavor-conscious eaters—are paying it. Once you’ve devoured a scrumptious burger or bowl of chili made from ground bison, you’ll likely never want to go back to ground beef (I haven’t).
The American bison is making a comeback in rugged places such as Yellowstone National Park, as well as on the lunch and dinner plates of a number of savvy American eaters. (Though it is often called “buffalo,” the American bison—Bison bison—is technically a bison, not a buffalo, unlike the African buffalo and the Asian water buffalo.)
A little history: After numbering in the tens of millions, the bison population in the United States was slaughtered almost to extinction in the late 19th century by European settlers, who took the animals’ hides but left their bodies to rot. A big part of the logic behind the slaughter of so magnificent an animal (a practice promoted at the time by the United States government, according to the National Park Service) was to wipe out the primary food source of the Native Americans and thereby force them onto reservations more easily.
I had my first introduction to the majestic bison just more than two years ago when I toured Yellowstone in a snowcoach in the dead of winter. Getting out of the coach and silently watching a herd of these giant, brown, fur-covered animals slowly swaying their bowed, massive heads from side to side as they advanced across feet-deep snow in search of the winter’s remaining buried grasses was a deeply primal thrill.
Today, thankfully, the bison population is on the rise; it is estimated that there are approximately 500,000 head in America. About 3,700 bison roam Yellowstone, but a growing number of bison are being raised on grassy ranches across the country. Environmentalist media mogul Ted Turner famously owns the largest herd of American bison—more than 55,000—as well as a restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill, that specializes in bison dishes.
The bison’s earthy, delicious meat is becoming increasingly popular for good reason. Never having been domesticated, bison—even those raised for their meat—are always on the move as they graze on wide-open grassy pastures, which is a big plus as far as the flavor, leanness and nutrition of the meat goes. Bison-industry regulations also require that bison raised for their meat are never fed artificial-growth hormones, chemicals or unnecessary antibiotics.
Bison meat is notoriously low in fat, cholesterol and calories. Compared to 100 grams of choice beef, which according to the USDA contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat, bison contains a mere 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat. Bison’s iron content is also notably high, and it offers as much protein per gram as both beef and sockeye salmon. Because this dense, dark-red meat is so low-fat, one must be careful to cook it slowly at a medium temperature so as not to scorch the meat or dry it out. Steaks should not be cooked beyond medium for best results (bison steaks, incidentally, are never marbled like beef).
Other important tips for cooking bison: Handle the meat as little as possible and do not overcook it, or you’ll likely get a tough result. I have found that it is possible to make yummy bison meatballs by being careful not to roll them around too much when forming them.
The websites for the National Bison Association ( www.bisoncentral.com) and The Healthy Buffalo ( www.healthybuffalo.com) both offer extensive information on bison, including cooking advice and recipes. But before you start cooking, remember these words from the The Healthy Buffalo: “There is no such thing as tough bison meat, only improperly instructed cooks.”